Removing the Extreme and Allowing Cycling to be Beautiful

Paris is a city known for its beauty. The streets are peppered with opulent and impressive buildings that serve as grand reminders of the past monarchies and revolutions that shaped this historic place. It’s a dense city of over ten million people but there is still room for an abundance of finely manicured parks that serve as tranquil sanctuaries to citizens in need of reflection and solitude.

Jardin du Luxembourg

It is home to some of the most celebrated art in the world and for centuries it has been a haven for artists in need of inspiration and camaraderie. The delicately crafted pastries displayed behind glass at the pâtisseries found on nearly every neighborhood street attract crowds not only because of their taste but also because of their artful form. Paris is the fashion capital of the world. Parisians comfortably combine classic fashion elements with daring accents like ripped tights, flamboyant glasses, and—of course—colorful scarves of every pattern imaginable which both men and women drape around their necks in a multitude of different styles. Beauty matters in Paris.

The bicycle is making an impressive comeback in Paris for a host of reasons, but the people of Paris may be eagerly embracing this once forgotten form of transportation in part because bicycle culture is beautiful. Cycling is a great way to see and be seen. The kind of bike you ride and the way you ride it is one more way to express yourself. Parisians have long been known for unapologetically making out in public parks or along the banks of the Seine and now you can see cycling couples stealing kisses at traffic lights or slowly pedaling side-by-side on calm side streets. Most Parisians wouldn’t cycle if they didn’t look good while doing it.

Trying to be cycle chic in Paris; I swear I'm not wearing anything from REI in this picture.

Cycling fashion photography is a real art and so I’ll leave it to the expert, Mikael Colville-Andersen from Cycle Chic.  Here is a great set of photos from a recent trip he took to Paris.

One thing you’ll notice is that none of these men and women are wearing helmets. There are no helmet laws in Paris (or in most of Europe). Helmets are things we wear when we’re doing extreme sports like outdoor rock climbing.  Cities across the world that are trying to increase the adoption of non-motorized transportation are getting rid of helmet laws because it has been widely acknowledged that cycling will never become a mainstream form of transportation unless we remove the extreme. It gets back to the distinction between cycling for sport and cycling for utility.  Low-speed rides to the office and grocery store do not, in my opinion, constitute an extreme sport. The very act of putting on a helmet indicates to most of us that we are about to do something dangerous and risky—and most of us don’t want routine trips to be either of those things. But accidents happen and don’t helmets protect us?  The merits and drawbacks of helmets are being hotly contested these days. Here are a few of my thoughts and facts on helmets.

  1. Most people aren’t good helmet users. Helmets aren’t a fun purchase so most people buy the cheapest one they can find. Cheap helmets often don’t fit all that well or are uncomfortable and then loosened.  A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 96% of children and adolescents wore helmets that fit incorrectly.1 Also, helmets usually are only effective for between three and five years assuming that they haven’t been dropped. When I was a kid we used to play soccer with our bicycle helmets when we couldn’t find a ball so I really doubt our helmets would have done us a bit of good. Also, how many people know how long they’ve owned their helmet and when they’re due for a replacement?
  2. What do helmets actually protect us from?  According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, helmets protect us from head injuries resulting from falling off a bicycle. In order to pass these standards, tests are done which “simulate the effect of a rider’s head falling from approximately usual riding height, without rotational energy and without impact from another vehicle.” Rotational energy—since I didn’t know what it meant—refers to impacts which jerk or spin the head so that the brain rotates within the skull causing damage of the brain tissue.2  So, bicycle helmets, even if worn correctly, won’t protect us if we were to take a fall that jerks or spins our head and they don’t offer protection against the thing cyclists are most afraid of—cars. Helmets will, however, protect you if you fall off something that is about the height of your bicycle.  Like a bar stool, for example. (I believe at least one neurosurgeon is reading the blog. Comments on my interpretation of how helmets protect the brain are more than welcome, Dr. Tim Steege.)
  3. Helmet laws could actually be bad for our health.  Bicycle gear is a huge industry and helmet manufactures (nearly all of which are based in the US) have been very effective at convincing Americans that biking is dangerous and that their product can make us safer. But, helmet laws deter cycling. For example, Australia enacted helmet laws in the 90s and saw a noticeable decline in rates of cycling.  Roughly one-third of Australian cyclists who formerly cycled without a helmet stopped riding frequently.3 Lower rates of cycling have negative public health impacts. As I’ve said many times before, regular cycling (or any kind of moderate daily exercise) can prolong your life by up to five years. Several studies from China, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK all have shown that people who cycle regularly live longer because the health benefits outweigh the risk of crashes.4  A study done by the British Medical Association found that among commuters, including non-cyclists, heart failure was a 20 times more common cause of death than motor vehicle crashes. It also found that men who travel by bicycle regularly have half the risk of fatal heart failure.5
  4. Helmets are not sexy.  No one looks really good while wearing a helmet. Showing up with a sweaty helmet mark across your forehead is not something most people find attractive. Riding around with your hair blowing in the wind not only feels good, but it’s also a little bit sexy. (At least I think so.) When I first started cycle commuting in Seattle one of the biggest barriers for me was accepting that I would look frumpy while doing it. I wore a bright silver helmet and a neon green reflective vest and I really didn’t feel all that cool. I didn’t care because I liked biking so much (and I’m from Seattle and have very little fashion sense to begin with), but since I’ve been in Europe I’ve actually started feeling fashionable when I ride my bike around cities.  I’ve realized that I don’t need cycling “gear” anymore and I can’t imagine going back to the helmet and reflective vest when I commute. I know that a lot of young women in the States don’t cycle commute because it isn’t considered a feminine thing to do and I think helmet laws are a big contributor to that mindset.

