Helmet on Your Head or Egg on Your Face

Picture_13.pngMatthew Modine doesn’t don certain ritual headgear while he rides

Matthew Modine has been getting a lot of negative attention recently for his stance on wearing a helmet while he cycles: i.e., he doesn’t wear a helmet while he cycles (it would have to be a large helmet to fit that copious coif). A profile of his Bicycle for a Day in New York Mag spins off track into a diatribe about his perspective on gravity and head trauma, while closing with an objectification of his posterior that would never fly were he not a dude.  But hey, its New York Rag, what can you expect?

Unfortunately Treehugger and Ecorazzi get in on the game, making the argument that only reckless people don’t use a helmet while riding a bike, which isn’t far from the argument made by motorists that only reckless people ride bikes. Fortunately the cooler heads at Copenhagenize dissect the arguments in "Get Yer Pitchforks! It’s a Bike Helmet Witchhunt!," an article that explores a very interesting angle of helmet-mania: Americans are so helmet-conscious in part because the helmet manufacturers are American, they have lobbyists everywhere, and cycling was pitched in part by these same manufactures as a sport, not a transportation mode. Love the Emerging Bicycle Culture tag too:

The difference between North America and other Emerging Bicycle Cultures is remarkable. I covered the rebirth of the bicycle in Paris last year and I was recently speaking in Riga and Moscow. Helmets don’t even feature on the radar. In Spain, France, Italy it’s the same.  Even in an established bike culture like Japan in general and Tokyo in particular, there are hardly any helmets among everyday cyclists, as you can see right here.

All the people involved thus far in this discussion are homo sapiens who have developed the ability to judge personal risk for themselves. At that level, we’re all equal.

So why is it so different in North America? The question of lack of helmets has little to do with infrastructure. It is a cultural and, most importantly, economic issue. There are 100 million daily cyclists in the EU according to the European Cyclists Federation. Easily half don’t have dedicated infrastructure and yet they don’t wear helmets.

The reason is quite simple. All the main helmet manufacturers are American. When they started suddenly promoting helmets in the late 1980’s, they targeted their local market and aimed helmets at those who cycled there; namely sports enthusiasts and hobby cyclists. The helmet was yet another piece of ‘necessary gear’ to be sold. The manufacturers capitalized on their branding of cycling as a fast-paced, sweaty sport.

As resident San Francisco bare-header Andy Thornley noted (and he made clear this is not the position of his employer, the SFBC, which doesn’t have a position), this matter "has the tendency to get distracted into a discussion that has become religious. It’s a matter of faith, because there are so many nuances to it. Ultimately there isn’t a single clear set of facts that say you should or you shouldn’t."

Thornley added that helmets are not tested for many types of impact, but are effective only if you land directly on the top of your head at a particular speed. He added that most helmet arguments make the assumption that you’ve been hit, when most of one’s energy should be spent on preventing instances where the very specific protection they provide is necessary.

"Helmet wearing is about your fourth layer of defense; first, make every practice to not get hit by a car. Riding predictably, riding respectfully, being visible, wearing clothes that are visible. The helmet ends up being effective only if you get hit by a car."

Thornley also gave us this very interesting thought exercise about perceived dangers on a couple pages on a website he maintains precisely for these questions (good resources for studies and links):

Here’s a little exercise for pedestrian advocates: Do you think a
mandatory helmet law for pedestrians would be a good thing? All the
data I’ve seen for urban trips indicates that a pedestrian is more
likely than a bicyclist to incur a traumatic head injury. Even if it
would only help in a minor percentage of collisions, why wouldn’t you
walk around with a helmet strapped to your head, if it could help you
in that case?

I’m guessing you wouldn’t support this because it would make
everyday walking look more dangerous than it actually is, and would
codify a concession of massive public policy failure, and generally
relocate the responsibility for traffic danger and crash survival on
the most vulnerable party. You’d probably also object to such a law
because it made one single measure of personal armor the focus of all
personal safety practice, and distract from more effective measures
such as looking both ways and waiting till the signal light was green
before crossing the street.

So full disclosure: I wear a helmet almost every time I ride, though I used to go sans for the first few years I lived in New York City. One day a friend of mine found out I rode without a helmet and guilt-tripped me into wearing one more often. Two weeks later I got hit by a double-lane right hook in the middle of Times Square and flew over the hood of the car, landing on my back and smacking my head on impact. I cringe to think what would have happened if I weren’t wearing the helmet.

So I do like Thornley suggested, I ride with a helmet when it makes me feel safe, which is almost every time I get on my bike. Of course, if every day were like Mission Sunday Streets, I would ride now like I (and most everyone) rode then, with the wind gently blowing through my hair.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Disagree that helmets are mainly good because you might get hit by a car. The times I most appreciate my helmet are during white-knuckle mountain descents at the highest possible speed. If I’m just going around town, I often leave the helmet.

