Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Waba

Events


Events roundup: Movies and more

Take an evening to relax and enjoy a documentary (or two)! The Summer in the City film series kicks off tomorrow with an illuminating look at public housing in America in the 1950s and 60s. If movies aren't your thing, RSVP for a reception to honor 50 years of the Urban Mass Transit Act.


Photo by Pruitt-Igoe Myth on Flickr.

Pruitt-Igoe on the big screen: Watch the tale of the infamous St. Louis public housing development and the residents who share their experiences and challenges living in public housing in the 50s and 60s. This film is the first of five films the Housing for All campaign is showing this summer. It starts at 6 pm, Wednesday, July 2 at the Southwest Library at 900 Wesley Place SW.

After the jump: Transportation Tuesday at APTA, more movies, and a women's health and biking workshop...

Happy 50th, UMTA! The American Public Transportation Association will be hosting a presentation and discussion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. The act has played a pivotal role in the mass transit renaissance in the US in the last half-century.

The event is July 8th at 1666 K Street NW, 11th Floor. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5:00 pm, with the presentation and discussion to run from 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm. Please RSVP to Cynthia Owens at cowens@apta.com or 202-496-4851.

The Legend of Disco Dan: This film follows infamous graffiti artist Cool "Disco" Dan as he discusses the changing city he once marked. The documentary highlights the culture of DC during the crack epidemic and the evolution of Go-Go. See the film at the MLK Library, 901 G Street NW, on Wednesday, June 9th at 6:00 pm.

Biking and Women's health: Ladies! Join WABA's Women & Bicycles initiative to talk biking and women's health in Georgetown. Women's Health Expert and Roll Model Laurie from Proteus Bicycles is hosting a skillshare on women's health and biking on Sunday, July 13 at 1:00 pm at the Georgetown Library, 3260 R St. NW.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Events


Events roundup: Books, bikes, bridges and more

Bikes are in the spotlight this week. Help clean up a bike trail in NE DC, talk bicycle and pedestrian planning in Tenleytown, support bicycle advocacy at BikeFest, and more. It's a busy time of year!


Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

WABA BikeFest: Join other bicycling enthusiasts for WABA's annual fundraiser. Enjoy tacos, drinks, dancing, art, and more while supporting our region's bike advocates at Eastern Market's North Hall on June 13 from 8 pm to midnight. Tickets are $45 for WABA members and $55 for the public.

Bike trail cleanup: The Metropolitan Branch Trail needs some spring cleaning. On Sunday, June 15, from 10 am-12:30 pm, WABA's Trail Ranger team and community volunteers will tame vegetation and clean debris from the trail for smooth summer riding. Volunteers will meet at the Met Branch Trail at 4th and S Street NE. You can RSVP here.

After the jump: see plans for the north-south streetcar and 11th Street Bridge Park, and take a walk in Wheaton.

Meet the 11th Street Bridge Park designers: The field has narrowed to four teams competing to design a park on the piers of the old 11th Street Bridge across the Anacostia. Though the designs are not yet complete, each of the four teams will talk about their approaches and early ideas tonight, 6:30-8 pm at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Avenue SE.

Streetcar planning: DDOT is holding its final round of open house meetings for its study of a future north-south DC streetcar. You can see DDOT's analysis of possible streetcar routes and weigh in. All three meetings last from 3:30-8:30 pm, with overview presentations at 4 and 7 pm. The full schedule is below:

  • South meeting: Tuesday, June 10, at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 2nd floor community room, 1100 4th St SW.
  • North meeting: Thursday, June 12, at the Emery Rec Center, 2nd floor community room, 5701 Georgia Ave NW.
Downtown Wheaton walking tour: The Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee (WUDAC) invites you to join their annual Wheaton walking tour this Saturday, June 14 at 10 am. The tour will be divided into three parts to encourage community feedback and conclude at 1 pm. RSVP by this Wednesday. Details and RSVP info.

Dead End book talk: This Thursday, June 12, join Ward3Vision to hear Greater Greater Washington contributor Ben Ross talk about his book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, at the Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library (4450 Wisconsin Ave NW) at 7 pm. A lively discussion on walking and biking in cities will follow. Please RSVP.

