This is your brain on a bike

Screen capture from the lovely short video, Cycling Utrecht, by Morton Koldby.

Screen capture from the short film, Cycling Utrecht, by Morton Koldby.

True confession: I ride my bike in Utrecht every day and I have never worn my helmet.

Some might read this and think that I might as well also cultivate a heroin addiction or take up base diving.

The truth is that I am greatly influenced by my surroundings and no one here wears a helmet except for three fractionally marginal groups: (1) road cyclists, you know, the ones wearing spandex that fly by at 40 kilometers per hour; (2) some pre-school aged cyclists; and (3) some foreigners.

During my cross-town bike commute this morning, I passed hundreds and hundreds of other cyclists. I counted one person wearing a bike helmet: my daughter, who just started riding her own bike for the 5 kilometer trip to school.

But in addition to being easily influenced by others, there are three important reasons that I remain ambivalent about helmet-wearing in the Netherlands:

1. My slow speed: I cycle my cargo bike at the stately pace of 15 kilometers per hour.

2. Astonishingly well-planned cycling infrastructure: Most of my routes are on cycle paths that completely divide me from regular road traffic and all significant intersections have designated traffic light signals for cyclists.

3. A culture of bike awareness: Because everyone cycles, drivers are also cyclists when not in their cars. As a result, they are exceedingly careful to look for and yield to cyclists.

In short, the entire transportation culture is completely different from that of America. America, where it is common for drivers to aggressively interact with cyclists who dare to use the roads. As but one example: guys in a truck once purposefully swerved just in front of my road cycling husband and then called him and his cycling buddy a “bunch of fags.” (Side note: Stay classy Carnation, Washington!)

The argument could still be made that I am being foolish and should adopt the same “better safe than sorry” approach for myself as I’ve already done for my daughter. And yet it is still very likely that I will get up again tomorrow and ride across Utrecht without a helmet, letting the wind dry my hair into a unique Dutch wind-blown look.

In America, however, if I dare to ride at all, I will wear my helmet.

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8 responses to “This is your brain on a bike

  1. I’m in Italy for a few months, and in Florence where the road traffic is insanely busy, bike riders don’t wear helmets. I’ve never seen a mishap, everyone seems alert. (Except for us tourists, maybe.)

    • Yeah, city planning makes a huge difference. (Though in Cambridge I did wear a helmet. I’m not sure that makes much sense at all given all my justifications above!)

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