Time to piss off the bike riders: a lesson in unintended consequences.

I wrote this in response to a debate on Facebook a few days ago regarding whether or not urban bicycle riders should be required to wear helmets (a lot of people think that they shouldn’t be required because the inconvenience may discourage people from biking for urban transportation.  Kind of messes up the hair.)

As you may recall from the book, my husband Dave is a long-distance bicyclist, and he had a pretty awful accident a couple of years ago.  So I knew that I had a gut-level bias on this topic, and I initially resisted commenting because I knew that wasn’t objective on that issue.  But as the debate continued, I became worries that there was a significant blind spot developing in the discussion: the statistical odds of someone having a big wreck somewhere, and the political and cultural fallout on the urban biking movement that has a good chance of resulting from that.

As I reread this, I thought that the issue demonstrated something that I had grappled with in the book: the power and the risk of blindly pursuing a strategy without critically thinking about (and addressing) the potential unintended consequences.  This blind spot, this lack of critical self-review, has led to case after case of massive, damaging unintended consequences, to the point where I suspect that the urban professionals of the next two to three generations will spend much of their time undoing the damage of our past good intentions.  The greatest risk I see to many of the evolving urbanist movements is a disturbing tendency to pursue the same ipso-facto, all we have to do it X and everything will be fine, thinking that gave us much of our current design and policy indigestion.

Do recall that this was written as a Facebook post, so it’s not great literature.  But I’d be grateful for your feedback.  I’m well aware that I have blind spots, too.


Ok.  This is way too long, but I’m seeing some overly simplistic responses here that worry me–and if they’re indicative of anything, could spell trouble.


One anecdote does not equal data, but I think that the assumption that bikes are slower than cars and thus safe, and that brushing aside reasonable safety issues to try to get more people riding for transportation looks like asking for trouble.

Here’s the anecdote:  My husband is an experienced long-distance bicyclist.  He regularly does 30+ mile rides that take him down city streets, suburban roads, all sorts of places where you have to be a pretty experienced biker to navigate.  So his expertise level is close to the top of the chain of what we see in urban biking.  Two years ago, he was riding on a dedicated bike trail– a rails to trails, no obstructions.  Few people on the path, early morning.  He’s riding along, not racing.  He turns his head to thank the one guy passing him for giving the usual “on your right” warning, catches his front tire on a pebble, flips over his handle bars and smashes his shoulder blade into pieces.  That’s not an injury I’d recommend–it took over a year to get him anywhere near back to normal.

But here’s the really scary part:  If he had not been wearing a helmet, he would have landed on his brain stem.  He’d be either a vegetable or dead.

The unavoidable fact of the matter is that you ride a bike because it enables you to go faster than you could on foot.  Basic physics says that the higher the speed at which an object is moving, the more force it takes to stop.  That means that if you’re moving faster and something makes you stop suddenly, you’re going to experience more force in the impact.  If I trip and fall down while running, I’ll probably get hurt more than if I’m walking (I’ve got plenty of experience with both!).

Increase acceleration, and it’s simple math.  And as long as people are biking in environments that also include other people, dogs, garbage cans, street signs, potholes, pebbles…people are going to have bike accidents.

That by no means indicates that people shouldn’t bike–all the other benefits are huge–but it does mean that there is some risk–it might be less than some other kinds of activities, and again there are huge benefits–but pretending that bike riders in a city have no more risk of serious injury than a pedestrian doesn’t make sense. A helmet law isn’t the same as wrapping people in bubble wrap so that no one gets a scratch.  It’s more like an air bag: relatively unobtrusive guard against catastrophe.

Safety do-gooding aside, here’s a practical concern:  If urban biking advocates resist reasonable regulations to protect people from catastrophe (not bubble wrap) there’s a big risk to the movement of a backlash or loss of credibility when a bad accident (for whatever reason) does occur.  Press coverage of one ugly wreck could easily push elected officials to say “see?? See?? We can’t encourage bikes!!”  Which of course is the opposite effect from what cities need, or what anyone here wants to see happen.  That certainly could undo any increase in biking that might be possible because people don’t have to mess up their hair.


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