28 February 2009

The Bicycle is Booming - Just Not in Denmark

True Style Over Speed
Forty years of working hard to create the World's Cycling Capital and, it seems, we're throwing it all away.

All over the world the bicycle is booming. Sales are up in the most unusual places after 'The Summer of the Bicycle', the oil crisis and the global economic meltdown in 2008. Even in Holland, where everyone owns a bike already, many companies are reporting increases in sales. Some of the larger companies are up 15%.

If we look at Denmark, the numbers for bicycle sales in 2007 are not reassuring. According to the industry organisation for bike retailers - Danske Cykelhandlere - the numbers are expected to be down 5%.

When I spoke with them the man tried to brush off the negative numbers by saying that Denmark has had a few years with high sales increases so a fall wasn't a problem. However, many other countries have experienced increases over the past few years, too, so there goes that theory. When pressed about bike helmets, he quoted word for word the same rhetoric as the Road Safety Council and the Danish Cyclists Federation. It was like hearing the same answering machine message again and again. They've prepared their spin well.

Denmark, like everywhere else, was affected in 2008 by a period with sky-high petrol prices and then the global financial crisis left its mark on the country as well. Car sales - both new and used - have plummeted.

It is prime time for people to ditch their car and hop onto their bikes or to invest in a new one, as we've seen all over the industrialised world. We have the bicycle infrastructure in place, so you wouldn't think it was an issue at all.

What has gone wrong in Denmark?

There is only one difference between Denmark and the rest of Europe in 2008. Intense bicycle helmet promotion campaigns have washed across the nation, initiated by the Danish Road Safety Council and the black sheep of the European cycling community, the Danish Cyclists Federation.

They have done so despite the fact that, at best, the scientfic jury remains out on bicycle helmets. Despite the fact that bike organisations all over Europe continue fighting against bike helmet promotion and legislation. Despite the warnings about how promoting bicycle helmets reduces the numbers of cyclists because of this uneccessary branding of cycling as dangerous. The latter has been heard loud and clear in numerous studies and papers and not least from the European Council of Ministers of Transports [ECMT] who stated in their 2004 report National Policies to Promote Cycling that:

"PROMISING, a research project commissioned by the European Union and coordinated by the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research (2001), suggests that from the point of view of restrictiveness, even the official promotion of helmets may have negative consequences for bicycle use, and that to prevent helmets having a negative effect on the use of bicycles, the best approach is to leave the promotion of helmet wear to manufacturers and shopkeepers.
[The ECMT is a council on which all the National Ministers of Transport in the EU sit.]

It is interesting, and frightening, to note that the bicycle helmet campaigns run by the Road Safety Council and the Danish Cyclists' Federation do not feature science as a firm foundation. It is a textbook example of rhetoric and propaganda used to manipulate an unsuspecting population that has no knowledge of, or experience with, bicycle helmets, unlike many other countries where they've at least had a debate. Welcome to the Culture of Fear.

The Road Safety Council, on their website, do not inform the Danish people about the wide variety of scientific studies available on bicycle helmets in order for them to make up their own mind - which should be the case in a personal matter like bicycle helmets. They merely quote a single report from the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics [TØI], from 2002. They don't mention the report from 2007, from the same TØI, that is much more sceptical of helmets.

It reminds me all too much of one Colin Powell, sitting in the UN, showing off his "proof" that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. Our own right-wing prime minister bought THAT hype. Nevermind all the experts that said this wasn't the case. Or just think of the scientists that George Bush pulled out of his hat who refused to acknowledge that global warming was caused by humans. Despite the international scientific community's position that it was. Or rather is.

When you don't provide documentation and only rely on slogans and rhetoric, you are lying and you are no better than any other movement that exists solely on propaganda.

Danes cycle 30% less now than they did in 1990. The number of children driven to kindergarten or school has risen by 200%. If we still cycled that lost 30%, we could save 1500 lives a year in this country. [It's worth mentioning that the cycling rates in Copenhagen are much higher than these sad, national statistics.]

Together with Holland, Denmark is the safest country in the world in which to ride a bicycle. Why aren't we broadcasting THIS fact to our citizens? If we wish to reduce cyclist injuries, we should tackle the problem. Cars. Cars injure cyclists and cars kill them. Restricting this killing and maiming should be the goal instead of promoting bicycle helmets which are only designed to protect the head from non-life threatening injuries in solo accidents under 20 km/h.

I'm not a betting man but I'm ready with a bet.

2008 was a legendary year for cycling in Copenhagen. Thanks to our City's Bicycle Office and not least our Mayor in charge of the traffic department, Klaus Bondam, we have had a fantastic array of visionary bicycle projects put into play.

- Among other initatives: at 117 intersections the stop lines for cars have been pulled back five metres, creating more visibility and security for cyclists.
- One of our main arteries and the busiest bike lane in the nation - Nørrebrogade - has been more or less closed off to cars, with an increase of 15% in the number of cyclists.
- We have expanded the wildly successful Green Wave to other main arteries leading to the city centre.

All of these things are the most progressive moves towards increasing cycling in Copenhagen since the first physically separated bike lanes 25 years ago.

The City of Copenhagen's biannual Bicycle Report is due out in April, I believe. The City has established goals for cycling. They want to increase the percentage of cyclists in the city from 36% to 50% by 2015. It also wants to increase the percentage of cyclists who feel safe and secure in the traffic from the 58% in 2006 to 80% in 2015. With all the great projects in this city throughout 2008, we should expect a positive jump in these numbers.

Here's my bet. Because of the intense bicycle helmet propanganda in 2008:
- the percentage of cyclists in Copenhagen - 37% - will not rise. It will either fall or remain unchanged.

If I'm wrong, I'll wear a purple helmet for a month. Readers in the UK will know what I mean by purple helmet. If I'm right... we'll that's up to anyone who decides to take the bet.

It's sad that we have no group or organisation in Denmark who are working for promoting cycling positively - well, apart from Copenhagenize.com and Copenhagen Cycle Chic and The Slow Bicycle Movement. We should get the Dutch Fietsersbond to outsource their knowledge, vision and respect for science and open an office here.
Cykelhjelm - Don't Get Scared, Get the Facts from Colville Andersen on Vimeo. If you consider the fact that there is no place in the world where bicycle helmet usage has resulted in lower head injury levels, it's unlikely that it will happen here. Instead, we're fueling the car-centric fire and waging a religious crusade against a large percentage of our population who choose a safe, healthy, life-extending, disease-preventing transport option. I hope that those of you out there in a position to influence will learn from these mistakes. And everyone who fancies it is welcome to support Cykelhjelm.org's Facebook group Cykelhjelm.org - In Defence of Danish Bike Culture - which is in Danish - here. More on helmets from Copenhagenize.com: The Culture of Fear - Cykelhjelm Society - Helmets for Pedestrians and Motorists - Helmets or Health? - Cycle Helmets and Other Religious Symbols - Clever Dutch and Arrogant Danes