  • Anticipating the many comments that will likely come from this post, let me restate my own personal position:

    If wearing a helmet will help you feel comfortable bicycling in the city, please wear one (properly fitted); if wearing a helmet discourages you from bicycling in the city, then don’t feel obliged (but for everyone’s sake ride predictably and visibly and follow the rules of the road).

    And ask that you please read my two standard essays on bicycling and helmets:



    before you throw any pies my way . . .

  • As Andy’s colleague, I do wear a helmet– when I recently had a spill on a dark, wet road while turning left, I lost traction on a puddle of oil, had I not had my helmet on, my glasses would have shattered and my entire face would have been bloodied. But, because the helmet sticks out about an inch, I only scraped my lower chin. So, it’s not all major head trauma that helmets protect. And again, it’s about mostly about not falling or being hit by motorists- but that extra inch bubble around my head literally saved my face…

  • If you don’t want to wear a helmet just say I don’t care. Why make all this silly rationalization like it is a consipracy push by American helmet manufacturers? The fact that it can protect you in certain accident is obvious. If you don’t care for this protection fine. There are plenty of people do care about themselves. I not only wear helmet, my bike also have blinkies, I wear a reflective band and I stick a little reflectives dot on my helmet and every logical place. Everything little thing helps. if you don’t care there are other people who do.

    Eurpoean don’t wear helmet? Not in Tour de France. Everyone competitor wear one. Now we are not in a bicycle race. But this also pxplain why it isn’t as popular in Europe or Japan as in US. We are riding much faster than them. I don’t know much about daily cycling in Europe. But in China I have riden with hundreds of cyclists on the street. No one wear a helmet. On there other hand they are going at a really really slow pace. In a crowd of hundreds you just can’t go any faster. American cyclists are all like Lance Armstrong to them. Even slowest one ride at double or triple their speed. So if you are riding a clunky one speed bike at a really leisurely pace like your friends in Europe or Asia, I’d say maybe helmet is not such a big deal. Most people I’ve seen on the road are far more athletic than this. If you ride like Lance Armstrong, wear a helmet like Lance Armstrong.

  • bikerider

    Lance Armstrong averages around 30mph UPHILL in the Alps. I don’t know any bike commuter in the US riding at that level. In fact, typical commuter cycle speeds are no different than the typical bike route in Europe (I’ve ridden both places extensively).

    Sadly, no, helmets don’t provide protection in “certain” accidents. Countries with the highest cycle injury/fatality rates also have greatest amount of helmet use. And in countries where mandatory helmet laws have been in place have shown absolutely no measurable improvement in cycle safety. This is why ECF (and every major European planning group) is against any kind of helmet promotions. “Lose the lycra, lose the helmets” is the first advice Dutch cycle planners give.

    Thus, Copenhagenize blog makes a very interesting and valid points:
    1. Helmets brand cycling as a “sport”, not regular transportation
    2. The perception that one needs lycra, helmets, blinkies, etc. relegates cycling as niche
    3. “Safety in numbers” is the best way to develop safe biking in a city. It is hard to develop those kind of numbers of cycling is a niche enjoyed only by lycra wearing, helmet wearing weirdos.

  • A driver has about a one in seventy chance of dying, not injury, but death, in a car crash over his or her lifetime. If lotteries had those sorts of odds I would buy tickets. Wearing a helmet probably would significantly lower his or her risk. Yet it’s considered wacky to even bring this idea up.

    That said, helmets do work when you fall on your head. Last month I had a crash with a raccoon (scouts honor) while on a bicycle tour. I went down, landing on my head and shoulder hard. My shoulder still hurts, head is totally fine.

    So I’m going to start wearing a helmet every time I ride in a car. Kind of a reverse spin thing.

  • Here’s a little more context from the League of American Bicyclists…

    So we’re meeting with Mathew Modine for the first time. We’ve done our homework and checked out Bicycle for a Day materials, we’ve watched Full Metal Jacket one more time, and in the course of our conversation happen to mention that if we posted the BFAD promotional video on our website we’d catch all kinds of grief from some of our members who would only see that he wasn’t wearing a helmet. The moment passed.

    We had a good meeting, discussed loads of ways in which we could help support and promote BFAD, and we’ve stayed in touch. We had a booth at the recent BFAD event in New York City; we promoted the event to our members in the NYC area; one of our staff is in the video that was shot during the event; and we’re looking forward to promoting BFAD in September and beyond. So, to clarify, we are supporting Bicycle for a Day, without any reference to helmets.

