Speed kills?

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post and several other, normally reputable, news agencies completely failed their basic journalistic responsibility and reported that head injuries are up in cities with bike share programs. The point of all of this, of course, is that bike share users should be required to wear helmets, or as I prefer to call them, the foam hat of invincibility and reliever of motorist accountability. Even a cursory review of the data cited by the study in question showed that quite the opposite was true: all injuries, including head injuries, are sharply down in cities with bike share. The injury declines are so drastic (an average of 28%) that inquiring minds are trying to figure out exactly how this could be possible when we all know that riding a bike without a helmet is tantamount to playing Russian roulette with an irritated chimp.

The mythical force of the “safety in numbers” effect is being touted as the primary cause of the decline in injury rates. An increase in cyclists results in an inordinate increase in safety for everybody as drivers become used to cyclists on the roads, or so the theory goes. While safety in numbers is certainly a real phenomenon, it seems unlikely that the modest increase in cyclists due to bike share programs was the tipping point for safety in numbers.

Another explanation is that cities that have invested in bike share have also been investing in improved bicycle infrastructure, often during the same time frame, and hence the improvements in injury rates. This seems like a reasonable explanation on paper, but the infrastructure improvements being made in North American cities are still largely paint based. Little has been done to build real segregated infrastructure and it seems unlikely that sharrows on still-car congested roads can claim the glory of such a large reduction in injury rates.

I propose another theory, one that will surely be as popular with American cyclist “culture” as a bare-headed baby in a Bakfiets, but what the hell, let’s go for it. What if the large decline in injuries is the result of the bike share bikes themselves? Bike share bikes are slow, lumbering and upright, taking their design aesthetic and cycling Zen from the likes of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, not the “cat 6″ culture of London or New York. The predominant bicycle in North America is a fast, finicky, forward pitched, and performance-oriented road bike. Is it possible that the injury decline in bike share cities is so great because slower, upright bikes are just that much safer? Slow and steady.

The theory seems instinctively correct. When riding on one of my Dutch bikes, I feel absolutely no need to wear a helmet as my visibility is great and my speeds are quite low. The big tires and upright geometry provide great control and I’ve never had a crash. However, even this helmet skeptic puts on a brain dome when I do take to the streets on my single speed road bike (to protect me from my own ineptitude should I crash – not for protection from 1.5+ tons of steel). To add weight to this argument, one would also think that bike share riders, who probably ride less frequently than their bike owning counterparts and are less familiar with the city they are riding in (many are tourists), might be more prone to crashing and injuries. Yet, this isn’t happening. Is the less skilled, 10 mph, bike share rider inherently safer than the 20 mph, helmet clad road warrior?

The relationship between speed and the lethality of car collisions is well understood and it seems reasonable to assume that this same law is true for bicyclists. The faster you go the less time you have to react, and the greater the damage will be in the event of a collision. Yet nobody ever talks about the ramifications of speed in cycling safety. As helmets have historically been the primary thrust of safety efforts, with infrastructure only recently being taken seriously in North America, few have questioned the American’s choice of bicycle as being part of the safety conversation. This new data should provoke us to spend more time analyzing the effects of bicycle geometry and speed on injury rates. Perhaps the Dutch aren’t safe purely because of their stellar infrastructure. Their choice of slow, upright bikes may also play a role in safety outcomes. It’s time to question the sanity and safety of the road bike as the primary choice for American cyclists.

Bicycle de-evolution

It’s been a while and you might be wondering if I traded in my bike for a Hummer and opted for employment in the fracking industry. Not so, my friends! I ride daily and remain as disillusioned as ever about the world’s obsession with motor vehicles and the awful state of biking in the USA. If anything I’ve reached a state of Zen-like depression and acceptance. However, with the turning of Spring I’ve found a new wellspring of energy to poop on America’s “bike culture.”

Opposable thumbs and abnormally large ape brains have been a massive bonus for humankind. With these inherent advantages we’ve been able to develop written and verbal language, religion, science, agriculture, and the PS4. One of our earlier and most practical innovations was domesticating “beasts of burden.” Why haul all of that firewood, dirt, or wheat on your back when you can use a horse, ox, or Carthaginian?

Unfortunately this basic technological advancement has been completely lost on most American “commuter” cyclists. Instead of using their bike to carry gear, these dolts use a fucking backpack, or even worse, a “messenger bag” which is a backpack that doesn’t stay on your back very well. This is the equivalent of a horse-mounted cowboy who chooses to wear his camping gear in a backpack while he manages his heard. I “photo shopped” an example of what this might look like for illustrative purposes because no such picture actually exists in the real world. Cowboys were apparently smarter than cyclists because they put their camping gear on the horse.

cowboy with backpack

“If only I could get this pack in carbon fiber I’d really improve my mule whacking times.”