Do you know an event that should be on the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Send an email to events@ggwash.org with the details and a link to a page on the web which has more information.

Transit


MARC's chief engineer wants to allow bikes on some weekend trains

The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is seriously looking at how to let passengers bring ordinary bicycles aboard MARC trains. A background briefing by top MARC officials last week left bicycle advocates with the distinct impression that they want to allow bikes on some weekend trains within the next year or so.


A cyclist boarding a train in Germany (not Maryland). Photo by Steven Vance on Flickr.

MTA officials have long said that the combination of high speeds and full trains prevented allowing bikes. At a meeting three years ago, advocates pressed the matter with Simon Taylor, the Assistant Administrator of MTA, and John Hovatter, Director of MARC and Maryland Commuter Bus Operations.

Taylor and Hovatter made it clear that there was no real prospect for bikes on trains anytime soon. But they also said that MARC was planning for weekend service, and that bikes "should" be allowed if that service started.

At the time, weekend trains seemed like a remote possibility. Now they are a reality, and MARC officials are evaluating options for allowing bikes aboard some weekend trains.

Why MARC does not allow bikes on trains

Taylor and Hovatter explained their reluctance to allow bikes on trains to several advocates at the 2011 meeting. Federal safety rules require bicycles to be securely tied down on trains running faster than 70 mph, lest they become projectiles in a crash, the officials said.

On the Penn Line, trains exceed 70 mph along most segments except in Baltimore. On some stretches, the trains exceed 110 mph when pulled by electric locomotives. MTA engineers have been unable to devise a way to quickly secure bikes without permanently removing 3 to 5 seats from the car for every pair of bikes. With full trains, that is not a tradeoff that MARC is willing to make.

The Camden and Brunswick Line trains are not so full, so removing a few seats in favor of bike racks might be reasonable for those trains. But MARC rotates all train sets (except for the electric locomotives) between the three lines, so modifying cars for those two CSX lines would make Penn Line trains even more crowded.

Could MARC allow bikes on the Camden and Brunswick lines with the existing train configuration? Given that WMATA allows bikes on off-peak Metrorail trains, it might seem safe to do so. But Taylor and Hovatter countered that the CSX track is much poorer, generating side-to-side jostling which can cause bikes to slip out of the hands of the owner and strike another passenger. The low platforms at almost every station are another obstacle.

None of these problems is insurmountable, but in MTA officials' minds, they seemed to all add up to make bikes more trouble than they are worth.

A possible breakthrough emerges

Last year's gas tax increase provided additional funds for transportation, making it possible to finally add weekend service. Last summer, I reminded Hovatter that he had said "bikes should be allowed" when weekend service starts, because the trains will not be crowded. I asked if he could provide us with an update of his thinking.

He responded:

I would suggest we wait a few months to see how it is working and how many passengers we will be hauling. We are only running 3 car train sets to start off. If the trains are packed, and we hope they are, I doubt we will be able to handle any bikes, except the folding ones that we allow right now. Check back with us when it starts.
I was not encouraged by that response, but other members of Maryland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (MBPAC) were more optimistic. Greg Hinchliffe, who represents Baltimore on the committee, pressed MDOT's Michael Jackson to set up a meeting with MARC officials and MBPAC.

As soon as the meeting began, it was clear that something had changed. Rather than listen to cyclist pleas for better service, the MDOT officials decided to have Erich Kolig, MARC's Chief Mechanical Officer, start the meeting with a presentation that gently lampooned MARC's existing policy. With a perfect deadpan, Kolig showed the MARC website:

Here is our bicycle policy: "Due to safety concerns, MARC's bicycle policy allows for the transportation of folding bicycles only... However, folding bikes are no longer restricted to those carried in a case." You see, we do have a bicycle policy.
All the advocates, and Jackson, laughed loudly.

Kolig then explained that he thinks the weekend service and MARC's capital equipment upgrades provide an opportunity to start carrying bikes on some trains. While the trains have attracted more passengers than expected, they still carry fewer people than the weekday trains. His presentation included illustrations depicting how bikes can be safely stored aboard the trains. He had clearly thought through how to do it, and how to keep the cost low enough to make it economically feasible.

