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taking action

August 11, 2010
The Helmet Question.



I recently wrote about my take on wearing – and not wearing – a helmet. In the comments section, Dave Feucht of Portlandize wrote:

“I see helmet usage as an indicator of subjective safety. As a city planner, I would feel that if I saw the number of cyclists staying consistent or increasing, and helmet usage declining, it would be an indication that I was doing something really right in terms of making cycling safe in my city.

So I would say, wear a helmet or not, but either way, don’t settle for that. Push your city, state and federal governments to take real concern for your safety and make an effort to make the place you live safe for all the people who live there.”

Looking at helmets as indicators of subjective safety puts an interesting spin on how most helmet debates go. Most discussions seem to focus on the helmet itself with arguments circling around statistics of damage control; how many times has a helmet reduced the potential injury from an accident and how often has a helmet failed in this task.

But looking at the helmet as a symbol of a larger issue – the general safety and feasibility of cycling in a given place – is perhaps a more fruitful approach when dealing with cycling promotion and advocacy. And if we look at the helmet for that purpose, then we can also take other symbols of cycling and put them under the same scrutiny. How many bike racks are there in your town around your favorite coffee shops? How many bike paths take you safely from A to B?

I wanted to continue this conversation because these things have been on my mind lately. My favorite haunts around town often lack a single bike rack to which to lock my bike. I’m left searching for a parking meter or a sign pole to use. I’m forced to park in the way of the parking meter and to block the coin insert and to worry about upsetting drivers who may already harbor prejudices about the role of bikes on the road.

(My town also allows cyclists to ride on sidewalks, which in turn, suggests to most drivers that bikes should be on sidewalks and have no place on the road. But that’s a topic for another time.)

For now, I’m interested in these symbols of a cycling culture – the helmet, the bike rack, the signs of a cycling community. If I want to take an active role in promoting these in my city, how do I even begin to go about that? Who do you contact to demand more bike racks in your town? And have any of you appealed for actual changes and seen results? I would love to hear your (hopefully successful) stories on this matter. S.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2010 03:51

    Interesting! I like looking at the issue from this perspective. I’ve noticed that the majority of cyclists I see in Chicago this summer – and there are thousands of us out there – do not wear helmets, including myself a lot of the time. I’m not sure how much that has to do with feeling safe vs being hot as hell :)

    Chicago has an excellent website for requesting bike racks. I used it last year and it worked! (Funny, looking back at that post, I noticed that the response email was from a guy that I now know and he is a kick-ass bike advocate. Good to know that the city is putting the right kinds of people in charge of these things.) You shouldn’t feel bad using meters as parking spots. I don’t think it gets in anyone’s way and in Chicago cyclists are encourages to use meters as supplemental bike parking.

  2. August 11, 2010 04:28

    These are a lot of the same issues I have in Nashville (limited/no bike racks, etc.) — and there’s no bike rack request form here. There aren’t even really parking meters in the parts of town that I bike in, so I make do with locking situations like these. It’s only the past couple of months that I feel like I’m starting to meet and talk to the people I need to talk to for some of these changes to happen. Sometimes I think it just takes time. Or maybe I’m just a slow starter!

  3. August 11, 2010 04:54

    I am married to a city planner so he deals with questions like this all the time. Check with your city’s planning department. They probably have someone on staff who does transporation planning or is assigned to work on your community’s regional plan. Planning departments often have public forums where you can give comment and suggestions. Your city council or board of alderman probably also have public forums. Find out who in your city government cares about alternative transportation and urban planning. Chances are he or she cares about this issue and can talk to you about other ways you can make a difference. In some cities and towns new development must include ammenities such as bike lanes and multiuse paths. Some cities and towns will strongly encourage through incentives that new business offer bike racks and/or locate near existing bus and transit routes in exchange for lower parking space requirements. Probably your local bike org can help you connect with the right people and opportunities to share you opinion.

  4. August 11, 2010 14:18

    My town is definitely NOT bike friendly. We also deal with bike routes on the sidewalks, which is dangerous not to mention annoying, and just try finding a bike rack that’s not on campus. Also, we live in Texas, where anything but a pickup truck is considered blasphemy. That said – I do not wear a helmet on my one mile commute from my apartment to work. I DO where a helmet on long rides down country roads with no shoulder, and I should probably wear it everywhere I go no matter what, even through neighborhoods.

    I don’t have any stories of success when it comes to bike activism, but I would be eager to hear the stories of others. Maybe they’ll give me some ideas to incite change in my community. We can hope!

  5. Janni permalink
    August 11, 2010 15:25

    In den USA fehlen einfach gesetzliche Bestimmungen für den Bau von Fahrradständern. In Deutschland gibt es in der Bauordnung aller Bundesländer entsprechende Vorschriften, wie z.B. in Berlin:
    “Bei der Errichtung baulicher Anlagen und anderer Anlagen, bei denen ein Zu- und Abfahrtsverkehr zu erwarten ist, sind ausreichende Abstellmöglichkeiten für Fahrräder herzustellen.” (Schreckliches “Behörden”-Deutsch…!)

    Ausserdem haben alle Geschäfte ein Interesse an Radfahrern als Kunden und stellen vor den Läden Fahrradständer mit Werbeschildern auf – dafür gibt es nirgendwo mehr Parkuhren (parking meter)! Trotzdem werden vor allem in der Nähe von Bahnhöfen die Parkmöglichkeiten für Fahrräder knapp.