  • Jonathan

    One of my favorite cycling interactions:

    I’m arriving in San Mateo at the end of my commute home one evening – sans helmet, which actually isn’t the norm for me, but I’m riding safely, and my route is pretty calm.

    Another cyclist approaching me blows through a stop sign. As he gets closer to me, he shouts out, “You should wear a helmet!”

    I yell back, “You should stop at stop signs!” and head home grinning at the ridiculousness of the situation.

  • rzu

    I wear a helmet when I ride my bike except for about once every month or so, when I’m making a short trip and the weather is nice.

    Helmets are sometimes effective at preventing harm that comes from a crash, so I choose to wear one. But I know that I get much more protection from living in a city where many folks bike as their primary mode of transportation, and drivers are aware and looking out for cyclists. I feel more protected by other cyclists than I do by the inch of foam around my head. And if you start wagging your finger at every cyclist that goes by and isn’t wearing a dorky-looking helmet, I bet you’d see a lot less bikers. And I’d be a lot less safe.

  • David Sawyer

    One early morning almost home from work I turned into a parking lot, my bike tipped forward as if on a hinge, and I went over the bars. My chin struck the pavement and hurt. My helmet-protected forehead did not and was fine.

  • marcos

    Adults need to take personal responsibility for whatever choices they make, helmet or not.

    I see cycling with traffic in the urban core alongside autos, trucks and transit on streets that are neither well maintained nor engineered for cyclists as inherently dangerous.

    Not only do I wear a helmet, but a jacket and gloves because when you go down it makes sense to have things between the pavement and your skin. But on a hot afternoon in 2005, I was biking south on the 8th Street bicycle lane wearing a tank top, shorts and no gloves, and hit a rough ill-maintained patch at speed south of Mission. I flew into the air, came down at a bad angle and splayed across the pavement, taking a quarter sized slice out of the heel of my hand and a silver dollar sized chunk out of my shoulder. Perhaps a cat that jumps onto a hot stove won’t ever jump onto a cold one either.

    The worst part is that when I feel the bicycling wind between my ears and my bald head, I feel unsafe.

    Between my own error, malicious motorists and unsafe conditions, this bicycling for my health is killing me, and I’m taking steps to mitigate the danger as much as possible.


  • bikerider,

    Lance Armstrong may averages 30mph on a flat. No way can he do 30mph UPHILL in the Alps. Besides even if few of us can catch up with him in a long ride, but can you do 30mph in some part of the trip? I know I can when I run down the hill from my home. I bet most cyclists can go 15 to 20mph for a good portion of their ride. At that speed you can already get nasty injury in a fall.

    Again it is your choice whether you want helmet or not. But it really irritates me to hear this silly rationalization to persuade people that helmet is undesirable. Helmets brand cycling as a “sport”, not regular transportation??? Who’s idea is this? Even my kid wear a helmet and there is not much sport at all. Or all this non-sense about helmet making people perceive cycling as dangerous? I never hear any non-cyclists claim helmet is the main reason they don’t ride a bicycle. Their main concern is fear of getting ran over by a car and that their trip will be beyond their physical ability. These are all fair concern and should be addressed. If anything the helmet will only give them a little more confidence. I have never heard anyone cite helmet as the reason that stop them from cycling.

    Blinkies relegates cycling as niche? It is a godsend 21th century technology! It is a simple device greatly improve your visibility during a night ride. If I have to choose between helmet and blinkies at night I would rather choose the blinkies.

    I really don’t care much about what you do. But I find all this arguments are a great disservice to promote safe cycling to general public.

  • Helmets are great protection against irate drivers who charge after you waving their fists. Just do a little bow, and that fist will hit hard plastic and not your face. Ouch. Not that we should provoke them into this, but it happens. Wearing or carrying a helmet off the bike also tells the world that a cyclist is shopping, banking, picking up laundry, etc, just like regular people.

  • RachaelL

    We should all start wearing helmets while walking. If we fall down we might hit are heads. And if a car hits us at 30mph we might want that small amount of damage reduction a helmet might provide. Pedestrians are, after all, far more likely to be hit and hurt than bicyclists.

    More seriously, Fran does have a point that having the helmet dangling somewhere while doing errands also makes it obvious that the trip is being done by bicycle, but of course I think my bags that have clips on them would make that obvious too…

  • Lee

    Wearing a helmet is a personal choice, the only thing I ask is if you choose not to wear one. please do society a favor and carry an organ donor card.

    As for Europeans not wearing helmets you are correct, but in Europe the bicycle gets a whole lot more respect by drivers. I have been riding in the car in Germany and would see drivers who would slow from 150K (90 mph)plus to a crawl to safely pass a cyclist then speed up again without getting angry or upset at the fact they had to slow down. Unlike in this country, cycling is an accepted mode of transportation in Europe. Because of the differences in the mentality of drivers comparing helmet and accident rates between this country and Europe is absurd.

