Copenhagen: Where the Mayor does not wear a bike helmet

August 10th, 2010

Mayors and HelmetsCopenhagen Mayor Frank Jensen (right)

Mayors and HelmetsDanish “World Cup” helmets

Mayors and HelmetsMayors and HelmetsMayors and helmets

Denmark has a long tradition of helmets and head protection used for battling wartime opponents and confronting freezing winters. So they must know their stuff about protecting noggins. When we visited Copenhagen last month we took note that only a minority of the cyclists wore bike helmets in the city. We saw Nutcase helmets on kids, racing helmets on bike messengers, and some chic hats on women’s heads. But scarves were more common than helmets. The Mayor himself, the figurehead for the biking conference we attended, chose not to wear a helmet in the 2000 person bike parade we all took through the city.

Was he making a statement? Of course, he is a politician after all and very conscious of his public image and opinions. I did not interview him, but I can wager his rationale. He has reviewed the data over the last ten years in Copenhagen enough to know that bike safety is first and foremost a function of the number of people riding bikes and protected streets. He was campaigning to reduce the fear element associated with cycling. Many people think that cycling is unsafe and helmets often confirm this assumption. He was communicating what recent urban bike studies have shown — there is safety in numbers.

Serious injuries have declined by 20% in Denmark in the last decade as cycling has increased 20%. The same trends are seen in other cities. Take New York for a local example. Cycling is up 66% from 2007 -2009 and injuries are down 50%.

The key to safe riding is related to a range of factors: the number of riders overall, driver awareness, separate lanes, safe streets, and intelligent riding. At PUBLIC we are advocates for the concept of urban cycling as fast walking. The most entertaining dissertation I have read on helmet usage may be in David Byrne’s book and come from his personal efforts to cope with this issue.

Back to Mayors. Would Mayor Gavin Newsom ride a bike without a helmet? Probably not. Why? In the U.S., the infrastructure and culture for bicycling is far behind places like Copenhagen, so helmet use is generally encouraged.  Also driver awareness and respect here in the U.S. are much lower.  But Mayor Newsom was front and center today right in our SOMA neighborhood for a bike lane painting ceremony to mark the end of the painful injunction that has kept us in the dark ages.  Check him out painting the new bike lane. Now San Francisco can roll with the rest of the U.S. 
We love to see our Mayors taking action around the country on behalf of alternative transit. Mayor Bloomberg of New York, with Janette Sadik- Kahn, has been the poster child in recent years. But Mayor Daley of Chicago recently implemented the B-Cycle bike share program, throwing down the gauntlet: 

“My goal is to make Chicago the most bicycle-friendly city in the United States.”

We welcome the competitive spirit almost as much as new bike lanes.

– Rob Forbes



We sell helmets at PUBLIC, and we love them. And we encourage people to wear protection if they are riding fast, in dangerous areas, or where cars propose a threat. That Danish Mayor probably straps on a helmet when he is late for a meeting across town and biking over icy pavement. But we will also continue to lobby for safe streets, slow riding, driver education, and more Mayors on bikes.


Quantifying Civilization

July 9th, 2010

I took a break from the VELOCITY 2010 conference and rode to the Copenhagen street corner billed as the busiest intersection in the city. A meter there counts the number of bikes that pass by as they cross the bridge. 27 cyclists cruised by during one light change; 15,000 in all on that day; and 1,815,570 so far this year. Quite cool. The stream of cyclists felt like the very definition of freedom and self-reliance. And people looked happy and alive as they pedaled along on their way to work or school—it was a collective experience of a high order. I submit that this counter is as good a “civilization meter” as anything that history has provided.

Traditionally we have used other data to decide what makes a great civilization.

If cultural output is the yardstick, Egypt and Classical Greece are looking pretty good. But did enough of the community share in the greatness? If civilian enlightenment is the measure, China during the Sung dynasty (9th Century) comes out well: their civil servants had to pass tests that included writing poetry and painting landscapes. What about those who never took the test?

The US considers itself highly civilized based on education standards, citing statistics about how many people have college degrees. But Native Americans – who greatly value their connection to nature – might see things a bit differently.

Whichever aspect of civilization you value more, it seems fundamental that a truly civilized society has to be one in which the greatest number of people feel safe and secure as they move around and congregate in their public spaces. This is where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness take place, where they are visible. And you can judge the greatness of a city by the percentage of people using and enjoying the public spaces.

This brings us to bikes.

No need for a mini-van hereThe Danes consider themselves as civilized as it gets. They take pride in their egalitarian and democratic principles, and they have become tireless advocates of rights for pedestrians and cyclists. More than one third of Danes ride a bike everyday to school or work. They have become synonymous with cycling (along with the Dutch). Over the last 50 years they have weaned themselves away from cars in urban areas, and they have increased the amount of public spaces devoted to pedestrians, cyclists, sidewalk cafes, etc. Denmark now leads the Livable Cities initiatives internationally. And they can quantify the advance of their civilization:

  • 16% of all transportation trips taken in Denmark are by bike
  • 45% of all kids ride a bike to school everyday
  • 25% of all parents bike their toddlers around the cities
  • 20% fewer bike injuries have occurred as cycling has increased 20% in recent years
  • 9% of the population in Denmark suffers from obesity
  • (30% of the US population suffers from obesity. We ‘lead’ the world in this metric)

Warehouse Sale this Saturday

If you happen to be in the Bay Areas next week, please come to our first ever warehouse sale. We’ll have bikes, samples and all kinds of things. The location is right on Harrison Street. See more details on our Sample Sale.