Opinion by ALLISON HORE
It’s infrastructure, not helmets, that Sydney needs to be talking about to get people on their bikes. And with active transport highlighted as one of the keys to the city’s economic recovery, boosting our embarrassingly low cycling rates is more important than ever.
According to the National Cycling Participation Survey, Sydney has among the lowest cycling rates of any capital city in Australia. Only around 30% of Sydney-siders used a bike in 2019 compared to 35% in Melbourne and 45% in Canberra.
The great helmet debate
So why aren’t Sydney-siders jumping on their bikes? One of the factors that often dominates the discussion is bicycle helmets. One camp says that helmets discourage cycling while the other says bicycle helmets are crucial for the safety of riders.
But how much evidence is there that helmets discourage cycling? In 2010 researchers from the University of Sydney surveyed 600 Sydney residents over the age of 16 about their cycling habits and asked whether they would be more likely to cycle if they didn’t have to wear a helmet. One in five of the respondents who occasionally ride a bike said they would be more likely to ride a bike if they didn’t have to wear a helmet.
In a city of 4.5 million people, this could represent a significant jump in the number of cyclists. But the survey only looked at people’s intent, and as everyone who bought a gym membership at the start of the year they haven’t used can attest to, intent doesn’t always mean action. The University of Sydney researchers concede to this, saying, “the relationship between intent to perform a behaviour and actual behaviour is not known”.
And what of the argument that helmets are necessary for public safety? By looking at rates of bicycle fatalities from 1971 to 2016, researchers from the UNSW Transport and Road Safety Research Centre concluded that the introduction of mandatory bicycle helmets in the early ‘90s led to a reduction in deaths. The decrease was a significant 46%. Pedestrian deaths also dropped in that time, but when the reduction in bicycle fatalities was compared alongside that there was a 36% drop.
This drop in the number of cycling related deaths is not negligible, and there is no doubt that bicycle helmets reduce the impact of head injury. Even still, according to a City of Sydney survey in 2017 only a little over half of cyclists felt safe riding their bike in the CBD, even with appropriate headgear.
A “dangerous fixation”
Obviously the issue of feeling safe on a bike is bigger than a protected head. And if people feel unsafe on their bikes, they’re unlikely to take to the road. The bicycle helmet debate seems to be looking for easy solutions to complex and expensive problems.
Researcher Gregg Culver from Heidelberg University in Germany described the helmet debate as a “dangerous fixation”. In his research, he found most media around cycling accidents in the US focussed on whether the rider was wearing a helmet. In fact, bicycle helmets are often seen as the “single most important” factor in improving cyclist safety.
This is dangerous, Mr. Culver says, because it “accepts that vehicular violence is inevitable” and acts as a quick fix to reduce harm rather than address the overlying issues.
Perhaps a more important factor in encouraging people to get on their bikes is better infrastructure. One only needs to look at some of Europe’s bicycle friendly cities to see how important this is in creating a safer, more encouraging cycling environment.
Cycling accounts for 25% of all city journeys in Malmö, Sweden and between 2003 and 2012 only 16 cyclists were killed in an accident involving a car. Helmets, for the record, are only mandatory for children under 15 in Sweden.
In their 2018 Cycling Strategy and Action Plan, infrastructure and culture are what the City of Sydney council sees as the keys to getting people on their bikes. Their four priorities for boosting cycling in the city are “connecting the network”, “supporting people to ride”, “supporting businesses” and “leadership and advocacy”.
Since the first cycling action plan was implemented in 2007, cycling has increased by 100%. The council spent a whopping $11 million per annum on improving infrastructure to achieve this.
A united two-wheeled front
In the end, both the helmet and no-helmet camps of cyclists have something in common- a passion for active transport and a desire to get more people into it and make it safer. But mandating helmets or not is a band aid solution.
The Sydney Chamber of Commerce points to increased active transport and public transport as key factors needed in boosting the Sydney CBD’s post pandemic economy. And with COVID-19 making people anxious about crowding on public transport, active transport will become even more important.
Now it’s more important than ever for some of the energy invested into the nebulous helmet debate to be redirected into lobbying local and state governments to build better and safer cycling networks.
After all, two heads are better than one even if only one is sporting head-gear.