Your Carbon Bicycleprint (and the helmet debate)

The European Cyclists Federation recently released a study that compares the CO2 emissions of bicycling to transit and driving a car.  The goal of the study is to encourage EU leaders to push cycling rather than things like low emission vehicles such as electric cars as a larger part of their efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.  According to the data, if bicycle use in all EU countries increased to Danish levels, they could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 25%.

Because Denmark has significantly higher bicycle use than most of the other countries in the EU, the study made the point that even cities with relatively low levels of cycling can realize big increases with a relatively small investment compared to the cost of developing alternative technology cars. The study cited Seville, Spain as an example of just such a city, where the construction of protected bike lanes and the addition of a bike sharing system resulted in cycling increasing tenfold in just three years.

Once again, bicycling seems to be a simple, cost-effective solution to a very complex problem. Cycling can play an important role in helping the EU meet its self-imposed emissions target, of 80% and 90% reductions on 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2050.

Photograph from the report, by Marc van Woudenberg, of

The study is newsworthy because it went beyond simply using trip distance to calculate emissions reductions and factored in the entire life cycle of the mode of transportation.  It started with the emissions from vehicle production, added the lifetime maintenance and factored in the more typical emissions related to use of fossil fuels.  The study even went so far as to include the production of food and caloric intake as a fuel for people who ride bicycles.

It will come as no surprise that even if people who ride bicycles eat a lot more food, the bicycle is the clear winner for least amount of greenhouse gasses per passenger kilometer traveled. When the emissions for the complete life cycle of each mode is calculated, here’s how they stack up (results in grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer traveled):

  • Bicycle: 21 g
  • Electric-assist bicycle: 22 g (e-bikes scored well due to larger range of standard bicycle and therefore greater chance to replace passenger car trips)
  • Passenger car: 271 g (based on short trips similar to those a bicycle could make)
  • Bus: 101 g

To download a full copy of the fact and chart filled report, click here (PDF).  Before a bunch of readers jump in and comment on the photos that accompany the report, I will say that the images immediately made me cringe.  Both the images show happy Europeans bucking rides and there is not a helmet to be seen, despite the fact that the report was produced by the European Cycling Federation, the leading bicycle advocacy organization overseas. The helmet issue is a tricky one for advocacy organizations like the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, but I thought this was a good place to discuss it a bit.

Let me begin by saying that the staff at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin are bicycle advocates, not helmet advocates (FYI, there are helmet advocates).  Our job is to get more butts on bikes.  Of course we want to do that in a responsible manner, and part of that is teaching bicycle safety.  The staff at the Bike Fed are all League Certified Instructors, trained and insured to teach children and adults.

When we teach, we typically start our safety classes with a statement that riding a bicycle is already an incredibly safe thing to do if you ride sensibly within your abilities and follow the rules of the road in traffic.  In fact, most statistics show it to be safer than driving a car, even if you don’t wear a helmet.

Even though we know this to be true, and many bicycle safety experts I know don’t wear helmets when riding in urban traffic, at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, when asked, we always advise people to wear helmets.  In fact, you cannot even get on a bicycle in one of our safety classes without one.  Is that hypocritical?  It think it is a bit, but it also recognizes that the US is not Europe.

The US does not have the cycling culture, the driving culture if expecting to see cyclists, or the bicycle infrastructure of most European countries. It doesn’t matter if I can prove it is ten times safer to ride a bicycle than it is to drive a car, a significant percentage of the Bike Fed’s members want us to promote helmet use.  It doesn’t matter if there hasn’t been a cycling related death in years in downtown Milwaukee, if I show a photo of someone without a helmet riding a bicycle down the bike lanes on Water Street, I am going to be admonished by a number of our readers.

As bicycle advocates, we often point to places like the Netherlands or Copenhagen as cycling nirvana. We push our cities to build Dutch-style cycletracks, we laud the percentage of people riding in Copenhagen, but we conveniently ignore the fact that most people there do not wear helmets.

