Talk About A Confluence of Mixed Messages

Background Reading

Summary

Gary McCourt, 49, from Edinburgh has been sentenced for causing the death of a elderly cyclist in Edinburgh in 2011.

Gary McCourt, 49, from Edinburgh has been sentenced for causing the death of a elderly cyclist in Edinburgh in 2011.

From: John Riley
Subject: helmet wars
Date: Sat, 4 May 2013 06:29:50 -0700

This is one of the reasons I wear a helmet. This is the UK, but I think it would be _more_ likely in the US, especially with a jury.

http://www.bikebiz.com/news/read/judge-cites-lack-of-bike-helmet-as-contributory-factor-in-death-crash/014770

Yesterday I tried to produce a satirical piece in which the insistence of helmet wear here in the U.S. seemed both a bit conspiratorial as well as odd given that our bicycle infrastructure gurus (both European) are dead-set against helmet use. But today I will play it straight since in the article in question someone actually died.

Here are the facts in the situation:

  • 75 year old killed on her bike was hit by a driver who had killed another cyclist in 1986. Driver gets community service.
  • McCourt admitted to police he had “clipped” the back wheel of Audrey Fyfe, 75, at a junction in 2011. In 1986 McCourt was jailed after killing George Dalgity, 22, a geography student from Edinburgh, who was killed while he cycled along the city’s Regent Road.
  • Sheriff James Scott said he would not send McCourt to prison for his second killing of a cyclist because there were no aggravating factors, such as drink or drug abuse. He said the collision between McCourt and Mrs Fyfe was caused because he had “momentarily” lost concentration.
  • Sherriff Scott said “Mrs Fyffe wasn’t to blame in any way for the accident. He added: “However, she was not wearing a safety helmet and that in my view contributed to her death.” This despite the fact the only thing which contributed to her death was the atrocious driving of a motorist who had already killed once before.

John Riley (a recumbent cycling friend) knows I cannot resist wading in on discussions like the ones this article generates. Because the article appeared in BikeBiz I have to assume it is a not too subtle attempt to send a pro-helmet message to its readers. So in the interest of full disclosure it should probably be stated that anyone reading this should understand that the writer is working for a publication that thrives on the sale of cycling accessories (helmets being among the most expensive and plentiful).

Given that there has been a change in the demographics of cycling from Lycra-clad wannabes to folks with body piercings and tattoos there has been a not too subtle change in the kinds of clothing and helmets being offered by clothiers and helmet producers world-wide. Plaid and non-stretch fabrics and simple rounded helmets are all the rage.

The Contributory Factor Issue

In the ChainLink Forum debate I alluded to before things got rather ugly because one side of the argument was being upheld by folks who have accepted the rationale of cycling gurus like Mikael Colville-Andersen that cycling is safe and should not be made to seem threatening by the use of protective gear like helmets. And this position is held along with the view that Vehicular Cycling is a cult-like strategy that is unworkable and should be supplanted by something akin to Protected Bike Lanes (PBL).

Assuming that non-riders get frightened by the sight of helmets, what must they think when we erect ghost bikes all over town? That must send a howlingly mixed message. Something like cycling is perfectly safe and does not require a helmet and is indeed made less safe when wearing one, but by the way here are the bikes set out in memory of riders who have died. And if you would like to honor their memory join us for the Ride of Silence in which we will tour past as many of these ghosts bikes as possible.

The Sheriff who pronounced that there was some negligence on the part of the 75-year old woman would probably find some mixed receptions here in Chicagoland. Europe is undergoing a very strong thrust by the anti-helmet lobby at the very same time that the UK and the USA are buying into a vision of the urban landscape that is aggressively anti-car and intent upon shoe-horning in bicycle space in places where it may fit, but not very well.

In fact the StreetsBlog crowd is running articles of late trying to make the case that the very kinds of land development that follow economic booms is incompatible with resilience. I suppose this is why the Chicago Urban Cycling Community hates the idea of free Sunday parking in the city because it will mean in influx of visitors who will be spending money in their town and helping to keep businesses alive along Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park?

I frankly find the hustle and bustle of Wicker Park a sign of vibrancy. I would not be surprised to learn that many suburbanites like to visit the city and be amidst the throngs of pedestrians along Milwaukee Avenue. Why would cyclists ask us to get behind the development of cycling infrastructure but openly decry the fact that when we come in to do the Bike The Drive fundraiser it makes them uncomfortable? Why would they also decry the fact the suburbanites visit the city to do the L.A.T.E. Ride and actually create groups designed to antagonize the suburban riders who contribute to their park system. There are so many mixed messages within the Urban Cycling Community that it makes me wonder if any of them actually realize how ugly their attitudes appear.

