Mr. Bridges, open this gate. Mr. Bridges, tear down this wall!

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood by the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and called on Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, to take down the wall cutting off Berlin’s east and west halves.

A photo of a photo which also includes a photo. The black and white bit is the Brandenburg Gate at the end of World War Two. The colour bit is what the gate looks like today.

In 2017, I’m calling on the Minister of Transport, Simon Bridges, to take action. I could have called this post “let’s get rid of mandatory helmet laws in New Zealand” (and I’m not sure comparing Simon Bridges to Gorbachev, or me to Reagan, does either of us any favours), but let’s roll with it for now – at least it gives the post titles some variation.*

Back in September/ October 2016, I took a holiday to Europe, visiting Germany (Munich and Berlin) for the first time.

Germany is the country that gave the world Mercedes, Volkswagen, BMW, Audi and Porsche. It’s the country famous for its no-speed-limit autobahns, which I remember being told about in reverent tones growing up – probably one of my strongest wired-in memories to do with Germany.

Germany today has a very different zeitgeist. I was struck by the popularity of cycling in both cities (and also by the great quality, well used public transport, but that’s a story for another day). I found the contrasts so striking that I started writing this post while I was still in Berlin, and I’ve stuck with the title that came into my head then. Because if Germany, this famous automotive country, can make cycling so popular then New Zealand can do the same. Because in Munich, Berlin, and every other great cycling city around the world, hardly anyone wears helmets.

People on bikes by the East Side Gallery, one of the few remaining remnants of the Berlin Wall and decorated with street art.

Berlin today is ranked as one of the top cycling cities in the world, #12 in the Copenhagenize index. Munich is now outside the top 20 of that index, but still regarded as a very cycle-friendly city. There are bikes everywhere in Berlin, at least in the more tourist-friendly inner parts of the city. There’s a widely available bike share scheme, run by DB Bahn (who also run the public transport).

100 metres from where I stayed in Berlin, there was a cycle school – a little cycling track, mocked up with miniature street signs, cycle lanes and different turning scenarios. In Berlin, all primary-school children take a cycling safety course.

People on bikes in Berlin

People on bikes in Munich (where helmets seemed a bit more common than Berlin)

Cycling in New Zealand

New Zealand, of course, has more vehicles per capita than almost every other country in the world (712 vehicles per 1,000 people; Germany has 572). Germans make the cars, but they don’t drive them anywhere near as much as Kiwis do. Cycling in New Zealand has become a fringe, marginalised activity, although this is getting better. Cycling rates have dropped precipitously since the 1980s – they’re now climbing again, but off a very low base. With cycling, there’s safety in numbers. The lack of cyclists in New Zealand means that drivers aren’t looking out for them, so our accident and fatality rates for cycling are well above those of European countries, despite our policy of mandatory helmets.

New Zealand’s government has been quite forward-thinking on cycling in the last couple of years, launching the Urban Cycleways Programme and also spending more on cycling out of the National Land Transport Fund (of course, it’s still a tiny percentage of the overall fund). The cycleways programme was an inspired piece of policy: it provided some funding, but also leveraged this as a way to encourage councils to invest in cycleways. Costs now get split between the Urban Cycleways Fund, the NLTF, and the local council.

I think it’s quite appropriate that the cycleways programme uses funding from outside the general transport funding sector. Looking at the costs and benefits from cycling, the biggest benefits are actually health-related, and nothing to do with transport. Ideally this could be recognised by funding some cycling initiatives out of the health budget, but at least they’re coming from outside of transport.

Of course, if we make helmets optional, we’ll get much better value out of these cycleway investments – there will be more people cycling and using them. Plus, there’s much less need for helmets on cycleways – serious cycling accidents are overwhelmingly caused by collisions with cars and other vehicles, not falling off the bike.

Cycling and Health

The direct costs of cycling are pretty straightforward – it’s the amount being spent on infrastructure, whether it’s cycleways or token splashes of paint on the roads. As for indirect costs (externalities), cycling arguably has less than any other travel mode. Cyclists aren’t hurting anybody.

The benefits are a bit more complex. Like public transport, cycling helps to mitigate congestion – so car users benefit from having faster, more reliable travel times. Cycling also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Then there are the health benefits of cycling. Quoting from a 2014 paper which modelled potential cycling investment in Auckland (emphasis added):

Our findings suggest that the most effective approach would involve physical segregation on arterial roads (with intersection treatments) and low speed, bicycle-friendly local streets.

We estimate that these changes would bring large benefits to public health over the coming decades, in the tens of dollars for every dollar spent on infrastructure. The greatest benefits accrue from reduced all-cause mortality due to population-level physical inactivity.

Overall, the authors estimated that a $630 million investment in cycleways and “self-explaining roads” (traffic calming etc) would get cycling mode share to 40% by 2051, and give benefits of more than $13 billion, with a benefit:cost ratio of 24:1. Pretty good really. And we’ve found so far that the benefit:cost ratios for cycleways, at least the ones getting funded by the Urban Cycleways Programme, are often an order of magnitude higher than what we get for roads.

So, riding a bike is good for fitness and keeps you healthier for longer. At the New Zealand level, if more people cycled we’d have a healthier population, with lower mortality.

The next step: making helmets optional

Now, let’s have the conversation around helmet laws. Looking at the international picture: New Zealand’s compulsory helmet laws make us an international outlier. The evidence on their effectiveness has been mixed at best. Yes, helmets can reduce the severity of head injuries; but they’re also a barrier to cycling uptake.

We don’t know for sure in New Zealand, because the research hasn’t been done. But here’s my personal view. If we got rid of the law that says you have to wear a helmet while cycling, we’d have more people on bikes. This means car drivers will pay more attention to them, and drive more carefully. As such, it’s not clear whether the rate of serious head injuries (and in the worst case, deaths) would rise or fall. It depends on which effect dominates – cyclists being less likely to wear helmets so getting more severely injured, or drivers being more alert around cyclists. I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter effect wins out.

But here’s the thing – even if the latter effect doesn’t win out, it’s probably still a good idea to get rid of the law. Because there are all the other benefits from cycling to consider too – a healthier, fitter population, plus the congestion and emissions benefits. Those benefits are likely to be much greater than any ‘net’ cost from having more cyclists injured.

We’ve got an unusual split of powers in New Zealand:

  • The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) funds the costs of accident injuries. Every time a car slams into a cyclist, it’s ACC who pays for it. Understandably, ACC is all about doing things that reduce the risk and severity of injury (helmets can help with the latter, and don’t help and may even hurt the former). As noted above, it’s not clear whether making helmets optional would be better or worse for this.
  • The Ministry of Health handles the remainder of the public health system. They should be very interested in things which boost the general state of health among New Zealanders, such as cycling.
  • The police are responsible for enforcing the helmet law. It’s positive to see that cops aren’t fining cyclists as often as they used to, but ultimately they’re still giving out fines because that’s what the law says.

ACC and the Ministry of Health are more or less separate, with separate departments and different Ministers. The police are also separate, of course. These different organisations may have differing views on cycling and helmets, given their different responsibilities. We need a consensus-builder (a Gorbachev or perhaps a Bridges?) to bring the parties together and make, the right decision to give the best outcome for society.

Mr Bridges, it’s time to open this gate, and let the cyclists through. In order to get the most from the Urban Cycleways Programme, to encourage cycling as an everyday activity, and to unlock the health benefits, we need to get rid of the helmet law and make helmets optional.

* It also seems kind of unnecessary to have gates, walls and Bridges all mentioned in the title, but such is life