Armoring Up on the Streets of New York

We’re pleased to announce that Alex Marshall will now be contributing to Streetsblog. As a journalist and author Alex has written extensively on how transportation shapes our cities. He is a columnist at Governing Magazine and a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association where he edits the bi-weekly Spotlight on the Region newsletter. Here is his first piece for Streetsblog:

The line between the fiberglass helmet teetering on my two year old son’s head and the death and dying in Iraq is admittedly long, but somehow direct, I feel.

"America is a fearful country," said a friend of mine recently, a friend who is originally from Holland.

It’s that fear that is the connection. Gary Kamiya, in an essay in Salon last week, wrote about how President George Bush "tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity" with his decision to invade Iraq, and a strain he says we have difficulty acknowledging.

It’s that same strain of fearfulness, I suspect, a strain that sees enemies everywhere, that propels us to put bicycle helmets on two years old. In its own way, a bicycle helmet on a two year old is the cycling equivalent of a Humvee. It taps into our desire to "armor up," to make our defenses higher, greater and stronger, rather than focus on something less physical as a means to make us secure, as well as to acknowledge that total security is impossible.

Okay, I know what people are thinking. I’ve been out too long in these recent days of 90 degree heat. And there may be some truth to that. I felt my temperature rising repeatedly this last weekend as I strapped my son into his new cycling seat with his new helmet. It was a great day in many ways. I got to cycle through the streets of Brooklyn, my young son behind me, for the very first time.

But I felt guilty rather than glad as I made my son wear this clanky heavy helmet in the hot sun. The heavy helmet was thick and heavy enough to both practically drag his head over and to make him profusely perspire. It may have made him safer, but it certainly diminished his enjoyment.

Not that I pointed that out to him. I made wearing the helmet a big game, and let him pick out the color and so on. He only complained a little about it. As for me, I rode without one, as usual.

I’m aware that bicycling in New York City is dangerous. I never forgot while cycling this weekend with my son how vulnerable he was. We are not in Amsterdam, where the cars reflexively watch out for pedestrians, and where not incidentally, virtually no one wears bicycle helmets.

But I’m convinced that the answer to the danger of cycling is not more and more emphasis on wearing helmets. Those who have read my work know I can sound like a crusader in these views. Over-emphasizing helmets, including the laws like New York state’s requiring children to wear them, make cycling less popular which ultimately makes cycling less safe by reducing "the safety in numbers" phenomena that happens when many people cycle. It also sends the wrong societal message that safety is primarily the responsibility of the cyclist, rather than that of everyone on the road, including drivers.

But as I think Dennis Miller used to say, Hey, I could be wrong. A lot of my friends take deep pride in teaching their children from their earliest days that wearing a bicycle helmet is part of bicycling, period. It’s part of learning to be safe in life, and not being reckless. I can see why many people feel that way. I always fasten my seatbelt when I drive, just about.

But we’ve taken this kind of logic too far. It’s a tricky argument, because I’m not arguing against wearing helmets, I’m arguing we have over emphasized their use. To truly make cycling safer, and with it walking as well, we need to have more cyclists mingling with traffic, even with children on board, and to have everyone watching out for each other.

Photo: zimpenfish/Flickr