Kolig and Hovatter asked the advocates to not reveal any details of the proposal.

Hovatter seemed favorably disposed to the proposal, although he did not promise that MARC will actually implement it. The decision to go forward is a few steps above his pay grade. And some unanticipated problems may arise, since railroads are highly regulated and MARC owns neither the track nor the largest stations on the Penn Line.

Hopefully, the Maryland Department of Transportation will approve Kolig's recommendation and at least start a pilot project with bikes on weekend trains, as soon as practicable. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) has offered to help MTA officials get cyclist feedback on any draft plan.

Cross-posted at WABA Quick Release.

Bicycling


Black Thumbs Collective keeps cyclists east of the river in gear

The bicycling boom in the District is on a steady increase. But while cyclists can be spotted throughout the entire city, there are no bike shops currently located east of the Anacostia River.


Images by Barbara L. Salisbury.

DC is the #3 city for bike commuters, according to the US Census bureau, the city added almost 50 miles of bike lanes from 2001 to 2010, and Capital Bikeshare is the second largest bikesharing system in the country. Yet this necessary amenity cannot be found for commuters in wards 7 and 8.

"The city is driven by economics," says Brian Ward, Sales Manager at Capitol Hill Bikes. "There may be a demand for bike shops in underserved communities, but those residents may not offer the finances to support them."

With his shop located just one mile away from Anacostiaone of the city's "bike shop deserts"Ward has recently accepted an opportunity to involve Capitol Hill Bikes in a group formed to address the needs of his neighbors.


Brandon Lyles, a tech at Capitol Hill Bikes in Southeast, fixes a bike. He'll be volunteering his time to make sure residents East of the River can keep their bikes in working order.

The Black Thumb Collective is a grassroots effort to provide free bike maintenance to commuters living in underserved communities. Formed of mechanics from partnering bike shops, as well as independent bike techs, the Collective will provide a necessary resource to keep residents in Wards 7 & 8 pedaling safely throughout the city.

The collective was created by Hamzat Sani, bike ambassador and East of the River Coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA).

In 2013, WABA's East of the River Program partnered with The Bike House to produce nine mobile bike clinics, where volunteer and certified bike mechanics came to sites east of the river to provide free bike repair to residents. When Sani joined the WABA staff in August, he learned that the program would be ending due to exhausted grant funding for the project.

"The mobile bike shops became a really good way to engage with the community east of the river, so I started thinking of ways to continue that program and engaging with the community in a way that was meaningful to them," says Sani. So he contacted six local bike shops, which agreed to allow mechanics a few hours of paid leave to service the community each month.

Borrowing from the "green thumb" label of veteran gardeners, he tagged the group "Black Thumb," representing the aesthetics of greasy-handed bike techs.

Sani hopes that the collective will benefit bike shops by creating inroads into communities they would not otherwise see. Having a recurring presence in these communities will help to build shops' brand recognition and potentially broaden their clientele.

"Cycling is changing on a daily basis," says Sani. "What you think of as the Lance Armstrong, fully kitted with lycra and spandex cyclists are certainly still there, but more and more there are daily riders who hop on their bike or on bikeshare to grab groceries or get to work. Those are becoming more of the folk who are sustaining local bike shops."

The Black Thumbs Collective is one of the first initiatives incorporating local bike shops to take a leadership role in addressing equity-based issues around cycling.

Late last year, Ward, the Capitol Hill Bikes manager, brought his head bike tech Brandon Lyles to the Anacostia Arts Center for WABA's Cap City Bike Expo, the finale event for the 2013 East of the River program. The collective was made public for the first time and Lyles sat on a panel to discuss the role of bike shops in shaping bike-friendly communities citywide.

"The main concern was, how can we get something that is sustainable and convenient," said Lyles, who has worked in bike maintenance for over a decade.

The Bike Expo also saw the installation of a new Dero Fixit stand, an outdoor self-service bike repair station outside of the Anacostia Arts Center. The tool allows riders to perform basic repairs and maintenance, from changing a flat to adjusting brakes and derailleurs.

