Is Warne putting the right spin on cycling?

You can read the first post for 2012, Is Warne putting the right spin on cycling?, at my new home at the giant Crikey media conglomerate. Please bookmark the new site. I’m looking at ways to bring existing e-mail subscribers across (hopefully) with as little pain as possible. All comments should now be made at the new site.

Are helmet laws suppressing cycling?

If maps were based on time not distance, this is how big (and small) the Netherlands would look

A new Australian study has thrown more fuel on the fiery debate about whether or not bicycle helmets should continue to be mandatory. Its headline claim is 23% of Sydneysiders say they would cycle more if they weren’t obliged by law to wear a helmet.

This isn’t merely saying that some people would prefer to cycle without a helmet – it’s claiming the law actually suppresses cycling.

I lean toward the school of thought that says mandatory helmets probably do more harm socially than good, but as I’ve said before, it’s not the sort of issue that I would want to die in a ditch over. However if there were reliable evidence that compulsory helmets actually restrain cycling, that would require a rethink.

The research was undertaken by Professor Chris Rissell and his colleague, Li Ming Wen. It is published in the latest edition of the Health Promotion Journal of Australia, under the snappy title, The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey.

It’s a brief and easy to read article but a summary by Professor Rissell was published on The Conversation last week, Make helmets optional to double the number of cyclists in Australia. Professor Rissell is a self-confessed cycling advocate and firmly in the activist “repeal” camp on helmets.

He and his colleague surveyed 600 Sydney residents aged 16 years and over. They found one fifth of respondents “said they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet, particularly occasional cyclists”. They conclude that:

While a hypothetical situation, if only half of the 22.6% of respondents who said they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet did ride more, Sydney targets for increasing cycling would be achieved by repealing mandatory bicycle helmet legislation. A significant proportion of the population would continue to wear helmets even if they were not required to do so.

Regrettably, I don’t think this study adds anything to our knowledge of whether Sydneysiders would ride more if helmets weren’t compulsory. They might, but then again they might not. The trouble is the survey relies on a hypothetical situation: “Would you cycle more often if you didn’t have to wear a helmet? Yes or No?”.

Hypothetical survey questions are notoriously unreliable. I’m not picking on the anti-mandatory helmet brigade here – I also took Metlink to task earlier this year for trying to make grandiose predictions about future public transport patronage based on a similarly unreliable methodology.

It’s standard practice to avoid hypothetical questions in surveys. Consider this advice from The World Bank publication, The Power of Survey Design:

Hypothetical questions, especially, should be avoided. People cannot reliably forecast their future behaviour in a hypothetical scenario. Thus, the questionnaire design should make careful use of this style of question.

Hypothetical questions are especially problematic when respondents are asked to predict an activity they’ve had little experience of. The Canada Business Network advises questionnaire designers, if possible, to “avoid hypothetical or future intentions questions:

Hypothetical questions force the respondent to provide an answer to something he or she may never have thought about and, therefore, the respondent may not be able to provide an accurate response.

The authors should’ve been alerted that all might not be right when they found 40% of those who say they’d cycle more if helmets weren’t compulsory, also say they support mandatory helmet legislation. Yes, there’re scenarios where it’s conceivable someone could hold both views simultaneously, but 40%?! Read the rest of this entry »

Mandatory bicycle helmets: does correlation mean causation?

Percent of total trips by bicycle (data from Pucher & Buehler, 2008)

It’s evident from the response to my article two weeks ago (Is the mandatory helmet debate a distraction?), that some people still see compulsory helmets as one of the major obstacles, perhaps even the main obstacle, to significantly higher uptake of cycling in Australia. So I want to look at the main arguments for repealing the compulsory helmet law.

As I’ve said before, I accept that mandating helmets in the early 90s was arguable policy, at least in the case of adults. If it were proposed for the first time today, I doubt it would get up (except for children). So I don’t think those who advocate repeal are necessarily “wrong”.

But in my view the helmet law is not the main thing holding cycling back in this country – it doesn’t even come close. And since it’s got virtually no traction politically, it’s also a waste of energy. Ultimately it distracts from the key issue – the danger, whether perceived or real, of cycling in traffic.