  • Perhaps someone will suggest that San Franciscans be required to wear helmets at all times, to protect against falling masonry during earthquakes.

  • thegreasybear

    Or perhaps, Tom, someone will provide us with a study proving cycling IN SAN FRANCISCO is no safer with a helmet than without. Because until then, I’m not buying that implication.

    Some 97% of all cycling in America is recreational–trails, paths, suburbia. Studies on cycling safety “in America” will reflect that leisurely, spacious suburban/exurban reality. That is not, however, the world inhabited by San Francisco’s bike commuters; those studies are not germaine.

    Here, our roads are a moonscape of ruts, rails, potholes, debris, boarding islands and grates. We compete actively with trains, buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, pedestrians and other cyclists for the scant space alotted us. Private motorists and taxi drivers are often antagonistic and menacing. With so many factors at play simultaneously in such a poorly-maintained roadway, cyclists fall down. My helmet has protected my head when I’ve gone down on slippery trolley tracks on Market Street, and also when I went down on Howard Street, cut off by a truck and left with no alternative but to hit something head on.

    If anyone here wants to claim cycling in San Francisco is as safe without a helmet as with, then let him/her prove it. Until and unless that proof arrives, I’ll continue to wear my helmet and wonder at the smug, baseless mockery.

  • nate

    Interesting discussion.

    Having lived in both Tokyo and San Francisco for many years, there’s definitely a difference. Bicycles in Japan are a normal part of everyone’s daily life. Most riding occurs on local streets that are very narrow, have very lengthy straightaways, and have pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, and cars all sharing the same undivided space. Also, the open rain gutters (that are very deep) are a big incentive for drivers to keep it slow. Cops are everywhere, too, in their koban (neighborhood stations).

    When I lived in San Francisco, I used to usually bike without a helmet, but then again, I mostly just commuted occasionally from North Beach to just south of Market close to Powell Station. I think I would wear it for rides out to the Marin Headlands or things like that – any time there’d be bigger, faster roads to travel, or when I’d be actually mountain biking.

    I got hit by a car once, at Columbus and Kearney, by someone driving pretty fast who went straight from the left turn lane furthest to the right. As I leaned left onto Columbus, the car slammed me instead straight north on Kearney.

    What saved me was the martial arts training I had in rolling. Helmet or no, if I hadn’t rolled and gotten up immediately, I probably would have been squashed. The cyclist deaths last year, in the town I live now, were all of people who were wearing helmets.

    So I don’t know. It seems to me that the most important thing is to just be present and do all the proper preventative things we all know how to do in city traffic. Maybe if we had a more chill road infrastructure and the bike were a part of most adult’s daily life as a tool, then we probably wouldn’t think about wearing them. I certainly never saw anyone in Japan who wore one, except for me – but I was riding an American mountain bike and not a Peewee Herman special like most people ride over there.

  • nate

    edit: “… very FEW lengthy straightaways…”

  • neal patel

    this morning, I had my first ever near miss as a pedestrian getting smacked by a cyclist while crossing an intersection. we were both breaking the law – him going the wrong way on a one-way street against the light, me going against the “don’t walk” signal seeing no oncoming car traffic. if we had actually collided we both would have possibly been better off wearing helmets, but the most the most important preventer would have been if both of us were obeying the law. We were both helmet-less and i was definitely a renegade pedestrian.

  • Wearing a helmet is a personal choice and doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal. I personally prefer not to wear one in the City. It is true that it could save your life and noggin. The most grief I have heard re: helmets was from medical professionals because they see what not wearing one can do. I think a more important debate would be how to actually make the streets safer, meaning all the streets and not just the 1997/2009 Bike Network.

    To do that you need to understand why the streets are dangerous and systematically work to undo the danger. Doing that involves speaking about the streets in a far more substantive way than having rallys, doing press releases and studying studies. Until advocates do this in an organized way there will be incremental progress retarded by bureacratic disasters and misunderstandings because you are not undoing the structure that is keeping you down.

    This is seen in the Bike Plan law-suit and the worst thing about that is nothing was really resolved, it was just unecessarily studied. And now that an entire new full bike plan cycle has passed (every five years) the question remains will the next bike plan be considered within the same skewed and discriminatory lens. And what about all those other streets?