Since you are reading this blog you already know that real commuters have big racks…to carry their bags on (get your mind out of the gutter). Your bike is a beast of burden…it carries your fat ass around so why not let it carry your PBR and Vagisil too? When asking the pro-backpack lobby why they are so averse to racks and baskets, there are only two answers. The first is that they have too many bikes and don’t want to fit racks on all of them because they ride different bikes at different times. The other reason is that “backpacks” look “cool” and racks and baskets look “lame.”

Be the horse, people. Be the horse.

Car violence

Every American boy's dream

I’m not a huge fan of euphemisms as they are generally employed to shift blame, deny responsibility, or mask all out lies. The phrase “gun violence,” which has been used in the media for many years, disturbs me greatly. This particular euphemism shifts the blame of taking a human life away from the perpetrator of the crime to the method or tool used to commit it. Such a deceptive use of language keeps us focused on the manner in which people are being killed as opposed to analyzing the root causes of why one might commit murder (drug policy, poverty, mental health services, ignorance, etc).

Far more people die every year in the United States in auto accidents than due to “gun violence.” I was not able to find statistics for the same period in my quick Google search, but here’s a sampling of data to back up my point (the annual death toll from cars and guns does not vary greatly from year-to-year, so please accept my laziness for the sake of argument):

2005 Auto Deaths – 42,636

2006 Firearm Deaths (including suicide which accounts for about 30% of gun deaths) – 29,569

2005 Auto Injuries – 2.9 million

2006 Gun Injuries – 64,389

With this particular sample of data there were almost 30% more automobile-related deaths than gun related deaths. The comparative injury statistics are not even in the same universe. Yes, you read that right, there were 2.9 MILLION auto injuries compared to 64,389 firearm injuries for a similar period. When somebody is shot in America the gun gets the blame and editorials about the epidemic of “gun violence” flood the newspapers. When somebody dies in a car it’s simply labeled an “accident.” There’s no moral outrage of any kind.

If we’re going to euphemize away the reality of tough situations, we should at least apply the rules evenly. From now on I will not refer to motor-related deaths and injuries as “accidents” and will instead refer to them simply as “car violence.” Cars certainly deserve the title if the much maligned firearm does.

Our absolute blindness to the sheer carnage caused by motordom is demonstrated in our language. We demonize and euphemize things that we hate. If any single product was injuring millions and killing thousands of people per year it would likely be banned (perhaps with the exceptions of alcohol and tobacco) . Not so for the lovely and innocent car. Our love affair with passenger vehicles has made us blind to the death and suffering that they enable. Much like “gun violence” perhaps we should be talking about “car violence” and “car control.” The numbers don’t lie.

American family seeking relocation to Germany or the Netherlands

Please help.

My wife and I are expecting our second (and final) child this June. The prospect of raising two boys in America is both wonderful and terrifying. You see, we’re worried about raising our children in a country whose values are so far afield from many of our own. Particularly, we’d prefer not to raise our boys in a country that continues to worship the car and refuses to build proper mass transportation and infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists (i.e. children).

American children get access to cars at the age of fifteen, which is quite insane. While the historical origins of this unusually low driving age are based in our agrarian past, it is now used to help prop up the suburban lifestyle. Many families can’t wait until their children reach driving age so that they can be freed of the burden of ferrying their kids around a low density suburban wasteland.

Further complicating matters is the American obsession with restricting alcohol from its citizens until the age of twenty-one. In theory, a law abiding child will have several years of driving experience and a university degree before they touch a glass of wine or beer. In practice, we have created a culture where kids are drinking and driving in their high school years. This unfortunate concoction of misguided laws and ignorance of human nature results in untold thousands of teens dying in alcohol and automobile related accidents per year.

In sharp contrast to the American model, Germanic kids experiment with alcohol much earlier in life and get the “crazies” out of their system long before a driver’s license is a possibility. In most cases northern European teens live in a much more densely populated environment where walking, biking, and mass transit opportunities abound. Very few of them are dependent on their parents for mobility. Even if a Germanic teen overdoes things with drink, it’s very unlikely that anything short of a hangover will be the result (since binge drinking is also quite frowned on). The chance of drunken kids then getting into a car and killing themselves is effectively zero, since they don’t have to drive to a remote cornfield to drink and fornicate in peace.