A key argument made by many repeal advocates is that countries without mandatory helmet laws have high bicycle use. Australia, in contrast, has both low mode share and draconian helmet laws; ipso facto, they say, mandatory helmet laws are the key problem.

What I think is happening here is the familiar problem of confusing correlation with causation.

There’s no doubt bicycle use in Australia is indeed low compared to some other countries. For example, according to Pucher and Buehler in Making cycling irresistible: lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, bicycles capture 27% of all trips in the Netherlands and 18% in Denmark, but a mere 1% in Australia (see exhibit). And there’s no doubt helmets aren’t considered important in these countries – in the Netherlands, for example, less than 1% of adults and only 3-5% of children choose to wear a helmet when cycling.

But does the law on helmets explain why cycling is so much more popular in these countries than it is in Australia?

The first thing the repeal advocates should ask themselves is this: why are only 1% of trips in the UK taken by bicycle even though helmets aren’t mandatory in that country? That’s no better than here! Or why is cycling’s mode share only slightly better in Ireland and Canada than it is in Australia, even though these two countries don’t have mandatory helmet laws? Clearly, whatever the explanation is for the comparatively low rates of cycling in these countries, it has nothing to do with any compulsion to wear a helmet.

They should also ask themselves why there are such enormous differences between countries where helmets aren’t mandatory. The fact that bicycle use is more than twice as high in the Netherlands as it is in Germany – and nine times higher than it is in France and Italy – suggests pretty clearly that there are other highly influential factors affecting the propensity to cycle that have absolutely nothing to do with helmets.

Helmet policy doesn’t explain why bicycles capture 34% of trips in Munster, but 13% in Munich. Or why the corresponding figure for Groningen is 37% compared to 10% in Heerlen; or 20% in Bruges but 5% in Brussells; or 19% in Salzburg but 3% in Wien. Read the rest of this entry »

Do drivers make cycling less safe?

Cyclist gets "cut off" by driver (15 seconds)

This important article makes two key points about cycling in Australian cities:

  • The main danger to cyclists comes from drivers
  • The key reason people don’t cycle more is concern about safety on the roads

The article reports on research by Marilyn Johnson, a research fellow at the Monash University Accident Research Centre. She attached a video camera to the helmets of a small number of cyclists and studied their everyday interactions with other road users (see exhibits).

A key finding is drivers are responsible for 87% of road “incidents” i.e. a near-crash where at least one party has to take evasive action. In 74% of those events, she says, the driver cut the cyclist off, turning in front of the cyclist without either providing enough space, indicating effectively or doing a head check.

The behaviour of drivers was safe for themselves and other drivers, but not for cyclists:

The role of driver behaviour in cyclist safety was found to be more significant than previously thought. Previously, the emphasis was on how cyclists needed to improve their behaviour to improve their safety……Drivers need to be more aware of cyclists on the road. It is essential for cyclist safety that drivers look for cyclists before they change their direction of travel, particularly when turning left.

Dr Johnson also cites a joint study by the Cycling Promotion Fund and National Heart Foundation which surveyed a random sample of 1,000 adults nationally about their attitudes toward cycling. According to this report on the study, “overwhelmingly, unsafe road conditions were the No.1 reason why people weren’t using their bikes as transport, followed by the speed of traffic and a lack of bike paths”.

Although the number of cyclists involved in the study to date and the range of environments is small, I think Dr Johnson’s research is highly suggestive. It underlines again the importance of focussing attention on the key issues that affect cycling and of not getting distracted by side issues.

Another one of a cyclist getting "cut off" by a driver (29 seconds)

What were they thinking?

This is not a joke – this is a real graphic from the SA Motor Accident Commission’s new marketing campaign aimed at discouraging young drivers from doing irresponsible things like speeding or drink-driving.

The core idea is life is very bad without the ability to drive. You might, for example, end up having to walk, use public transport, or – apparently the uncoolest thing imaginable – ride a bicycle!