    The reason all this has happened is of bike advocates failing to speak, failing to address the issues failing to use the available vocabularies to make change. And it will continue…

    A good example even with the injunction is Fell/Masonic. For years neighbors complained about this intersection. It wasn’t until the City was presented with arguments for exempting from CEQA review/the injunction by various public committees that anything happened. The committees were successful in encouraging the City Attorney to move for change there because they had the vocabulary to speak. The City attorney moved in a different way seeking to modify the injunction, but they moved because of speech, substantive speech that goes beyond just complaining and pining away for the promised land where things will all get better.

    Even with the Bike Plan lord willing, hopefuly, finally coming together. This is still a huge issue probably the biggest challenge facing bike advocates now. Because the coming bike plan is just what was planned in 1997. What made it into such a disaster is the failure to really speak about the streets. And such disasters will continue until advocates move beyond planning and press releases and use the available vocabularies to make real change. Right now the situation is such that in some places people are systematically killed and injured because the mode they use is discriminated against, forgotten, ignored. changing that takes more than 56 bike lanes and more than another press release.

  • “This is seen in the Bike Plan law-suit and the worst thing about that is nothing was really resolved, it was just unecessarily studied.”

    Not true. In fact the EIR on the Bicycle Plan confirms what we said four years ago: a number of the projects in the Plan will have “significant unavoidable impacts” on traffic, Muni, and loading.

  • For every anecdote about how “a helmet saved my life”, there’s one of these:


    Ride your bike as if you weren’t wearing a helmet and you’ll live a lot longer, even if you are wearing a helmet. And we’ll bring out more and more “normal” people, and the streets will be filled with people riding bikes as if it was a totally routine, civilized thing to do, and of course it will be.

  • The streets already are filled with people riding as if normal routine, everyday thing. But the design of the streets still grinds away waiting for new victims.

    The SFBC Bike Plan disaster has kept this situation in place and even sanctioned it. Because you not only failed to substantively speak about the streets you actively worked against other citizens who were trying to do such work. Then when the law-suit came down you failed to speak in order to do anything about it and again worked against other people who were trying to speak. The streets are speech. Literally the streets are a form of speech. By removing the vocabulary of other ways of speaking and arguing against yourselves you have taken away everything you supposedly want.

    Everything you took out of the Bike Plan is the key to everything you want. Its like you took the rational out in this blind pursuit of bike lanes. You empowered the system of thought arrayed against you. The traffic engineers aren’t stopping progress in this City, big bad ole CEQA is not stopping progress. The Bike Coalition is what has kept bicyclists down and created a situation where people wait in rapt anticipation for the possible realization of a 12 year old bike network. The Bike Coalition, its failure to speak and its unfortunate tendency of working against others who were trying to speak.

    You mimic the problem and thus perpetuate the problem. Traffic engineers are not democratic, they are faux experts developed to take time and space away from the people, just like the Bike Coalition is not democratic and is instead a mindless public relations machine that monoplizes the political capital of the bicycle.

    Suppressing reality is what traffic engineers do and it is what they are designed to do to justify the killer designs with mathematical jibber jabber. When the SFBC suppressed reality by taking actual happenings and actual speech out of the
    Bike Plan they did the same thing. And in doing so you made your enemies that much more powerful. Your fear of CEQA of saying what is really happening in places like double turn lanes, strengthened those problems. No helmet is going to help in some of the most dangerous situations in the City, places that aren’t on your bike network. And analyzing those places, speaking about them is the key to undoing them.

    56 projects, originally planned in 1997, this is the work of likely the greatest bike coaliton in the country, not because of big ole bad ceqa or rob, or not because you are bad people, but because you are failing to speak, preventing others from speaking and arguing against yourselves often without even realizing it.

  • I’m sorry, GGGGG, who exactly is “you” in your diatribe? The average reader of Streetsblog? The publishers of Streetsblog? I find your arguments difficult to follow.

  • thegreasybear

    Again: can anyone in this discussion provide facts showing riding with a helmet is no safer than riding without a helmet in the rough urban context of San Francisco?

    The vast majority of my fellow rush-hour bike commuters into and out of the FiDi wear helmets. I’m fine with dismissing the safety concerns and mere ‘ancedotes’ of SF cyclists as long as there are compelling, fact-based arguments that neturalize the physical safety issue behind helmet wearing. Just implying they aren’t necessary is insufficient. Just treating the issue as one of “sending signals” is insufficient.

    Helmets aren’t merely a signal to those who wear them–they are a necessary evil. They’re unfashionable, they mess up our hair, they get too hot, they are a pain to store. I think we all share the dream of a San Francisco in which the majority of riders feel safe without helmets. But right now, on the ground, the preponderance of helmets downtown amounts to a collective judgment by thousands of individual cyclists on the safety of this city’s actual cycling conditions.

