Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cycling Culture Differences

Sitting in the office cafeteria the other day with Sara-the-Intern, we had the following conversation:

"I don't like cycling."
"But why do you bike to work?"
"It's faster than walking, and cheaper than transit."

So there, there are many women in Germany who dislike cycling, and yet ride their bikes to work. Conversely, there are many women in Mountain View (an arguably better place for cycling year round) who won't even consider cycling to work.

When asked why, most women would say that it's just too dangerous, even if they lived close enough to work to do so. But Munich is just as dangerous --- the bike paths have intersection conflicts that will drive most American League Cycling Instructors wild.

The big difference is in perception --- very few utility/commuters in Munich wear helmets. Cycling to the average person, is no different than walking --- you wouldn't wear a helmet to walk, even if the statistics tells you otherwise. (In fact, if you believe the statistics, you should wear a helmet when driving your car --- head injuries are a common cause of serious disability in car accidents!)

The minute cycling perception shifts to: it's so dangerous to ride a bike that you must wear a helmet, then most women give up cycling. Not just because it's dangerous, but also because wearing a helmet will screw up your hair, which many women know is a no-no, even if they refuse to admit to that little bit of vanity. The resulting reduction in the number of women cycling (by darn near 100%, if you compare the number of women cyclists on the road in Munich versus women cyclists in Mountain View) does eventually make cycling more dangeous, because the easiest way to reduce cycling accidents is to make cycling more popular!

I've heard this opinion articulated before, but living in Munich has really driven it home to me --- it's not uncommon here to see a woman go out on a date on a bicycle --- complete with high heels, making up, and dresses, and of course no helmet. By making cycling seem dangerous, cycling safety advocates and helmet advocates have really made cycling more dangerous for everyone, even those of us who do wear helmets. The irony is rich, and I wish I knew what to do about it.
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