At home in Toronto, I ride my bike all the time. I ride for commuting, for leisure, for travel, and for shopping. Most of the time I wouldn’t dare ride without a helmet, and most of the time I ride by myself. I often wear more athletic clothes when I cycle, and many others do the same. I can even hear my mom’s voice ringing in my head when I leave on a ride “make sure you wear a helmet!”.
So, imagine my surprise when I arrived in Amsterdam and saw Dutch cyclists riding without helmets, side-by-side, and in normal clothing.
My three weeks in the Netherlands has dramatically shaped the way I think about cycling, and in particular, my perspective on the way we talk about cycling. I’ve come to realize that in its current state, public messaging about cycling in North America actually discourages it, by making it sound cumbersome and dangerous. Here’s some ways we can improve.
Stop demanding that cyclists wear helmets
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Amsterdam is that the Dutch don’t wear helmets when they ride – most of the time not even children. In general, if you have a helmet on, you’re likely either a sport cyclist or a visitor on a bike tour. In fact, only 2% of Dutch cyclists wear one. Contrast this to messaging back home around cycling, where riders are strongly encouraged to wear helmets and public campaigns and safety messages are heavily focused on them.
Why does this matter? It dramatically shapes the image of cycling. Wearing a helmet suggests that cycling is unsafe. It also creates a barrier to access (another $40 expense, and something else to carry around with you all day). They also look incredibly tacky and mess up your hair (seems silly but this is a real stated barrier to cycling). We should allow cyclists to assess these risks themselves, rather than trying to force helmets upon them.
Stop associating the activity of cycling with the sport of cycling
One of the top stated barriers to commuter cycling in North America is that people fear exposure to the elements, and they don’t want to arrive at work sweaty. It’s the main reason why gold-standard cycling facilities often contain showers. But this is still looking at the problem in the wrong way – adding showers perpetuates the idea that cycling is a sweaty, physically-demanding activity. For most of the Dutch, cycling is a relaxing means of travel, not a “morning workout”. They ride upright, at a leisurely pace of 16km/h (on average), so that you barely experience an increase in heart rate when you ride.
Don’t make going out on a bike seem like an expedition
Quite often public messaging to cyclists tries to be a bit too helpful in preparing them for riding. Consider the messaging on the GO Transit website aimed at cyclists biking to the train:
Some things you’ll need for your ride:
Helmet, lock, lights, water, maps, and a PRESTO card.
Tip! Check the forecast—you may also need rain gear.
All of a sudden, your leisure ride has become the equivalent of preparing for a camping trip! By making an extensive list of preparation items, we create yet another barrier to doing it. Does the GO website have a page suggesting that drivers bring a warm blanket and first aid kit, and to check their airbags before they drive to the station? Of course not!
Enable people to be social on bikes
Humans are social people who enjoy social activities, and cycling is no exception. Riding at a leisurely pace through a city or along a trail is a perfect opportunity to have a casual conversation with a friend, by riding alongside one another. The Dutch recognize this and build trails that are wide enough for cyclists to comfortably ride beside each other, in both directions (4m wide is the gold standard in Netherlands).
When we “squeeze” out 1.5m for a bike lane on a road in North America, we’re not making space for cyclists, we’re making space for “cyclist”. Even many of our multi-use trails are dreadfully narrow. This discourages social riding, and suggests that cycling is an individual activity. What’s the first place you expect to sit in a car when you’re a passenger? The front seat of course! It’s natural to sit next to the person you’re traveling with, and enables you to have engaging, enjoyable conversations with them.
Cycling is easy, and cycling is fun. So why does our messaging and design approach to cycling suggest the opposite? Going on a bike ride, whether it’s to the store, train station, or without any destination in mind, is not a dangerous expedition. Cyclists should of course be aware of the risks, but overemphasizing these risks works against our efforts to encourage cycling.