This TV advertisement shows boys who cycle are an absolute turn-off so far as girls who drive are concerned.

And if you lose your license, you’ll really know you’re screwed if:

“you’re caught in an electrical storm, you’re halfway home and you’re on a bike”, or

“you keep catching your hot date staring at your helmet hair”, or

“the creepy guy on the bus has just made eye contact”, or

“after lining up for 10 minutes in the rain the drive thru girl says: sorry we don’t serve pedestrians”

Now perhaps the Motor Accident Commission’s research shows the prospect of cycling or using a bus is so horrendous for the target market that it is the most effective way of incentivising more responsible behaviour. Perhaps.

But even if that’s the case, it comes at the cost of demonising modes that have to play a much more important role in our cities both now and in the future. If the campaign is actually effective, it could be doing incalculable long-term damage to the way alternative modes are perceived.

I’d be surprised if the creative talent of Adelaide couldn’t come up with a campaign that achieves the responsible driving objective without undermining another important dimension of transport policy. However I’m not quite so confident about the judgement of politicians and bureacrats who would let this sort of message through!

Is the mandatory bicycle helmet debate a distraction?

Who says cyclists don't appreciate a little infrastructure?

There is an interesting new article on The Conversation by Deakin University’s Dr Jan Garrard, which asks the important question: Why aren’t more kids cycling to school?

Dr Garrard analyses the key warrants for increasing the proportion of children who cycle (and walk) to school; identifies the main obstacles; and sets out some actions that might help to reduce car use for school drop-off and pick-up. I generally agree with her conclusions but disagree with the emphasis she gives to childhood health and obesity as a warrant for encouraging more cycling to school.

I was going to write about that until I was distracted by various comments on her article relating to the desirability or otherwise of mandatory bicycle helmets. This topic is becoming an increasingly familiar pattern in cycling debates – it seems there are people who think abolishing the compulsion to wear a helmet when cycling is the silver bullet that will turn Australian cities into “new Amsterdams”.

I accept the mandatory helmet issue is one factor that bears on the level of cycling, but quite frankly I think it’s a sideshow.  As I’ve argued before, my feeling is that even in the unlikely event helmets were made discretionary, the great bulk of existing and prospective cyclists would make the rational decision and elect to wear a helmet. There is good evidence to support the intuition that cycling with a helmet is safer than cycling without one.

To date I’ve accepted the proposition that at a social level the exercise disincentive effect of mandatory helmets probably outweighs their protective benefits. The undeniable drop in cycling that immediately followed the introduction of mandatory helmets seems to support that view. However a new study by the Centre for Accident Research and Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q), Bicycle Helmet Research, suggests that might not be the case. The authors say:

It is reasonably clear (the mandatory helmet law) discouraged people from cycling twenty years ago when it was first introduced. Having been in place for that length of time in Queensland and throughout most of Australia, there is little evidence that it continues to discourage cycling. There is little evidence that there is a large body of people who would take up cycling if the legislation was changed.

The CARRS-Q study also concludes that “current bicycle helmet wearing rates are halving the number of head injuries experienced by Queensland cyclists”. It says this finding is consistent with published evidence that mandatory bicycle helmet wearing legislation has prevented injuries and deaths from head injuries.

In my view the number one deterrent to higher levels of cycling isn’t compulsory helmets, it’s concerns about safety, whether real or perceived. Addressing safety concerns will require more infrastructure like segregated bike lanes. However that’s expensive – realistically, any significant increase in cycling means bicycles will have to share road space with other vehicles for many years yet, so the priority should be to get more respect and consideration from drivers.

Drivers don’t see cyclists as valid and legitimate road users. That’s not because cyclists dress in lycra, flout the road rules, wear helmets or don’t pay rego – it’s because drivers think roads are for motorised vehicles only. Drivers think they “own” the roads. This perception is the key issue that needs to be addressed to make cycling safer and hence more appealing. I’ve outlined before how I think this challenge might be addressed through driver education and licensing; through schools; through media campaigns; and through changes to the law. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the Auditor-General on-track with cycling?

