Does this ring a bell with you? When I was a kid, I rode my bike for fun, or to get to places. To do this, I would just jump on my bike, and start pedaling! Nowadays, when I want to ride my bike, it’s a lot more complicated. First, I have to find my helmet, my cycling shorts, my high-visibility cycling shirt, my high-visibility vest, my gloves, and my hard-soled shoes. Then I have to put all this stuff on. It can take as long as half an hour before I am fully “armored” and ready to actually start pedaling. Recently, I had an experience that made me question the wisdom of all this.
Maggie and I had a wonderful opportunity to do some cycling in Paris, France. Mainly we spent many days riding Velib Bike Share bikes, and we also did a three-hour electric bike tour of the city (which I wrote about here). We experienced a profound sense of culture shock at how different cycling appeared to be in Paris, compared to our experiences in North America. I want to stress that this post is about our perceptions of cycling in Paris – as tourists, we do not claim to be experts in any way. This post sums up our impressions, and advocates that we follow what we saw as the Parisian example, and make cycling normal again! First, this video sums up what we saw of cycling in Paris:
As with most culture shocks, cycling in Paris was a learning experience for us, to the point of transforming how we think about cycling. We came home with a vision of what cycling should look like (and it was pretty similar to the way I remember it as a child). It seemed to us that people rode bikes as naturally as they walked or took transit. They did not dress up for it any way. We hardly ever saw an adult wearing a bike helmet; and we very seldom saw high visibility clothing.
People in Paris just got on a bike and started pedaling. And once on a bike, they did not seem to see any reason to restrict themselves in regard to where they went. They were as likely to be in mixed traffic lanes as bike lanes, and went on and off the sidewalks as if they were pedestrians. And no one seemed to care! In North America, people on bikes on sidewalks are routinely harassed and ordered back into dangerous traffic, as if they were not just vulnerable people like everyone else.
Also, we noticed that in Paris, cycling is not restricted to fit young men in Lycra. Women of all ages can be seen cycling all over the city – usually dressed in typical Parisian style! If the number of women cycling is the barometer of cycling health, then Paris is doing well. You can see in the slide show below how many women are on bikes. This is NOT photographer’s bias – I photographed everyone I saw on a bike, not just the women!
Our tour guide told us that in Paris people on bikes are regarded in the same way as people on foot: they can go wherever they like, and they always have the right of way over vehicles. We experienced no hostility during our bike rides in Paris – no hostility from the drivers when we were on the roads, and no hostility from pedestrians when we were on the sidewalks. Everyone was just careful and respectful of each other, without laws to spell out how to do this.
In most of the world, the second you are on a bike, you are no longer just a person who happens to be pedaling in order to go somewhere, rather than walking in order to go somewhere. You are transformed into “a cyclist,” a person who is participating in a sport called cycling that is considered to be inherently dangerous. You are expected to behave and dress accordingly. Stay off the sidewalks, wear a helmet to protect your vulnerable brain, and be as visible as humanly possible. Of course, to a large extent you are not very safe, as the roads you are consigned to are intended for cars, not for bicycles. However, if you do happen to get hurt, it will be your own fault, as you will be deemed to have chosen a dangerous sport, and then failed to protect yourself.
In short, what you are doing is not seen as a normal, everyday activity – it is seen as a dangerous sport!
We would like to see riding a bike become a normal, everyday activity again. And let’s not forget – before the proliferation of motor vehicles all over the world, that is exactly what it was. If you wanted to go somewhere, you went by horse, foot, or bike – and none of those was a dangerous sport, they were all just transportation!
Years ago Maggie wrote a post advocating using bike helmets at all times. But now, after years of being pro bike helmets, we have realized that we should NOT have to be dressing up like we are going into combat, just to do something that should be as normal as walking or taking transit. Soon after our trip to Paris, we drove up to Whistler, BC, for a weekend of cycling. Based on what we had seen in Paris, we made a conscious decision to leave our bike helmets at home.
Going against years of bike helmet indoctrination was difficult for me. But as I kept reminding myself: the only time we really needed a helmet on that weekend was while we were driving in our car up the notoriously dangerous Sea-to-Sky Highway. Once in Whistler, we were cycling at about 12 km per hour along the off-road, wonderfully safe Whistler Valley Trail network. We did NOT need bike helmets. However, it was obvious that we were not in Paris anymore, as almost every person on a bike was wearing a bike helmet, even if cycling off-road at 5 km per hour.
We don’t wear helmets to drive our car. But the vast majority of head injuries happen in cars, as is shown in this graph:
Yet as a society, we only insist on helmets while cycling. Not only that, but many of us feel so strongly about it that we are willing to force people to wear helmets, using laws and public censure. I once published a guest post about how to get kids active, and used this photo of a little girl cycling in a park.
I immediately got an email asking me why the girl was not wearing a helmet. Well, first of all she was not my child, so it was none of my business. But also, the only time that girl needed a helmet that day was when her parents were driving her to the park in a car. Every single day, one thousand people under the age of 25 die in a car crash. Just in the USA, over 1,600 children under the age of 15 die in car crashes each year (source: Asirt) (Yet if you put a helmet on your child in a car, you would be regarded as insane.) On the other hand, if that little girl fell off a bike in a park at that speed, the worst that would happen is a skinned knee. But we are so indoctrinated about bike helmets, that some people think they have a right to tell complete strangers to put on a bike helmet the second they get on any bike, any where!
Related Content: Should Bike Helmets be Mandatory?
In fact, the research is crystal clear that bike helmets actively discourage cycling, with a net negative effect on public health. In simple terms: once you have compulsory helmet laws, you might save 5 people a year from catastrophic head injuries. However, 5,000 people will die during that year from lack of exercise, and that number would have been reduced if more people cycled for transportation – the evidence that cycling is excellent for your health is overwhelming.
Certainly in Paris, no one is missing out on the health benefits of cycling because a nanny state is mandating helmets! Of course, I am not saying that cycling in Paris is 100% safe and idyllic. The city center is not safe for people of all ages and abilities to ride a bike, the taxis share the bus/bike lanes, traffic can be heavy, and so on.
However, I am saying that we loved the casual, everyday way in which we saw helmet-free Parisians in ordinary clothes riding their bikes, and we want to see riding a bike normalized like that all over the world. At the same time, authorities must of course provide safe infrastructure – instead of refusing to do so, then pretending that cycling is some kind of hugely dangerous sport, and expecting us to dress as if for a war zone, just to use a bike as part of everyday transport.
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