"It's the first in the city that is not tied to a bike shop," says Sani.

Ernest Clark, head bike mechanic at City Bikes in Adams Morgan, volunteered at the Fixit stand during the expo, showing visitors how to utilize the tool to perform basic repairs.

"The best part was the warm reception of people from the community who need their bikes worked on," said Clark.

As a member of the collective, Clark's biggest hope is that it will lessen bike thefts in east-of-the-river neighborhoods.

"If we can help them to maintain their own bikes, they won't feel like they have to steal bikes from others," said Clark.

Sani also believes that the service can be used for crime prevention.

"Connecting the community to be able to walk and bike where they live changes the fabric of a neighborhood," he said. "When you're able to have more of a body presence, it tends to make the neighborhood a lot safer because crime happens in the shadows. So when people are constantly engaged, walking and biking in their communities, it will make crime that happens in the shadows a little harder in wards 7 & 8."

Sani hopes to use the winter lull in the cycling season to assess the capacity of the collective, and then hit the streets this spring. Together, collective members seek to generate a newfound culture of community among local bike mechanics to do good work in deserving communities.

Cross-posted from Elevation DC.

Bicycling


The new Frederick Douglass Bridge won’t connect to the Suitland Parkway Trail

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is proposing a new Frederick Douglas Memorial Bridge that will not connect to the Suitland Parkway Trail through Anacostia. The Suitland Parkway Trail's trailhead is only one mile from the proposed bridge.

DDOT will invest $600 million in a new South Capitol Street / Frederick Douglas Memorial Bridge across the Anacostia River. This is the largest capital investment project in the DDOT's history and represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get the design right for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Bridge engineers have been listening to the concerns of bicycling community over the last two years, and DDOT has made improvements to the bridge design for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The new span will have two 18-foot-wide multi-use trails, one on each side of the roadway. The sidepath space will be divided into an 8-foot sidewalk and a 10-foot-wide bicycle path. There will be direct connections from the bridge, around the traffic circles, to the street grid and existing or planned trail networks.

But there is a glaring exception: There is no direct connection to the Suitland Parkway Trail from the bridge. The Suitland Parkway Trail is a multi-use path that extends two miles east from Anacostia to the District's border with Maryland. Prince George's County is beginning plans to extend the trail another 3.5 miles east to the Branch Ave Metro Station. It is a preferred route for bicyclists because the trail is steady uphill grade; many nearby residential streets have very quick and steep climbs.

Bicyclists wishing to travel from the bridge to the trail will follow one of two routes. The first, on the south side of the bridge, follows the traffic circle around counterclockwise, underneath I-295, and ends at the intersection of Firth Sterling and the Suitland Parkway. This route crosses roads eight times, including two high speed interstate ramps. The second route begins on the north side of the bridge, follows the traffic circle around clockwise, and ends on Howard Road. Engineers would then paint bike lanes on Howard Road. Neither route ends anywhere near the Suitland Parkway Trail.

Residents who live just up the Anacostia River experience a similar roadway design every day. The unpleasant walk or bike ride from the Pennsylvania Ave Bridge underneath the freeway to Minnesota Avenue SE is nearly the same layout. Pedestrians and bicyclists must navigate a sea of crosswalks, high speed interstate highway ramps and numerous traffic lights. It's unsafe, unpleasant, and intimidating. DDOT should not repeat the same mistake.

DDOT engineers need to propose a direct connection from the new bridge to the trail. This connection should aim to keep pedestrians and bicyclists separated from car traffic, minimize crosswalks, and prioritize grade separated trail crossings. Trail users should not have to cross high-speed freeway ramps. The design should prioritize the experience of bicyclists and pedestrians. Most importantly, the trail connection should keep kids, adults, and seniors safe and be a direct, safe, and convenient connection of communities.

WABA has created a petition asking DDOT to design and build a safe trail connection from the South Capitol Street Bridge to the Suitland Parkway Trail.