One of my heroes, David Hembrow, had similar thoughts as his children came of age in the UK. Fortunately for him, he already lived in a European Union nation so moving to the mainland was reasonably straight forward. We yanks have a steeper hill to climb. A whole rash of labor protection laws get in the way and make it quite difficult.

In the hope that somebody with “connections” might read my ramblings, here is the brief Salyards’ resume for relocation back to the old country:

Me: IT Professional with 10+ years experience in strategic labor outsourcing (particularly in India), project management, and business analysis for a major US retailer. German fluency (rusty due to lack of use but it shall return). Lived in Oldenburg Germany as an exchange student (Austauschschüler) for one year a long time ago (where I fell in love with Dutch bikes). I am an avid biker and experienced fencer.

My Wife: IT professional with 10+ years experience in solution architecture design, management, systems analysis and project management. Mother born in Germany from an American soldier (who flew the coup) and a Ukrainian “Ostarbeiter.” Tall, blonde, ethnically German. Taking steps to learn German language. Loves good cheese, bread, and organic/local produce.

Son: Super cute three- year old with good experience in traveling by bicycle with daddy. Kids are sponges. No worries.

Unborn son: We shall see.

Dog: English Springer Spaniel named “Winston.” Great dog who is current on all of his shots.

We’d prefer to move to a city in Northern Germany or the Netherlands. Bike infrastructure should be okay or great. Oldenburg, Bremen, Hamburg, Hannover, etc, all sounds quite pleasant. The Netherlands will work as well, though we’d need to learn Dutch (which is an odd goal I’ve had for many years anyhow).

We’re wondering whether or not we can claim asylum from the United States since they want to subject our children to a dangerous lifestyle of poison-spewing cars, foreign wars (fearing for the lives of my male offspring), and genetically modified food :)

If anybody has the connections to aid us in our escape from the English speaking world, where we can live car free, please contact us immediately.

No, this is not a joke.

Banning kids on bikes

Portlanders are raging against a new piece of proposed Oregon legislation that would ban the transportation of children younger than six on bikes or in bicycle trailers.  Engaging this kind of prot0-fascist Nanny State thinking with reason  is a waste of time, so I won’t bother doing so.  Instead I ask the question, haven’t we brought this on ourselves?

"Ready for a safe relaxing ride in the Bakfiets, kids? Oh, Kevin, did you forget your flack vest in the house again?"

Anglo cyclists opened the door to the all out banning of kids on bikes on the day they bought into the culture of fear and bike helmets. One of the most innocent and healthy activities ever devised, cycling, has been made dangerous and fringe in the eyes of the public. Why? Because cycling advocates in the USA and Britain push helmets harder than anybody. The very standard bearers and champions of cycling have encased the heads of their families in foam. The precedent is set. Cycling is very dangerous. ‘You only get one brain” and other pithy simplifications spew forth from the lips of the “friends of cycling.”

It’s not hard to understand how a misguided legislator who is unfamiliar with cycling, one who is “for the children,” could reach the conclusion that young kids might as well just be banned from bikes and trailers, when virtually all cyclists wear the mark of an extreme risk taker: a cycling helmet. Look at the picture above from Oregon Live and ask yourself if this looks like a family out for a leisurely ride, or a family that is about to take part in some bizarre new sport called bike-chariot roller derby?

Also cited in the Oregon Live article is a spokesperson for Burley Design who, while obviously opposed to the legislation, sees it as an opportunity to strengthen the company’s market share by, instead of baning kids on bikes, mandating a regulatory safety standard for trailers that you can bet Burley’s products measure up to.  Similar to Bell’s support of mandatory helmet legislation in Australia, this proves that every unneeded regulation from the public sector will attract whorish bedfellows from the private sector in pursuit of profit.

I was warming to the idea of helmets as a choice and lowering my guard on the issue.  Now it appears that those of us who have not bought into the culture of fear must wake up.  Pandora’s box has been opened.  Cycling advocates that use fear and emotion to push a dangerous picture of cycling must be talked into a different tactic.  The future of a car free lifestyle for families with kids depends on it.

The empathy factor

One frequently hears about the “safety in numbers” effect as it relates to cycling.  An increase in cyclists results in greater bicycle exposure to motorists and thereby improves driving behavior.  This is simple and rational enough. Most people are inherently good and have no desire to harm an innocent, but how do we reach the hardcore bike haters…those rare individuals who are hell bent on running cyclists off the road?

During the Nuremberg trials Captain G.M.Glibert, an Army psychologist, made the following observation:

“In my work with the defendants, I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.”