    Are we wrong about all that? Show us, with facts. Don’t just mock us and state your belief that more exposed heads on Market Street will somehow magically improve hazardous street conditions, dangerous road design, treacherous competition for space. Show us we don’t gain any safety by wearing helmets, and I’m sure we’ll dump them. Again, people don’t wear them because they’re fun or cool.

  • you is the bike coalition that privatized the bike plan and created the bike plan lawsuit. the argument is simple if you want safe streets you have to work through the issues preventing the streets from being safe. this is more than just begging for bike lanes, its talking about what is really happening and why and doing the work to make a new reality. the key things the bike coalition took out of the bike plan by privatizing it and bullying other advocates were how to resolve traffic engineering conflicts within CEQA (which actually created the lawsuit) and how to address dangerous traffic designs, which is key to undoing traffic engineering because generally speaking it is not a good idea to systematically kill and injure people because they are riding bikes or walking (helmet or no).

    it is the fear of actually speaking about these issues that kept them in power…

    when the bike coalition did that they were acting exactly like traffic engineers in that they were ignoring reality, behaving undemocratically…acting against what the people wanted and overlooking what was really happening.

    the best example of this is in 2001 a woman was killed in very dangerous double turn lanes…the sfbc had a press conference and then forgot about her…

    then they directly opposed the city bike committee’s request to have such situations be addressed in the bike plan. why because they don’t speak and work against the speech of others…the sad thing is that working through extremely dangerous designs is key to undoing them, just like working through CEQA problems is key to not having the bike plan turn into a multi-million dollar disaster.

    this is how the sfbc has kept the streets dangerous by failing to speak, working against others who were trying to speak..etc.

    sorry about the diatribe but it can get a little frustrating. streetsblog is possibly the only hope in that they are allowing speech but in a way its too late. the damage is done. some seven years and numerous opportunities have passed to solve some of the bigger problems or move forward all the while the bike corporation has been doing the same thing over and over again and they are not going to change.

    so enjoy the 56 projects and the at times crazy situations you may ride through but at least know why…

    and remember that people have died on these streets for nothing to not even be mentioned in the city bike plan…

    …and wear your helmet if you want to.

  • RachaelL

    GGGGG – can you be a bit more clear? You rail against the SFBC’s failure to communicate and it squashing things that would help, but even your specific example is missing detail. Why would the SFBC oppose a change to an intersection where a fatality occurred? They wouldn’t just do it for no reason. Is it possible the solution offered was judged to not be workable or likely not to improve the situation? If that were the case, not squandering their lobbying power on fighting for it (when there are, as you say, many other bad places) seems reasonable. What exactly has the SFBC been doing that is so anti-democratic? I grant that you have to actually, you know, show up at their meetings and at various city meetings to have input but that would be true whether you are a member of the SFBC or not. How exactly are the SFBC such a huge blocker, in your opinion? How do they “work against” the speech of others?

  • In 2002, the SFBC privatized the City Bike Plan by working to dissolve the public bike committee. The committee had just passed a letter requesting that an inspection system be developed to find and recognize dangerous situations like the one mentioned. This a pretty good example of how they work against speech and are are undemocratic. There is no excuse for a private org to work against other citizens like that, and working to dissolve a committee is just about off the scale.

    When the bike plan was started there was no public oversight. Numerous other areas of study were removed to create the all bike network bike plan. These were referred to as “outside the scope of work”. Among these was resolving CEQA conflicts with new bike infrastructure. The SFBC even went so far as to convince the Planning Dept. not to do environmental review of the Bike Plan. This is what caused the law-suit. It is in the court papers if you care to review them.

    After causing the lawsuit and privatizing the plan the SFBC completely failed to help the City get out of the mess. The judge just ordered “adequate environmental review” not so hard. But in numerous private meetings the SFBC failed to help the City to see things in a different way. They failed to speak and continued in privatizing speech. If you happened to be a citizen who specialized in such work doing anything was virtually impossible, because all decisions were being made behind closed doors and the SFBC which is seen as representing the City’s bicyclists was saying we want bike lanes not helping the City to give them what they want.

    In addition, they failed to seek legal counsel or to do anything really, restricting their response to railing on the judge and the plaintiffs in the suit that they actually caused. This was an opportunity missed because of instead of speaking they were just crying.

    And now, hopefully their bike network will be realized, but the sad thing is that privatizing speech and failing to speak has sanctioned a discriminatory view of things
    and set the City back decades. Maybe the 1997/2009 Bike network will be realized but if so it is realized at the cost of endorsing the way things had been done. All of this was caused by taking away the place to speak (the bike plan) and failing to speak (except for whining and attacking Rob Anderson)

    Internally the Bike Corporation is completely undemocratic. Their Board does not make decisions or debate issues, but basically rubber stamps anything the staff tells them. The same way that they abused the plaintiffs and the judge they abuse their own allies. The most notable examples of this are SFBC staff who have actually been fired for advocating for more democratic operations.

