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 »


Are our trains going down the toilet?

There’s a theory that women are an “indicator species” of how bike-friendly a city is. According to Deakin University’s Jan Garrard, “if you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’ — just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female”.

I reckon you can say much the same thing about public toilets and public transport. Good public transport systems have good toilets because good managers focus on the welfare of users. Maybe users who are given a good system take better care of it.

The idea that a major urban node like a rail station doesn’t have toilets for its thousands of daily users is simply appalling. We wouldn’t tolerate their absence in other public places like a school, a stadium or a mall.

What’s more basic than a call of nature? If you’re travelling by train and you’ve got infants that need to be changed, or pre-teens that have difficulty planning ahead, or you’re pregnant, or you’ve been on the turps, or you’ve got an aging bladder, or you or someone in your care is feeling sick, then having access to a toilet is a fundamental human necessity.

Even in Manhattan, one of the world’s great public transport oriented cities, a busy interchange station like Union Square, with tens of thousands of people passing through each day, does not have toilets accessible to the public. Dense nodes of human activity are the very places that should have toilets!

Fortunately we have toilets at major CBD stations in Melbourne, but most suburban stations don’t. According to Greens MP, Greg Barber, two thirds of stations in Melbourne do not have toilets for public use. Even some premium stations don’t open the toilets at all times, even when staffed. Mr Barber says there are 40 stations with more than 5,000 patrons per day that don’t have public toilets.

For example, Box Hill is the tenth busiest rail station in Melbourne with circa 10,400 users per day on average, however according to Wiki:

Despite being a Premium station, there are no public toilets within the station complex. Toilets for station patrons were originally located out in Main Street Mall, however, they have been closed permanently due to vandalism. Station patrons must now use the toilets provided by the adjoining shopping centre, which are only open during trading hours.

Lack of privacy is a disadvantage of public transport relative to the car, so managers should be working hard to minimise passengers’ fear they might be put in an embarrassing position. Passengers shouldn’t have to plan their travel around the risk of needing unscheduled toilet stops.

Why are there so few public toilets at rail stations? The former Minister for Transport in the Brumby Government said toilets at stations weren’t open “for good reasons: first of all for issues of security, and for issues of cleanliness, and the like”. I acknowledge it costs money to clean graffiti and repair vandalised fittings. It probably costs much more to keep toilets clean (and were toilets opened at stations I expect users would demand a high and costly standard of maintenance). But I reckon that’s just one of those base line costs, like safety, that just have to be  accepted – it’s the price of simply being in the business.

The excuse I find really odious is that toilets should be closed to prevent druggies using them. That’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face. There are other strategies for managing this problem – the Government’s promised PSOs should help – but even if toilets are used by junkies, they should nevertheless be kept open and kept in good order so ordinary passengers aren’t punished when in extremis. Travellers will doubtless avoid using toilets frequented by addicts, but they need to know they’re there when nature calls urgently and unexpectedly. Read the rest of this entry »