Cycling for transportation is becoming more mainstream in the US.  The majority of trips taken by bicycle are now transportation related rather than for recreation or sport.  As more and more people choose to hop on bikes for short trips around town, anecdotally it looks to me like I see a decreasing percentage of people wearing helmets.  Perhaps that is inevitable as more people ride.

I know that bringing up the helmet topic is a bit like discussing politics at the Christmas dinner table – best avoided if possible. Generally I try to avoid it, but I have to confess that because I now represent the Bike Fed and a number of our members are strong advocates for helmets, I have stopped photographing many of the things I used to feature on the personal blog I used to write, Over the Bars.

What do you think about the helmet debate? Should we stick to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” plan, always advocate for helmets or is it OK to reflect the fact that many people don’t wear helmets?


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

28 thoughts on “Your Carbon Bicycleprint (and the helmet debate)

  1. Forget the silly helmets and stick to getting butts on bike Dave. Bicycling is safe and the few that are so afraid of it that they demand everyone wear a helmet are only doing us a disfavor. Sadly many so called “advocates” would rather focus on this silly issue than “getting more people on bikes more often” which actually makes us much safer than helmets. Wearing a helmet should be a choice and not taking pictures of people riding without helmets is not doing a service to the cause of the BFW or bicycling in general. Keep the focus on bicycles and not helmets, which bicycles don’t wear.

    • Great discussions and great blog.

      Two points. Based on a random sample of 2, I’m in favour of wearing cycling helmets.
      Some years ago my wife was very seriously injured whilst cycling. She would not be alive today had she not worn a cycling helmet. On a different occasion I too came off my bike . My cycling helmet saved me from a serious head injury and the only “injury ” I suffered was mild concussion.

      So we advise friends and family when cycling to wear a cycling helmet and to change it every so often, especially when the helmet is “involved” in accident.

      As for citing Denmark, well true the Danes are keen cyclists, but the law and thus Danish culture is pretty unique relative to cycling.

      In Denmark the legal, default position in an accident involving a driver and a cyclist is that the driver of the vehicle is automatically at fault unless it can be shown otherwise. Drivers are very careful in Denmark. At the same time to promote cycling, the Danes have built many cycling lanes, sometimes “boulevard like” in Copenhagen.

      Put the “default” legal position and the creation of the many and wide cycling lanes together and that might be the reason you see fewer cycling helmets in Copenhagen than than in other European cities.

      Bonne Route!

  2. I believe wearing or not wearing a helmet is a personal choice and people and groups should do nothing more than educate the benefits of wearing, and not wearing one. It is not a subject that has good study information for (all have flaws) so opinions don’t have much credibility. Displaying photos of bicyclists with no helmets is not showing anything new to anyone and I don’t think it would be interpreted as the person or organization promoting non-use of helmets. I personally think it is a good idea to wear one if you can. I don’t because I enjoy bicycling much more without it.

    • I appreciate your point of view Brian. So far the comments seem to run akin to your opinion, but I know we have some members who feel very strongly that it is irresponsible for the Bike Fed to use photos of people without helmets.

  3. When on the fastbike, I wear a helmet. When on the slowbike, riding to work or play in the city, no helmet. Except in the winter, then the helmet is a snowboarding helmet. Mostly, it’s a stopping distance thing for me.

    I’ve always been interested in speed at time of accident (of the bicyclist) in relationship to the injuries sustained.

    • Dude;) I follow pretty much the same rules. I also always wear a helmet on mtb rides and on group training rides, which tend to be fast by definition. As for the speed differential thing, last year Michigan DOT released a study of all crashes in over the last 5 years and the study showed there was no statistical difference in the severity of injuries suffered for people wearing helmets compared to those who did not. This sounds counterintuitive until you remember that most people follow the same guidelines you do. So the crashes involving people on bikes mostly occurred on roads with small speed differentials and the crashes involving people wearing helmets happened where speeds are higher.

  4. I’ve been wearing a helmet for most of the 20+ years I’ve been commuting by bike and, fortunately, have never needed it. In a motorcycle safety course I took as a teenager, the instructor stressed the importance of defensive driving on a motorcycle, to the point of assuming you’re absolutely invisible to motorists. That practice has served me in good stead. I also remember the instructor’s discussion of helmets. Although he always wore a helmet while riding his motorcycle, he was opposed to mandatory helmet laws, on the grounds that it interfered with natural selection. With tongue held firmly in cheek, he said, “Let the unhelmeted yahoos kill themselves off and the rest of society will be better off.”

