Memo to GOOD: Bike Share Challenge is Not Biking Like Pros

Posted on 05/01/2012


Dear GOOD folks –

Earlier today, GOOD published an article entitled Hard-Headed: 4 Out of 5 Bike Share Riders Don’t Wear Helmets.  Here are the first two sentences of your article:

Urban bike sharing programs, which are popular in Europe and gaining steam across the United States, hope to make road cycling more accessible to casual riders. The challenge is getting those casual cyclists to bike more like pros.

The line that frustrates me is “The challenge is getting those casual cyclists to bike more like pros.” This is definitely not the challenge. The challenge is to get car-centric residents of the U.S. to see urban riding for what it is: a safe, easy, convenient, viable, healthy mode of transportation.

Picture your grandmother riding a bicycle a half-mile to go out to lunch. That’s the kind of trip that bike share serves. No pro would ever race on a bike share bicycle.

This is what a pro’s bike looks like:

Pro Racing Bike - from Trek website

It weighs 15 pounds. It’s designed to go 30+ miles per hour and to ride long distances. The one pictured costs about $11,000 (more than 11 times what I’ve ever paid for a bike.)

This is what a bike share bike looks like:

Bike share bicycle from Tapei - image via Copenhagenize

It weighs 40-50 pounds, what the New York Times calls “definitely heavier than most bikes.” It has all kinds of things that “pro” racing bikes don’t have: upright frame geometry, fenders, basket, kickstand, lights, etc. It’s designed to go 5-10 miles per hour and is typically used for trips under a mile. It’s generally too bulky for trips more than 3-5 miles. It generally costs $500-$1000, more expensive that one would expect, because rental gear needs to be built to be near-indestructible. It’s impossible to “bike like a pro” on.

Helmet use is a fraught subject, though, with partisans on both sides of the issue. Yes, bicycling in a helmet is, for a narrow range of collision, safer than bicycling without a helmet. Driving, walking, and standing in one’s home are also safer wearing a helmet.

You mention that “Half of all urban cyclists strap on a helmet before getting on a bike” but don’t cite your source. Where did you get that half number? Google wouldn’t tell me. When I’ve done bike counts in the urban core of Los Angeles, I see numbers roughly equivalent to the bike share study – actually a bit less than one in five. In Amsterdam it’s nearly none.

If you’re looking for helmet usage levels nearing pro racing’s 100% where helmets are mandatory, you’ll need to go to places like Australia where bike helmets are mandated.

Then again, if pro bicyclists wear them, shouldn’t all cyclists do the same? Are you looking for car drivers to wear helmets because they’re required for NASCAR racing? Is the problem with driving’s high death toll that drivers need to drive “more like pros”?

The GOOD article states that bike share is a “safety concern”:

But an an influx of new cyclists on our roads presents a safety concern that bike share programs have so far failed to fully address…

The link here is to an article about a collision between a very large truck and a person riding on a bike share bike. Hmmm… what could be more of a threat to safety: large truck or small bike? Your implication seems to be that bike share is the safety problem on our roadways. Unfortunately, our roads were already unsafe for walking, cycling and driving; this was true long before bike share came along. Bike share is part of the solution to safety. The safety concern you should be covering is the automobile.

One telling thing in your article is that you’re assuming that “we” are drivers. Your article states:

…the more cyclists we see on the road, the more drivers get used to sharing it…

It’s not clear who the we are: everyone? GOOD readers? GOOD writers? Please don’t assume that “we” are all drivers. Your readers, at least those who are genuinely concerned about safety, cities, health, and the environment, generally aren’t getting around by driving.

So… what I actually find surprising about this study is that 20% of bike share riders wear helmets. There must be something special about bike share when a significant minority of these dedicated souls schlep around their helmets. I think the percentage would be closer to zero helmets, like it it is in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc.

The other surprise is that GOOD magazine doesn’t get it. Maybe you could take your hands off the steering wheel and give bike share a try. Have you tried bike share? It’s safe. It’s fun. It’s healthy… and it’s really GOOD.

Joe Linton
Bikas Los Angeles

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