Bicycling


These videos teach bike etiquette with LEGO

How can we show cyclists, drivers, and everyone else on the street how to share? The city of Edmonton, Alberta produced these five six excellent videos using LEGO figures teaching the new rules of the road.

Interactions between cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers can often be contentious. Lighthearted videos like this can help everyone understand their rights and responsibilities in the urban realm.

Thanks to WABA for the heads-up.

Poverty


Topic of the week: Giving

The holiday season as well as the end of they year will soon be upon us and that gets lots of people thinking about giving to worthy organizations. We asked our contributors for their favorite organizations that they are donating to this year. Can you add your support?


Photo by Julie on Flickr.

David Alpert: The Coalition for Smarter Growth does the hard work, day in and day out, of advocating for the issues most of us support here at Greater Greater Washington. They mobilized a lot of people (including many of you) to show up in person to testify for the zoning update in DC, Bus Rapid Transit in Montgomery County, and better land use and transportation plans in Prince George's and Northern Virginia.

Online, we talk about these issues and help educate many people about what's going on in their communities, but success also requires on-the-ground organizing. Please support CSG's great work.

We also talk about bicycling a lot here on Greater Greater Washington, and no organization is doing more to push for safer streets, better bike infrastructure, trails, CaBi, bike racks, driver and cyclist education, and so much more than the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). They made a list of amazing projects that they'd like to do, and would help bicycling in DC, but can't do without money. Why not help pay for a "traffic garden" where kids can learn to ride safely, or a fellow to compile and analyze crash statistics? Donate to them here.

Ben Ross: The Action Committee for Transit is Montgomery County's grass-roots advocate for better transit and better communities. Please join us (or renew early for next year) and support our activism by choosing whatever dues level you can afford between $10 and $100.

Canaan Merchant: Two organizations that I've volunteered for and have grown to admire are Food and Friends and DC Central Kitchen. Food and Friends delivers meals to people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses. DC Central Kitchen provides meals for the homeless and is a culinary training program for them and others as well. Both the sick and the homeless are too often invisible parts of our urban landscape and these organizations have earned a lot of recognition for their ability to provide. I'd encourage anyone looking for ways to give locally to consider these two organizations.

Aimee Custis: Two organizations on my giving list this year are Smart Growth America and Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling. Smart Growth America advocates on the national level for people who want to live and work in great neighborhoods, but their office is here in DC, and their staff are an active part of our region's smart growth community. There are so many great local bike advocacy groups, but Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling is one of my favorites. A volunteer-run local affiliate of WABA, they're on the front lines of advancing cycling in Fairfax County, which certainly isn't easy.

Dan Reed: IMPACT Silver Spring is a great organization that embodies the adage "Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." They ensure the long-term health of immigrant, minority, and low-income communities in Montgomery County through organizing, community engagement, and leadership training, empowering people to advocate for themselves both economically and politically. Montgomery Housing Partnership not only builds affordable housing, they help their residents build better lives and neighborhoods through job training and community-building events.

Both groups make Silver Spring and Montgomery County better places to live, and their staffs are some of the most talented, hardworking people I know. I've had the pleasure of working with both of them over the past year on the Flower Theatre Project, and they definitely deserve your support.

Michael Perkins: Bread for the City provides a wide variety of services - not just food and clothing, but also legal advice, dental care, and medical care. They get a regular donation from me. Also, Arlington Streetcar Now!, which is an advocacy organization that's organizing support to continue the plan to build a streetcar in Arlington.

Malcolm Kenton: Although I may not be working for them for much longer, I will add my endorsement for giving to the National Association of Railroad Passengers if you support an expanded and improved national passenger train network plus enhanced transit and commuter rail and multi-modal connectivity. I also give to two local water quality & conservation organizations: Rock Creek Conservancy and the Anacostia Watershed Society.

Elizabeth Falcon: The Diverse City Fund is a project to locally source money to fund grassroots projects in DC. All of the board members who determine grants are longtime DC organizers and activists, and the money goes to small projects that many larger foundations won't fund.

Jim Titus: And don't forget your local house of worship, which probably looks out for people in your neighborhood who have fallen on hard times and may well operate a food pantry.