Bikes of San Francisco - I wish someone had thought to do this for Melbourne

It’s a long time since I’ve read an official report as both extraordinary and disappointing as the report released last week by the Victorian Auditor-General, Developing cycling as a safe and appealing mode of transport.

This effectiveness and efficiency review of the former government’s 2009 Victorian Cycling Strategy is extraordinary because it takes the Brumby government to task for its extravagant claim that the Strategy would “grow cycling into a major form of public transport”, but then failed to put in place the steps the Auditor-General believes are necessary to achieve this ambitious goal.

He makes it clear the sorts of actions he thinks are required are those pursued since the 1970s in countries like Denmark, The Netherlands and Germany where bike’s mode share is now as high as 38% of all trips (but also as low as 3% e.g. Wiesbaden). Those actions include education and promotion, but the key ones are segregating cyclists from cars and making cars slower and less convenient.

As I read the Victorian Cycling Strategy – which is only 20 months old – this sounds like a bit of fit up, but since the Department of Transport has signed off on the Auditor-General’s review, I’ll let that lie.

Governments in Victoria might need to be careful. Judging by this report the Auditor-General seems to be in no mood to tolerate the entrenched practice of blithely setting exaggerated and inflated goals with little real commitment or accountability for realising them. On the other hand, the Baillieu government has “discarded” the Strategy, so perhaps that emboldened the Auditor-General in this particular instance.

Either way, I applaud the Auditor General for his evident intolerance of bullshit (I hope he takes the time to compare some of the purple prose written about public transport against what’s actually being done in practice). Governments should and can do much more to promote cycling. So far there’s lots of lip service but not much action.

But having said that, the Auditor General’s report is also disappointing because its not without its own failings. For a study that cost nearly $400,000, it is a surprisingly lightweight document. I have to hope there’s much more to it, but quite frankly it reads like someone merely got the Department of Transport to run some basic data off VISTA and read Pucher and Buhler’s influential paper, Making cycling irresistible. If there were such a thing as an audit of Auditor-General’s reports, I reckon this one would be found wanting.

I was doubtful of the report’s technical quality from the get-go when I read the claim in the first paragraph that “cycling offers benefits over other forms of transport because it reduces traffic congestion…”. No it doesn’t, no more than building freeways or improving public transport do. What cycling can do is increase the number of people who can get to a destination despite traffic congestion – which is a huge positive – but it won’t reduce congestion.

A key criticism the report makes is the Strategy prioritises inner city work journeys over other trips. Since 78% of car journeys up to 4 kilometres long (and 80% of car journeys between 4 and 10 kilometres) are in middle and outer Melbourne, the Auditor-General reckons the Strategy should have addressed this potential more vigorously. This simplistic view is symptomatic of much of the report. What it fails to recognise is the necessity of prioritising scarce resources like money and political capital. The fact is inner city work trips in the Melbourne of today are more amenable to cycling than suburban shopping trips.

Another shortcoming is the presumption that to grow cycling into a major form of transport we can and should do exactly what successful European cities like Copenhagen have done. But is “a major form of public transport” the 37% of all trips that Groningen has achieved, or the 3% of Wiesbaden? This is the Auditor-General and he’s finding fault with government policy – expecting some measure of precision isn’t unreasonable.

The fact that those cities have much higher bicycle use than Australian or US cities is a very important and pertinent piece of information, but it doesn’t automatically follow that if we do what they’ve done we’ll get the same outcome. In fact it doesn’t even follow that it’s practical, realistic or feasible for us to do what they’ve done.

There’s a long history of assuming what works overseas will work here. For example, in common with many other countries, Australian governments and universities have attempted many times over the last 30 or so years to replicate the success of places like Silicon Valley by establishing technology parks close to universities. Yet every analysis I’ve seen has shown these attempts to be unmitigated flops – at best, we’ve ended up with cookie-cutter business parks rather than the anticipated hotbeds of innovation fuelled by university-business interaction. The fact is places like Silicon Valley are the result of a very special set of circumstances that can’t easily be replicated elsewhere. Read the rest of this entry »


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