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Lydia Depillis: Busting five myths about bicycling

Contrary to the stereotype of cyclists as rich guys on carbon fiber bikes, 40 percent of American adults who ride have incomes of less than $20,000, according to a study by the PeopleForBikes advocacy group.
Contrary to the stereotype of cyclists as rich guys on carbon fiber bikes, 40 percent of American adults who ride have incomes of less than $20,000, according to a study by the PeopleForBikes advocacy group. Fresno Bee File

Each year, 100 million Americans jump on a bicycle at least once, especially when the weather gets warm. Some of these pedalers are recreational riders; others rely on their bikes for transportation to and from work.

In the past few years, cities have rushed to accommodate such travelers: Scores of bike lanes and bike-share programs have popped up. But there are still a lot of misconceptions about getting around on two wheels. As the number of cyclists rises, it’s important to keep in mind some truths about who they are, how they behave and what impact they have on the space around us.

1. Mandating helmet use is the best way to keep riders safe.

There’s no doubt about it: Helmets save lives. Studies show they reduce the risk of cyclist head injury by 85 percent. In truth, there are better ways to keep cyclists safe. And legislating helmet use can distract from the many policy interventions that would actually help more. Helmets don’t prevent crashes, and people can be badly hurt in a collision with a moving vehicle, whether or not their heads are protected. Building dedicated infrastructure to keep bikes away from cars is a more effective way to save lives.

Here’s proof: Most European cities don’t require riders to wear helmets. Yet in those cities, there are fewer cyclist deaths and injuries per capita than in the United States. Experts say that’s because of their infrastructure. And studies show that when drivers see cyclists in helmets, they behave more recklessly, driving closer to pedalers and increasing the possibility of accidents.

Mandating helmet use also tends to reduce overall ridership, since some people would rather skip bicycling altogether than risk punishment for not wearing a helmet. When that happens, bike density decreases and the presence of cyclists is less apparent, which leaves those who remain more vulnerable.

2. Cyclists break more traffic laws than drivers do.

When confronted with cycling safety proposals, lawmakers across the country have claimed that bicyclists don’t deserve new laws until they follow existing ones. Most cyclists do say they’ve rolled through a red light once in awhile, if the street was clear of oncoming cars, or have hopped on a sidewalk to avoid a crowded road. These acts are illegal in many cities. And occasionally, bikers act unpredictably and irresponsibly, putting themselves and drivers in danger.

But let’s put those bad acts in perspective: According to Wesley Marshall, a University of Colorado engineering professor who surveyed more than 17,000 cyclists and drivers, drivers copped to breaking the rules at a slightly higher rate than bicyclists. It’s the rare driver who never speeds, after all. And sometimes, drivers think cyclists are breaking the law when they’re really not – it’s usually legal to take up a whole lane, for example, rather than staying on the right side of the road.

3. If more people rode bikes, there would be noticeably less traffic and pollution.

Bicycle evangelists see cycling as the fix for all kinds of urban problems, from congestion to smog. Forbes wondered whether bringing back bicycles could fix Beijing’s traffic woes. Bicycling magazine says cyclists could be a “huge part” of combating global warming. “How much can bicycling help fight climate change?” Streetsblog asks. “A lot, if cities try.”

Sure, if everyone gave up their cars tomorrow, the health of our cities and our climate would improve. But this is wishful thinking. Just 1 percent of Americans regularly commute by bicycle. Even if that number doubled, cycling wouldn’t significantly cut smog and congestion. And for many people – families with small children, the millions who live 10 miles or more from their jobs, the elderly and the infirm – biking just isn’t realistic.

Even if significantly more people rode bikes, it probably wouldn’t dent our traffic problems. Studies have shown that congestion increases in cities where there are more bike riders but no new bike lanes. As city planners have long realized, the only thing powerful enough to lure drivers out of their cars is a combination of robust bike infrastructure and a comprehensive transit system.

4. Bicycling is mostly for the wealthy.

You probably know the stereotype of city cyclists: spandex-clad guys tooling around on bikes that cost more than your car. “Twenty-five years ago, they might have gone out to buy a Porsche or a supersport motorbike, now it’s a $5,100 carbon fiber bike,” marketing specialist Michael Oliver told Business Insider.

In truth, the majority of cyclists are not the rich but the poor. Statistics consistently show that bicycling is equally prevalent among people of all income levels and may even be more common in the lowest-earning quartile. One PeopleForBikes study found that 40 percent of American adults who ride have incomes of less than $20,000. That makes sense. For distances slightly too far to walk, biking is often the fastest, cheapest way to get around, especially for people who can’t afford to buy and maintain cars. Unfortunately, the infrastructure has yet to catch up.

5. Bike-sharing programs make roads less safe.

Whenever a U.S. city considers installing a bike-sharing program, people worry. When New York proposed its Citi Bike system, the Daily News warned of “hell on wheels” and suggested that it would be nearly impossible to keep pedalers safe. This fear seems to make sense. People rent big, clunky bikes and ride them slowly around town, often without helmets, probably careening into stationary objects and causing pile-ups behind them. Right?

After a few years of collecting data on the systems that have sprouted in cities across the country, researchers have found this not to be true. According to a report released in March by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, there have been zero fatalities from bike-sharing programs in the United States since the first systems were established in 2010. They also have a lower non-fatal injury rate than bicycling generally, and researchers think that’s precisely because the bikes are so large and visible, and riders can’t pilot them as aggressively as conventional bikes.

Lydia Depillis is a reporter for The Washington Post. Twitter, @lydiadepillis

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