How does all this relate to Paris?  Well, it is possible to look feminine and very attractive while riding a bike. Cycling rates in Paris wouldn’t be climbing at the rate they are if it wasn’t possible to look chic and trendy on a bike. In fact, from what I’ve observed, bicycles are now one of the most chic and trendy accessories Parisians—young and old—are flaunting.  Visitors to Paris are reminded that beauty matters in all aspects of life and my visit has made me aware that the beauty factor has been missing from the cycling conversation in the United States.  People—even in Seattle—care about their looks. Cycling can be intimidating because you put yourself on display to a certain extent. At times, I remember feeling like every driver at an intersection was staring at me when I’d stop at a light in Seattle and I’d wish I wasn’t wearing an unattractive, huge reflective vest and helmet.  But, what if we embraced the fact that cycling puts us on display?  What if we started thinking about ways to make utility cycling more beautiful and less extreme? I’m not advocating that we get rid of helmets all together. Children who are first learning to ride a bike topple over all the time and helmets can be very effective at absorbing the impact of falls resulting from a rider’s loss of balance.

But, let’s be honest about what helmets don’t protect us from—4,000 pound steel cars. Riding helmet-free is a good reminder to both cyclists and drivers that humans have fragile bodies and soft brains. Helmets will not prevent car-bicyclist fatalities, but there is a powerful relationship between the number of cyclists on the road and a decrease risk to cyclists.  Scandinavian researchers have found that if the cycle flow on the road doubles, the risk per cyclists will fall between 35% and 40%.6

If a few more of my beautiful, trendy friends were also willing to ride bicycles with me when we went out in the evenings and on the weekends I would statistically be far safer than if I were riding alone with a helmet on.  The experience of riding helmet-free with the wind in my hair, lipstick on, and a scarf flowing behind me allows me to retain my femininity and feel beautiful when I bike. Try it!  Just not in Seattle because you’ll get a $106 ticket.

http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com is a great source for cycling fashion inspiration.

1 http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/112/2/320.full?ck=nck

2 http://www.bhsi.org/whatneed.htm

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0001457596000164

4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet#cite_note-Wardlaw_2002-30

5http://www.mayerhillman.com/Cycling-walking/Key-publications.aspx

6 http://www.cyclehelmets.org/papers/c2014.pdf

3 thoughts on “Removing the Extreme and Allowing Cycling to be Beautiful

  1. I am French, a former resident of Paris, a current resident of Seattle, and a ‘cyclist for function’, and I could not agree more. You are spot on about the appreciation of beauty (and thus beauty in cycling) in Paris. It is why it it not okay to run downstairs to buy bread in your sweats in Paris – you are, like it or not, a player in arguably the most beautiful city in the world, so it is your job not to yuck it up with your yoga pants that say ‘BOOTY’ across the butt.
    I also found point 3 about helmet laws decreasing public health fascinating. I always wore a helmet when I biked in Paris – no doubt because of my upbringing in the US – but was extensively mocked by my friends, co-workers and co-cyclists alike. There is perhaps a false sense of safety that comes with wearing a helmet, but commuting from the 5e to the 16e arrondissement was pretty terrifying, given most motorists’ total disregard and at times outward resentment of cyclists ‘sharing’ the road. And since the introduction of Vélib (bike rental/sharing system) in Paris in 2007, there are WAY more cyclist in Paris who are riding very unsafely – not respecting traffic laws, riding on the sidewalk, riding down one-way streets, acting like a car when it suits them and then like a pedestrian when they don’t want to wait for a light.
    But perhaps in lieu of helmet laws, a better way to prevent accidents for cyclists and drivers (and pedestrians) while still promoting cycling in general would be to have better educational campaigns about how to safely share the road. We all know to look both ways before crossing the street, but now in Paris you better look both ways before crossing the sidewalk least you get mowed down by Vélib rider!
    Great blog btw!

  2. Don’t say all bicycle helmets are not attractive until you check out Bandbox helmets. Our motto is elegance in safety. Our helmets which meet CPSC standards under normal operating conditions have natural profiles which can be concealed under a wide variety of hat styles that are elegant, hip and yes – even sexy. I used to agree with you and endured lots of ribbing when I commuted to work without a helmet even though I got my PhD in Transportation – Bicycle Safety. Now I never go without a helmet, changing covers every day to match my outfit. Go to bandboxllc.com to see some of our selections.

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