You'll look sweet upon the seat

 

Bicycle safety campaigners here advocate helmets and high-visibility equipment but could a more Continental approach make cycling safer and get more people on their bikes? Cian Gintyreports

AS CLUNKY HELMETS, yellow reflective gear, and Lycra could be used as a stereotype for Irish cyclists, it might come as a surprise that women wearing high heels are a common sight on bicycles in Copenhagen.

The general image of cycling here is vastly different to so-called bicycle cultures where cycling is normalised and there is talk of a "slow bicycle movement".

"Among thousands and thousands of cyclists on my daily routes, I think I see one or two reflective vests a week, if that," says Mikael Colville-Andersen, a cycling advocate living in Copenhagen.

With Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany - where bicycle usage is high - the helmets and reflective clothing we think of as "a must" for cyclists are far from standard.

Colville-Andersen runs two bike advocacy blogs - the more serious www.Copenhagenize.com, and the style-centred Copenhagen Cycle Chic ( www.copenhagencyclechic.com). Not only is he a bicycle advocate, but he is a campaigner for what he calls "the slow bicycle movement".

"The main point with my blogs is that if cycling is to be an everyday activity then it can easily be done in everyday clothes, like millions of Europeans do every day. Actually, according to the European Cyclists' Federation, there are 100 million Europeans who ride each day," he says.

On Copenhagen Cycle Chic - largely a photographic documentation of the bicycle culture in Copenhagen - thousands of images show how normalised cycling is in the Danish capital. The photographs of cyclists in everyday clothing - and without helmets - reflect what has become standard behaviour for bike cultures: "This is the norm, yes. This is the norm for all cities and countries with established bike culture.

"If you can show people that cycling is effortless, doesn't require 'gear' and is healthy - and you build them infrastructure to encourage them, then they will ride. Just look at Paris . . . Massive growth in cycling thanks to Velib. And now bike sales are rising because the Velibistas are graduating to their own bikes," says Colville-Andersen.

"If [people] see normal people on normal bikes in normal clothes, they will be much closer to making the jump to cycling than if they see fancy bikes, gear and all that."

IN PARIS, CYCLING has boomed just a year after the introduction of Velib, an on-street bike rental scheme with 20,000 bicycles. Automated stations are on many Parisian street corners. Set-up and maintenance costs are paid for in a billboards-for-bikes deal with ad company JC Decaux. A similar system being introduced by Dublin City Council and the same company has been criticised for its low number, just 450 bikes.

It is hoped those 450 bikes will help add a critical mass to the number of cyclists in Dublin. The most recent annual traffic survey by Dublin City Council showed a 17 per cent increase in cycling in the past year - a trend largely put down to the removal of heavy goods vehicles from the city's roads since the opening of the Port Tunnel. But, because of a decline in the past decade, cycling is up only one per cent in 10 years.

"Cycling does not have a good image in Ireland, but maybe that is changing as more people come here from other European countries where cycling is more common," says Muireann O'Dea, membership secretary at the Dublin Cycling Campaign (DCC).

"We definitely need to focus on the positive aspects of cycling - it has enormous health benefits, it gives you freedom, it's the fastest and cheapest way to get around, and it's better for the environment. Cycling is not as dangerous as people think - the number of cycling fatalities is far less than it was 20 years ago."

There are many positives to focus on - from tackling obesity to helping the environment. In addition, providing cycling infrastructure costs less than other transport provisions, and bike parking takes up less space than car parking.

The DCC also wants a poster and TV campaign, with posters placed prominently on commuter routes highlighting that "It's better by bike".

BICYCLES HAVE A different image in different countries. Colville-Andersen says cycling was hijacked by the sports industry and he highlights how manufacturers sell bicycles worlds apart in the different European markets, pointing to raleighbikes.dk and raleigh.co.uk as a visual example of this.

"They sell 'gear'", he says of manufacturers here. "They have even brainwashed the population into worrying about the weight of their bikes. It's just silly. They've stripped away chain guards, skirt guards, kickstands, fenders, you name it. All standard features on new and old bikes in Denmark and the Netherlands . . . I have a regular reader from Dublin who laments the fact that she can't find any decent 'granny bikes' there, let alone baskets or chain guards."