    This parallels traffic engineering because it is the same thing all staff action with no legislative process. And this is how they have worked against their own goals without even realizing it — following the same all public relations/advocacy speech model while letting the details become disasters and actually working against other citizens who were trying to do something about them.

    Going to their meetings is just going to get some stickers and line up to give public comment. Giving public comment is just saying what people have said for years the streets are for people and the people want safe streets.

    To make the streets safer you have to speak most notably speak to undo fifty years of making the streets really dangerous. The place to do that is in the City Bike Plan. That place was taken away from the people and now we have the SFBC’s Bike Plan disaster.

    The Bike Network was planned in 1997. For twelve years what kept the City from realizing the Bike network was not traffic engineers or the lawsuit, etc. it was the SFBC in their completely unethical restriction of the speech of others and their failure to actually speak themselves.

    Everything else the org does, everything within its model of advocacy is great, the best in the country. But failing to see outside of backroom meetings, letter writing public comment and all of that has caused huge problems and will continue to do so.

    There is nothing that can be done to change this and they are completely oblivious, even to black and white evidence like the email from the SFBC Executive Director urging the Planning Department to not do environmental review of the Bike Plan. And if you are a member i would strongly urge against trying to make any change because as i said they have fired their own staff for doing such things. Just pass out flyers and go to the meetings to give public comment, enjoy the new bike network and wonder why more things don’t change.

    Just keep quiet…don’t speak

    …and where a helmet if you want to

  • RachaelL

    GGGGG- um, there is still a bicycle advisory committee — http://www.sfgov.org/site/bac_index.asp?id=11523

    As far as I can tell, anyone can show up to a meeting (which are announced) with full meeting agendas / minutes. So can’t you show up to that and get your word in? Or are you saying the SFBC’s “privatized” staff will somehow shut you out? I find this very hard to believe.

  • ggggg

    CEQA issues were actually first identified in the 1997 Bike Plan

    It is interesting to note that the BAC chair at that time (2002) accepted a paid position working on CEQA issues right after she worked to take these issues out of the Public Bike Plan — an action against the democratic will of the committee that had decided CEQA issues should be addressed in the plan. She also accepted this paid CEQA study position right after she worked to dissolve the entire BAC.

    This was also right after the committee had passed a request under a 7-4 vote requesting that a dangerous condition inspection system be developed in the Bike Plan. It was also immediately before the committee was scheduled to hear a vote to remove the Chairperson.

    This Chairperson was not dysfunctional or “holier than thou”, but she was repeatedly working against the established will of the committee. She did repeatedly and aggressively push the SFBC’s all bike network agenda.

    It is also interesting to note that the SFBC Executive Director was on the advisory committee of the same all private org/agency CEQA studies(The TA LOS studies). This is the same Executive Director that is in the Bike Plan law-suit urging the plannning Department to not do any CEQA review of the Bike Plan. These TA studies continue to this day and have not resolved the issue.

    (The LOS legislation, a huge step towards a solution where the Supervisors said automobile traffic engineering is innappropriate in SF was an almost entirely citizen led effort.)

    Anyway, this is how the SFBC privatized the Bike Plan. In spite of this action, numerous public commnents recieved in the bike plan called for CEQA issues to be resolved, etc. These people like the members of the BAC were ignored and “shut out”. Their thoughts about how to make the streets safer were “outside of the scope of work”.

    When the Bike plan was started there was no public advisory committee overseeing it. When the BAC was reconstituted the body really had, and has, no influence because it is supposed to develop the Bike Plan and the Bike Plan was taken away, privatized and turned into a massive disaster.

    The reason it is important to understand what happened is so it does not happen again.

    The response of the apparent SFBC representative is very illustrative of their tactics at large. If people disagree with the SFBC they attack. If a citizen’s committee disagrees with them they dissolve it.

    Since 2002, the SFBC has made no effort to realistically work with other advocates. They have ignored requests to enter into mediation to do anything different or in the least recognize the mistakes they made, like causing the law-suit.

    Even worse than their inability to work with other advocates is you never really know what they are going to do. The apparent SFBC representative told citizens that the SFBC would be supportive in interveing in the law-suit. When those citizens after months of work brought a reputable attorney and a strategy to move they were attacked.

    It’s also pretty sad the way they attacked the plaintiff and the judge in the case. Even sadder is the way they attack their own allies, even their own staff. Every article they spun about the law-suit was an attack piece that just completley ignored the issues in the case. And attacking the judge, I mean this is just juvenile.