We have all experienced the dehumanizing effects of being shut up in a car while stuck in terrible traffic.  The metal and glass barriers give us the illusion of safety and complete control; the car is our sanctuary.  We rage against our fellow humans in ways that would be unthinkable in virtually any other setting.  To put it simply, the car sucks the empathy right out of us and makes us dictatorial rulers of the road.

“Fuck that guy.  I’m running late and need to get to work.  I’m only running the red light a little bit.”

To what degree does empathy towards our fellow humans drive the “safety in numbers effect?”  Are drivers in Bremen, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen safer drivers simply because of the sheer volume of cyclists they encounter, or is it because their friends and families are also cyclists?  I suspect that it’s the emotional entanglement, the ability to empathize with cyclists, that really drives the safety in numbers effect.  If empathy is the key to driving a permanent change in driver habits, perhaps cycling advocates need to keep this in mind. What is the predominant stereotype of “the cyclist” and is this person somebody that John Q Public can empathize with?

If I were to interview car commuters from the suburbs, people with no attachment to cycling at all, my bet is that the typical stereotype of American cyclists would include some or all of the following:

  • Arrogant
  • Law breaking
  • “Granola”/hippie
  • Insufferable hipster
  • Holier than thou
  • Freakishly dressed
  • Young
  • Smug
  • Car hating
  • Green
  • Helmet/safety zealot
  • Dreamers
  • Liberal

Is this the type of person that’s easy for the suburban car commuter to empathize with?  Probably not.  Of course, this is just a stereotype but unfortunately our perception often becomes reality.

The Latter Day Saints recently launched a brilliant campaign designed to challenge the stereotype of Mormons being a mostly white, affluent, and Utah-based religion (all in the hopes of driving converts no doubt – just like cycling advocates).  A sexy surfer from Hawaii or a scruffy Harley rider from middle America is introduced to the viewer culminating with the tagline “I’m a Mormon.”  Perhaps cyclists could learn from this approach to challenge its predominant stereotype.  What would the “I’m a Cyclist” campaign look like?

Ozzie Guillen brings a portable bike with him and rides to away games. How cool is that?

Of one thing I am certain.  Cycling will never become a popular or accepted form of transportation in America as long as the “fringe cyclist” stereotype persists.  “Evil” road raging maniacs will never adapt their behavior until the current mold is broken.  The Germanic model of cycling (normal bikes, normal people, normal risk assessment) as transportation is so much closer to “the average Joe” and easier to empathize with than the Anglo model (sporty bikes, political people, broken risk assessment).  Is it possible that our cycling culture is in itself limiting its popularity?  Building empathy amongst the “cagers” is key to changing the game.  Cycling advocates should be looking long and hard in the mirror and asking themselves what exactly it is that they’re pushing.

Eating bike share crow

My coworker, Dan, pays for a Nice Ride bike over the lunch hour.

Some months ago I predicted that the Minneapolis bike share program, Nice Ride, would be an abject failure and waste of tax payer funds.  It turns out that I was completely wrong.  Nice Ride has been an outstanding success during its first year.

What did I get wrong?  It turns out that the bike share program is most useful for a few types of users that I hadn’t accounted for:

  • People who live in downtown Minneapolis – many live in town houses or apartments and getting a bicycle in and out of their living space is a pain in the ass.  Many are using Nice Ride bikes to speed up their commute to work or to run errands within the downtown metro.
  • Visitors and tourists – while we’ve personally not used Nice Ride bikes for visitors (yet), it’s nice to know that the option exists.  Friends visiting can now easily rent a couple of bikes and see the city on two wheels without their hosts having to possess a large cache of bicycles.
  • Lunch time strollers – on many occasions I’ve heard of coworkers checking out a bike over their lunch hour to broaden their range of culinary options.   Many of these people commute in by bus and a bike simply widens their range.

Another intangible benefit of the Nice Ride program is that it has put more practical bikes on the roads.  The “typical” bicycle on Minneapolis streets is a single speed road bike, usually adorned with a skinny jean-wearing hipster.  Nice Ride bikes feature a chain guard, fenders, internal hub, and dynamo-powered lights, making them some of the most accessible bikes on the streets.  Most riders seem to forgo a helmet, though I have seen some bring their own.

The program has been so successful in its inaugural year that the city is already talking about expanding it, particularly in low income areas that were bypassed during the first wave.  Not bad at all, Minneapolis.

Mmmmmmm.  Crow tastes awfully good when it’s in the best interest of advancing cycling as a viable transport option!