Image, of course, is not the only problem. Infrastructure is advanced in European countries with high bike usage - in Copenhagen, the first kerb-separated bike lanes were installed 25 years ago this year, while bicycles are allowed on the metro and regional trains, and taxis must be able to carry two bikes.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, cyclists have to contend with lanes simply painted on to roads or footpaths, or being bunched into bus lanes - hardly inspiring to would-be cyclists who are wary of buses. Bike parking at train stations, if available, amounts to the only integration with city or regional public transport.

Here, bike-safety promotion seems to overshadow bike promotion. The Government promotes helmets for cyclists, but those on the opposite side say the use of protective head gear, outside racing and mountain biking, is disproportionate safety obsession pushed on cyclists. They argue that the safety campaign damages the image of cycling by making it appear more dangerous than it is.

"Bike helmets are a personal issue and generally government bodies shouldn't advocate helmet usage as it risks labelling cycling as a dangerous activity. The statistics do not reflect this. If you advocate bike helmets then you should, by following the logic, advocate pedestrian helmets since more pedestrians suffer head injuries than cyclists," says Colville-Andersen.

The view of the DCC - which is in the process of being merged into a national campaign group - is broadly the same. A DCC position paper on helmets highlights studies in Sheffield and Australia that show mandatory helmets for motorists would save more lives: "Hence any attempt to pigeonhole cyclists into compulsory protective headgear is unbalanced as a safety initiative."

MANDATORY HELMET-WEARING laws have been introduced in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and parts of the US. It has been proven, at least in Australia and New Zealand, that this led to a drop in the numbers of people cycling ; none of those countries is known for its high levels of cycling. The Government here continues to focus on safety.

"In the context of Ireland and the situation here, [helmets, and reflective vests] should be worn in the interests of road safety," says Christine Hegarty, a spokeswoman for the Road Safety Authority (RSA).

The agency rejects any claim that helmets and reflective vests damage the image of cycling by making it look more dangerous than it actually is: "Cyclists are vulnerable road-users. The task of the RSA is to promote cycle safety in order to prevent injury."

The British Medical Association agrees with the RSA's stance. However, Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, found "wearing a helmet puts cyclists at risk" as motorists drive closer to those wearing helmets. He used an ultrasonic distance sensor to record data that showed drivers passed an average of 3.33 inches closer when the cyclist wore a helmet than without. "Some people loathe my findings, usually because they are starting with the 'common sense' position that bicycle helmets must be a good thing," Walker says on his blog.

Meanwhile, research published by the British Medical Journal, in its Injury Prevention Journal, supports the idea of safety in numbers. It shows that successfully promoting cycling can itself increase safety because, when more people start cycling, other road-users get used to them and fewer accidents occur. "This result is unexpected," according to the research. "It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people walking and bicycling."

However, there are conflicting views in the medical field, as among the cycling fraternity. But, if there is an honest interest in promoting cycling as a green and healthy mode of transport, instead of following car-dominated countries, should we not look to the example set by countries where cycling is normalised?

Peddling cycling how it works

With half of children being driven to school, promoting cycling, walking and public transport use is the aim of the Green Schools environmental initiative. Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey recently said the pilot scheme resulted in a 10 per cent drop in car use, with an eight per cent increase in walking or cycling.

But is there political will for real improvement?

The Dublin Cycle Campaign (DCC), in a submission to the Department of Transport's national cycle policy last December, said: "Girls-only schools all have a uniform policy that requires the wearing of skirts and this is the main reason why girls do not cycle. So, policy change required straight away there. The Department of Education will have to deal with a change in uniform-wearing policy."

Muireann O'Dea, membership secretary at the DCC, echoes this: "Wearing helmets and hi-vis jackets is definitely a disincentive for children, particularly girls, who are image-conscious."

But others, including the Dublin Transportation Office (DTO) - who have run the travel section of the pilot Green Schools scheme - aren't so certain how image conscious girls are.

"The DTO would agree that a significant challenge in cycling promotion exists regarding post-primary children, but would not discriminate based on gender, and would not venture to suggest what the reasons for this might be without undertaking research," said spokeswoman Sara Morris. The agency points out how the initiative "is helping achieve growth in cycling numbers in participating schools".