    This is why the Bike Plan law-suit happened. It really doesn’t even having anything to do with CEQA. It’s really about one corporation working to privatize public speech and exclude the thoughts and feelings of other citizens.

    Let’s say you went to the Bike Plan meetings and spent your time to give public comment? Unless you said “bike network good want bike network” your public comment was ignored. Your thoughts and feelings about your streets were “outside the scope of work”.

    So go to the rallys, speak in indignance about the car culture, but remember its not some boogeyman who is your enemy, its not Rob Anderson its not Big Bad ole CEQA, its not even traffic engineers. It’s the Bike corporation. The cause of this disaster, the reason it went on for so long, the reson we wait for a 1997 Bike plan to maybe be completed….is the SFBC.

  • thegreasybear

    What does this agenda-addled crankery have to do with the merits of wearing (or not wearing) helmets?

  • If this doesn’t get back on topic, we will stop future comments for this post.

    Matthew Roth

  • marcos

    @thegreasybear, a helmet might be a necessary evil for you, but others might employ different values in making their call. The data are what they are, contradictory and inconclusive.

    Similarly, one might be happy with the SFBC’s advocacy, but others might prefer that we follow failure with critical analysis so that we might learn to prevent such errors in the future, instead of dismissing such analysis as “insider baseball.”

    Yes, it is a painful exercise, but delaying it, dismissing it or ruling it out of order in a thread will not solve the problem, and only kicks the can down the road, ensuring more pain until the wound is cleansed and healed.

    One might make the connection to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that having taken an ill-advised policy turn, the path to redemption is truth and reconciliation rather than denial or vindictiveness.


  • Barna Mink

    Certainly it is a personal choice, but I think these helmet discussions are rarely productive because they are so fatalistic and center around quite morbid arguments and situations.

    The debate is quite fatalistic. Mostly only death or grave injuries are mentioned and compared. Understandable, since statistics exist only for those. But what about lighter injuries? Are those not worth even thinking about? I think they are. I choose to wear cycling gloves and never to ride with exposed arms and legs not because it will save my life but because when I eat some pavement the next time (and despite being a slow and safe and paranoid rider, I *will* fall again), it will save my skin and I will have fewer bruises. I had painful scrapes on my hands and elsewhere a few too many times and realized that avoiding light injuries is a perfectly good reason to wear protective gear.

    I also don’t really buy statistics on either side. You can use statistics to prove just about anything. Also, as I mentioned, I would guess that most bicycle accidents and injuries go unreported. It does seem though that there are a lot of anecdotes out there that helmets saved (or would have saved) a rider from injury (in the biker’s opinion), and far fewer anecdotes where the helmet didn’t make a difference (in the biker’s opinion).

    The argument to not wear helmets just to make a point, ie. to make biking seem more normal and safe is a silly one in my opinion. In my workplace quite a few people ride every once in a while, and walking into the office with a helmet is about the same as having car keys in your hand. It’s perfectly normal.

    The argument that helmets provide false comfort cuts both ways. Every time you put on a helmet, it may give you a false sense of safety. Or it may provide a timely reminder that you are indeed fragile, and are about to enter a potentially dangerous situation.

    I fully concur with the three points in the first essay Andy Thornley linked in comment #2. That said, I consider my helmet and my gloves to be standard gear and never ride without them. The helmet not only provides more protection than no helmet, it also shields the sun, warms my head, and holds my rearview mirror.

  • Bert

    People who don’t wear helmets (and gloves too) have never crashed hard enough to say “wow I could have (or did) get really hurt, I’d like to prevent that”

  • dr2chase

    “I also don’t really buy statistics on either side. You can use statistics to prove just about anything.”

    Not really. It’s not that hard to spot crap statistics. So, for instance, statistics tell us that biking really is safer in Northern Europe, and it really is true. This study ( http://www.metroplanorlando.com/site/upload/documents/Bicyclist_Crash_Study_OrlandoArea.pdf , found with others here: http://www.metroplanorlando.com/site/downloads/default.asp ) was useful in determining that ride-single-file laws do not in fact enhance safety (at least, not very much — this was relevant here in Massachusetts, where it was against the law to ride two abreast until very recently ). And cycling drunk, that turns out to be a bad idea.

    “Also, as I mentioned, I would guess that most bicycle accidents and injuries go unreported.”

    Seeing as how my last bloody accident (first crash in at least ten years, just a slide in gravel but someone carelessly left a rock right where my gloved hand landed ) went unreported, I have to agree with this.

  • highroller

    Just as The Government wants its citizens to look upon bicyclists as a subculture, it also wants bicycling to look dangerous in an effort to curb usage of bicycles in favor pumping big oil and lining their own pockets promoting the American dream; owning a new car.



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