  5. Why can’t the Bike Fed advocate for both getting butts in seats AND wearing helmets?

    Like it or not, wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle is culturally encouraged /accepted in the US (even if not everyone does it). And an institution such as the Bike Fed should be conforming with that expectation, if for no other reason than it is good politics.

    Look, if you were an association promoting water conservation and had on your annual report a photo of the lake shoreline with the Oak Creek power plant in the background, don’t you think people would look at you skeptically? After all, your mission isn’t really air pollution, it’s water pollution, there may or may not be a connection between the two and there are plenty of people out there who think air pollution/global warming isn’t really an issue anyway (with studies to back them up!). That may be the case, but we have a general cultural consensus that believes (for the most part) that limiting air pollution is a good thing. And it would be in your interests to not rock that boat.

    Not a perfect analogy, but I tried….I guess my point is there is an social/political expectation that the Bike Fed would be advocates for helmet use, and not doing so risks damaging your credibility on some level (i’m not saying this is right or wrong, I just think it’s the way it is).

    Oh, and while I love Europe and Europeans, I don’t think we should always assume they have the inside track when it comes to safety/health issues…. Isn’t their rate of cigarette smoking exponentially higher than in the US?

    • Martin,

      Your comments are exactly why when I changed what I write about and what I take photos of when I moved from writing and taking photographs for my personal blog (that had as it’s primary goal promoting cycling as an inherently fun and safe mode of transportation) to writing and taking photographs for the Bike Fed blog, which has a membership to which we are responsible to represent. Personally, I am a bit sad about this, because it eliminates about 70% of the people who ride bikes in Milwaukee from my photo ops, including myself.

      I also need to make the distinction between being a helmet advocate and a bicycle advocate. Helmet advocates constantly remind people to wear their helmets when they bike. Bike advocates constantly remind people to ride a bike. Helmet advocates end up discouraging people from riding bicycles by implying that it is less safe than driving. Bicycle advocates encourage people to ride by telling them it is safer than driving a car.

      The politics of our culture are that most people would not find it palatable to wear helmets while driving a car, even though statistically they are more likely to die in a car than on a bike. This idea that people are safe in a car and not on a bike must change if we are going to get more people riding bicycles. It already is changing, and I think the Bike Fed must play a role in rebranding cycling as safe, but you are correct that we have to be careful about how we do it.

  6. One August day, I woke up in a hospital. Last I remembered, I had been on my way to work, so it was both terrifying and relieving when the doctor told me that my big, magenta, bmx-style helmet had likely saved my life. I was unconscious for 2 hours, the helmet was still intact and I shudder to think what my head would have looked like had I not been wearing it.
    That being said, not wearing a helmet IS a choice. Just like driving your car too fast, or smoking cigarettes, having unprotected sex or drinking too much. It’s all about education.
    Admittedly, I have ridden around Europe without a helmet. In the Netherlands (where there are hardly any cars on the roads, other than taxis, )you look like a n00b if you wear one, but I got over it. (I also bought a helmet that matches my panniers.) I can’t help but wonder how ironic and terrible it would be if my final, fatal ride was caused by not wearing a helmet… That and the fact that cycling in London is a kamikaze mission in and of itself has gotten me back to the helmet=always state of mind.
    Helmet-wearing has developed this social stigma over thyearsrs, cuz it’s not “cool.” But you now what? Large-framed glasses used to be nerdy too, and now they’re en vogue. You don’t have to wear a racing-style, alien-head helmet. Find something that you like, something that fits your personality and your own unique sense of style. Put stickers on it, put antennae on it, (I rode around with devil horns on mine for a couple months…”hell on wheels…” make it your own… Or don’t wear one, if it makes you more comfortable, but as with anything, please make sure you educate yourself in the interest of your own safety.