They rage against “cagers” who drive through their city and yet some of them rent ZipCars when they need them. Again a mixed message. If you feel so strongly that cars are a menace then why not use public transportation instead of renting a car?

Very Little Of What We Do Is Scientifically Justified

Commuters with bicycles, electric bikes and mopeds move across the street, Friday, May 23, 2008 in Shanghai, China. While two-wheelers have long since yielded the roads to sedans in this increasingly affluent society, the bicycle is far from dead. In fact, its numbers are growing. For many, if not most Chinese, pedal power remains a mainstay, for commuting, sending children to school or making a living. (AP Photo)

Commuters with bicycles, electric bikes and mopeds move across the street, Friday, May 23, 2008 in Shanghai, China. While two-wheelers have long since yielded the roads to sedans in this increasingly affluent society, the bicycle is far from dead. In fact, its numbers are growing. For many, if not most Chinese, pedal power remains a mainstay, for commuting, sending children to school or making a living. (AP Photo)

Protected Bike Lanes are as yet unproven on this side of the Atlantic. We are in essence erecting a laboratory in which we will discover whether or not you can squeeze in bike lanes and in the process get cars and pedestrians all to contribute to the overall safety of the traffic landscape. It did not happen that way last year in New York City. It was something of an embarrassment. But it should have been anticipated, because we really do not know how much of what we are building is really going to work.

Lots of the protected bike lane infrastructure in Chicago will need to be vetted over time. Some of the design is a bit “wonky“. We are using some techniques that the Dutch have tried and abandoned. But again time will tell. Short of having a completely segregated system (not unlike the elevated train system in the city) bicyclists will have to deal at some level with the chaos of the intersection that PBLs simply do not handle well.

In fact it would be far better to “slow our roll” and dig deep to find the money to pay for a series of Bloomingdale Trail systems that could handle bike traffic in Chicago. But that will take some time and a good deal of effort to pull off. In the meantime what we will be getting is a bit like trying to shoe-horn an additional bedroom in the space enclosed by the family garage.

Chicago’s Urban Cycling Community is very much endeared to the idea of Social Engineering. It is their faith in their own wisdom or in that of some European guru that makes them fearless when staring down small business people who simply will not be persuaded that losing parking along Milwaukee Avenue will be good for business. Perhaps the problem is that the left-leaning social engineers have not got a clue about the nature of the right-leaning business models that Capitalists use. Many of these folks are Socialists at their very core.

The idea of having a group like the Chicago Cubs bring in hotels and parking and more sprawl simply enrages them. But frankly bicycling is really only going to flourish in densely packed areas where traffic is a mess and streets are crowded with pedestrians walking cheek-by-jowl. Big business and a booming economy always bring a crush of people and their vehicles. I really cannot see that having a million bikes crammed into the city is any more preferable than 100,000 automobiles. Neither scenario is very pleasant.

About The Helmet Issue

I’m an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.

— Carl Sandburg

We simply cannot as a community decide what is safe and what is not. The very folks that think wearing helmets is smart (and I am among them) is also wishy-washy about things like riding fixed gear bikes devoid of brakes. Again a mixed message. It took us decades to finally decide to ban smoking from public buildings and I am thankful that we did.

But were I a smoker I would probably still be chafing about the change. It is essential that cyclists be as sensitive to this as possible. We are adamant in some quarters that we never have to be licensed in the same way that cars, motorcycles and motor scooters are. But without a license plate scofflaw cyclists are free to cross busy intersections in essentially an “invisible mode“. At the same time we want the police to help us recover our bikes and license plates would help. But again a mixed message on this issue.

I could go on about lots of the things that leave me wondering who is really in charge of the “talking points” for cycling advocates. Everybody is agog with new infrastructure but seem afraid to speak out about how poorly implemented much of it really is. We will pay for that come next winter. We certainly did this winter and it showed with all the complaints about venues like Dearborn Street. The was supposed to be a “showcase” stretch of cycling infrastructure. But it some problems with its actual design and even more important the protocol for maintaining it during with winter season.

Right now two guys from CDOT are supposed to be handling the protected bike lane cleaning for the entirety of the City of Chicago. I certainly hope that this idea is revisited. It seems impractical but like everything else going on just now we seem to be racing to get things done regardless of the consequences.