    Verkehrsplaner kritisieren den Bau von Fahrradwegen neben der Straße wegen der Trennung des Fahrzeugverkehrs auf separate Wege mit hoher Unfallgefahr an Kreuzungen. Besser ist die Einrichtungen von Fahrradspuren als Teil der Fahrbahn, um Autofahrer an das Vorhandensein von Fahrrädern zu gewöhnen und die Radfahrer mit gleichen Rechten auszustatten.

  6. August 11, 2010 15:28

    I’ve also seen more people without helmets recently, and I tend to agree with Dottie in that it’s probably due to the heat! Sometimes I feel as if I’m going to die if I don’t take my helmet off and let the heat escape from my head :)

    If there is any type of bicycle organization, even at the state level, that would be a good place to start for advocating for more bike racks, etc. Many smaller cities may have nothing like that, so maybe you’d be interested in beginning something?! With a university, there would likely be enough interest to begin a larger advocacy effort.

    Contacting the city council, as others have suggested, is definitely a good idea since you never know what things they could be considering – for example, the small city that we tend to spend most of our time in, even though we don’t live in the city limits, has recently decided to adopt a complete streets policy. A biking advocacy group contacted the city council and they have stated that they are very willing to work with the group to determine where more racks are needed, as well as in developing a plan for more bike lanes and a bike map of the city. Right now, our parking tends to consist primarily of signposts or trees :)

  7. August 11, 2010 15:54

    Thanks for your comments, everyone! I had looked online before and not found anything like the form to request more bike racks that Dottie mentioned. But I will just look for who’s in charge of city planning and transportation and send off some emails, that might put me on the right track.

  8. August 11, 2010 16:18

    In Portland, there’s a waiting list for on-street bike-corrals. So many businesses have requested them, there’s a lineup waiting for the city to install them. I’ve probably seen 10-15 new ones pop up this year. I’m not exactly sure who the contact is for normal bike racks, but I’ve never really felt the need to request, as almost everywhere I go has bike parking already…

    (a few examples: http://www.flickr.com/photos/poetas/sets/72157624702910382/)

    I would say there are a number of things you can do to improve conditions in your city.

    First is simply riding your bike. You enjoy it, it gets you where you need it to, and you often avoid many of the pitfalls of driving (traffic, smog, being confined, etc) – anyone can do it, wherever they are. As more people start riding, it will be harder and harder for city officials to ignore. If there are enough people riding, and enough people parking in places that are “unsightly” or “in the way” (on sidewalks or whatever), or “crowding” the roads, it might force the city into thinking about making some actual bike parking, striping some lanes, etc – if for no other reason than to get them out of the pedestrian/car space. I know this has been a motivator in Portland – to keep people from locking their bikes in places that impede pedestrians, or to cafe tables and chairs and things like that. Once you get the striped lanes and people realize it doesn’t change traffic flow, more will come, and eventually they might even try removing traffic lanes for bike space, realize that doesn’t change traffic flow that much either, and then keep going from there.

    Secondly, I think writing about it helps. This is also something anyone can do, and bringing up issues you see and getting people to talk about it will undoubtedly reach some people locally, who then might think and talk about things in a way they hadn’t before. Also, in some cases at least, city officials are looking out for what is being said about their cities online. I’ve had a couple of Portland city officials comment on Portlandize in response to posts about different infrastructure, to clarify or make comments about progress on things or to give contact info for problems, etc. You never know who might be listening – one of the biggest benefits and drawbacks of the internet :)

    Be an informed voter. Vote for people who support what you believe is important (not just with regard to bicycles, but in general). Know the issues, how the candidates view them, and make the best decisions you can accordingly.

    Find contact info for your state and local representatives and tell them what you think about things. Most officials have ways to contact them via email, and if they start getting floods of email saying there is no place to park bikes, or no safe routes from X to Y or whatever, they may actually listen.

    Talk to people at the places you work. Let them know that you ride, and you would appreciate a decent place to lock your bike while at work. Let them know that other people ride too, and that encouraging more people to ride will save them a ton of money on providing parking spaces (one of the biggest reasons my work gives incentives to people to ride to work).

    Be patient – change, especially in the U.S., is painfully slow. We’re all about status quo. That’s why I think riding your bike and writing about it are important, because they are things you can do no matter what, and they probably reach the most people, in the most unassuming manner.

    • August 12, 2010 13:03

      Dave, as always – thanks for the really thoughtful comment and feedback! (and for continuing to feed my Portland obsession – the land of bikes and dreams ;) )

      I do always try to be an informed voter in smaller local elections as well as large ones. I’ve been investigating my options on the city council page and I would like to contact some people to discuss this with them. It’s good to hear how even little actions like riding often, talking and blogging about it, and being very visible about it can instigate change.

      I thought a lot about my blogging anonymously since I appreciate the impact that actually disclosing your location can make when people in that city read your words (as you mentioned with Portlandize). I still chose to remain anonymous and only hint at my location for various reasons but sometimes I wonder if that doesn’t mitigate the massage. I do, however, feel that I was very much inspired to start bike commuting on a regular/daily basis by discovering all the people out there doing it and blogging about it and it didn’t matter that they were doing it in another location – just the fact that they were doing it and making it seem feasible and fun made me want to follow suit. So I hope to add to the bike blog community in that way.

      • August 12, 2010 15:13

        Yeah, I don’t think you necessarily have to say where you are or specifically who you are :)

        I think actually riding your bike and making it look like the normal, practical, everyday kind of thing we all know it to be is probably the best thing you can do to promote cycling as transportation wherever you are.

        People are most impacted by a “message” when they see the person who is delivering the message “walking the walk” so to speak.

        In this case, the only message (or at least the main one) is that a bike is a good practical tool for getting around, and that message is easily delivered simply by using your bike to get around.

        Cheers!

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