    • It Girl,

      I think you hit on two really important points: education and personal choice. In Europe, the majority of people are well educated about bicycle safety, while in the US, most people are not. Ideally, people should understand the different risk factors between riding on an urban street with cars moving an average of 12-18 mph and riding on a suburban road where cars whiz by you at 50 plus mph. People should also know that crashes happen at intersections and be careful to avoid them. Basically, people should take an adult cycling class if they did not get a good bike safety class as a teen. The Bike Fed offers all those classes as frequently as we can given our staff and funding levels. We also have educational safety videos and written materials. Really, education is what keeps people from being involved in the vast majority of crashes and should be the foundation of any safety program.

      The second important point is personal choice. Some people feel perfectly safe jumping out of airplanes. Others feel safe racing motorcycles. My family ice skates without helmets, even though we know it is more dangerous than riding a bike. On the other end of the spectrum are people who will never ride a bicycle in traffic, even with a helmet. They just don’t feel it is safe no matter what you tell them. In between are lots of people with differing comfort levels with risk and aversions to traffic. The Bike Fed must try to represent the full spectrum of those people in the middle.

  7. All travel has risk – bicycle, foot, car, boat, plane, etc. The best that can be done is to reduce risk to a reasonable level.

    Helmets only affect post-collision trauma. But in a collision with a large, heavy, metal box, severe trauma is still likely in body locations not affected by a helmet. It seems that significantly reducing potential for collision is a better strategy for overall safety.

    Being well lit at night is one example of a collision-reducing strategy. But I rarely hear the same passion about having quality lights as I do about wearing helmets. This doesn’t make sense to me.

    Even if helmets make riding a bicycle safer, that argument alone is insufficient to mandate helmet use when bicycling. The same argument would imply that helmets make walking safer as well – addressing collision risk in crosswalks as well as falling risks on icy sidewalks in winter – but no one advocates for foot traffic to use helmets. (And if you haven’t been keeping up, recent data shows that foot travel deaths have been on the increase, even as overall traffic deaths have been declining. Walking risk has indeed been increasing.)

    The BEST way to make bicycling safer is to substantially increase the number of people choosing bicycles for transportation – there is substantial data to support this claim. Mandating helmet use carries an underlying message that bicycle riding is dangerous – a message of fear that will prevent getting substantial numbers of bicycle riders. Therefore, such mandates appear to be counterproductive.

    Sometimes I wear a helmet, sometimes I do not. It depends on the type of roads my trip will use and the amount of control I am likely to be able to exercise to avoid collisions. A slow and casual 2 mile ride to the food store on quiet neighborhood streets – I don’t wear a helmet. A recreational 25-mile fast ride hugging the edge/shoulders of 45-55 MPH rural roads – I wear a helmet.

    It is my ability (due to the nature of my ride) to constantly monitor the traffic environment around me that is the important distinction in these two situations – not so much the speed of the traffic around me (other than the fact that faster traffic is more difficult to monitor) – that governs my choice of helmet use.

    If you buy into all this, then an attitude of allowing helmet use to be a personal choice (rather than a mandate) is a reasonable one.

    People with poorer judgment (such as children) perhaps should be given less of an option to choose – in a similar (not necessarily identical) manner to children generally not being permitted to cross a street on foot until a parent says it is OK.

    Travel will always have risk. Just as all aspects of life have risks. Helmet use is a gray area, and I would hope those who decide to chime in about it, including the Bike Fed, acknowledge the gray rather than create an ill-fitting black or white that would create emotional closure at the expense of practical reality.

    • Bob, I certainly hope the Bike Fed has not presented this as black or white. I don’t think we have. First, as I mentioned, the Bike Fed has all but stopped using any images of anyone without a helmet. The example in this article was used on purpose to make that point and raise these issues. Second, the Bike Fed is on record as recommending helmets when riding bicycles and requires them in all our safety classes. Finally, we use the best statistics we can find and we amalgamate many different studies as well as use our not insignificant experiential knowledge when we discuss this and other safety issues.

      To your other points, I totally agree with your assertion that the BEST way to make bicycling safer is to get lots more people riding. That has been proven to be true everywhere it has occurred. During my tenure as the bike/ped coordinator in Milwaukee, our bicycle use went up about 250% and our crash rate decreased 75% over that same period. Those to statistics are directly related and have more to do with each other from a cause and effect standpoint than they do with the additional 35 miles of bike lanes the City installed. Of course it was the bike lanes that got more people riding, but it was the additional people riding that cut down on the crash rate.

  8. It’s too bad that those who consciously and willingly exercise that free choice not to wear a helmet are not the only ones to “pay for it” as an emergency vehicle comes to take them to receive emergency care. But, at least they do make it easier not to feel sorry for them when their brain’s wheels stop working. It was their choice.

    • Are you talking about people who don’t wear helmets when they take showers, drive cars, ice skate, walk down stairs and ride bikes? I still feel sorry for kids who are killed in car crashes (the number one killer of children) even though their parents did not make them wear a helmet when they buckled them in.

      • I guess my decades of road biking experience, and writing and law degrees did not helped me include or imply the two words “while bicycling” in my blog. Oh well, it had been my choice. I paid. It Girl said things well.

  9. Dave,

    As you stated so nicely above, bicycling is safe IN THE U.S., even without a helmet. Perhaps rather than caving to the whims of the helmet advocates and industry (which has inconceivably large influence), those in the position to do so ought to push for a cultural change, and if we saw a helmet as less necessary to the safety of a person on a bicycle (and it really is a small part of the safety of a person riding reasonably within their abilities), we as a society might start thinking of the myriad better ways to keep that person safe.

    I’m not saying you should discourage people from wearing them, but just don’t say anything about it. Show people riding with and without helmets, in a way that reflects reality, and just leave it at that. If you start forcing people to protect themselves in order to be seen as valid users of the road, you’re doing yourself and your organization a dis-service, I think. Even if you don’t mean to imply that a person must protect themselves to be a valid road user – if you set a policy to only post photos of people with helmets, you’ve just done exactly that.

    • This is a difficult and very thin like to walk for us. We have a significant percentage of our members who believe very strongly that we shouldn’t ever show photos of people without helmets. As you are aware, my old blog could have been titled Milwaukeeize (if that sounded good at all), because it had that same bias as your blog. I do work for an organization that has to deal with this in an inclusive and responsible manner. Part of the reason I published this post and the photo was to start this discussion and raise these issues with our members. I truly appreciate your perspective here and hope that all of our membership can grow to appreciate it as well.

  10. I don’t what the law is regarding helmets in Wisconsin, but the other issue I see here is this: if we start requiring cyclists to go over and above the law to protect themselves (even if it’s just a strong implication), while at the same time letting people who get in a car and break the law go free and clear, what effect do you think that will have?

    • Hey Dave (from Portlandize),

      We do not have a mandatory helmet law in Wisconsin, in large part thanks to our motor cycle industry, specifically Harley Davidson.

  11. There are some great discussions going on here, but am I the only one that notices some big problems with the graph in this article?

  12. While I DO wear a helmet MOST of the time, I would not want it mandated, nor do I really care if someone else chooses not to wear one. I also don’t really care if the BFW sits on one side or the other as long as they do not try to get any laws passed requiring them. I ALWAYS make my child wear one when we she is doing anything other than riding around the driveway.
    Fortunately I’m here today to talk about this as I happened to wearing my MC helmet years back on a day it turned out to really matter.

  13. I appreciate the legitimate debate about whether or not helmet use should be mandated by law. I also appreciate that the Federation has chosen to not advocate for a helmet law. However, I think it is very important to note that it is possible to advocate for safety without advocating for a helmet law. Advocating for safety can include encouraging riders to wear helmets. Advocating for safety can also include not publishing photos in which riders are not wearing helmets. Helmet wearing will become natural only if helmet wearing appears natural as might be the case if photos published by an advocate of safety showed riders wearing helmets.

    Bottom line: you should advocate for safety. Period. You should advocate for a helmet law if your members wish you to do so. You appear to believe your members do not want a helmet law. Fine. Then do not advocate for a helmet law. However, even if believing that riders should have helmet choice, you can still advocate for safety.


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