Jacques Arsenault: A couple of other great organizations that touch on homeless and housing work are the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network (A-SPAN) and Central Union Mission, who just moved from 14th Street NW to near Union Station. And two organizations that provide critical services for under served or disconnected youth in the community are the Latin American Youth Center and DC Lawyers for Youth.

Veronica O. Davis: Food & Friends prepares and delivers healthy meals to terminally ill residents in the region.

Jaime Fearer: I serve on the board of Fihankra Akoma Ntoaso, or FAN, a local nonprofit organization based in Anacostia that serves foster youth throughout the District. More specifically, FAN aims to support teens in foster care by filling the gaps in their social, emotional, and educational lives as they face aging out of the foster care system. Please watch our 7-minute video and join me in building a bridge for some of our most vulnerable youth.

Geoffrey Hatchard: I'll be one to add an ask for Casey Trees. Casey's mission is simple: to restore, enhance, and protect the tree canopy of the nation's capital. I've been volunteering for Casey Trees for 9 years now, and I've found every minute of it to be fulfilling and worthwhile. They've expanded their reach recently to include plantings in Prince George's County, Montgomery County, and Arlington County. With more funds, they'll be able to invest in more staff to help plan and lead more projects in the future.

Public Spaces


Congressional impasse shuts down DC's trails

DC bicycle commuters woke up this morning to find that one popular rail-trail was closed due to the government shutdown, which took effect at midnight.


Some cyclists are ignoring the barriers erected by the National Park Service and using the Capital Crescent Trail despite the shutdown. Photo by someone named Ricky, who is friends with DC Bike Ambassador Pete Beers.

The Capital Crescent Trail is the most heavily-used rail-trail in the United States, with more than a million users a year. Not just a weekend pleasure-ride spot, the CCT is thick with bicycles during morning rush hour as people use it as a safer and more pleasant bike-commuting alternative to DC's congested streets. Now, the government would give them no choicethough the Washington Area Bicyclist Association reports that there's little enforcement and intrepid bike commuters are using the trail despite the barriers.

Since this important bike route is managed by the National Park Service, it is part of the vast collateral damage of the embarrassing scenario unfolding on Capitol Hill. WABA warned yesterday that "all or part of the heavily-commuted Rock Creek Trail, Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, and George Washington Memorial Trail are on NPS property" and could also be shut down, but early reports seem to indicate that they're still open.

The 185-mile C&O Canal trail, which runs from DC's Georgetown neighborhood to Cumberland, is also closed.


The 185-mile C&O Canal Trail, which begins in Washington, DC, is closed. Photo tweeted by Bike Arlington.

All roads are open during the government shutdown, except some leading into national parks, which are closed. In DC, this would include Rock Creek Parkway and other roads through the largest urban national park in the countrybut, curiously, that key car-commuter route is still open. However, Rock Creek Park's Beach Drive is closed to car traffic during the shutdown, so people who enjoy riding their bikes there on weekends, when drivers are normally kept out, will enjoy riding it today. That's one nice trade-off for losing the CCT.

WABA learned about the possible Capital Crescent Trail shutdown yesterday, and bollards were put in place at the entrances to prepare to block trail traffic. The sections of the CCT within Montgomery County remain open, since they are owned by the county, not NPS.

DC has a disproportionate number of city parks under NPS, but certainly the shutdown will prevent people from using other popular off-road trails around the country, like this one in the Philly area. Where else are cyclists and pedestrian commuters being impacted?

Crossposted at DC Streetsblog.

Bicycling


Feds will stop hyping effectiveness of bike helmets

Two federal government agencies will withdraw their longstanding claims that bicycle helmets reduce the risk of a head injury by 85%. The decision comes in response to a petition the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) filed under the federal Data Quality Act.


Photo by dno1967b on Flickr.

In 1989, a study in Seattle estimated that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries. Later efforts to replicate those results found a weaker connection between helmets and head injuries, but public health advocates, government web sites, and the news media often present it as fact.

Bad information can cause problems, even when it is promoted with the best intentions. If people think that helmets stop almost all head injuries, consumers will not demand better helmets, and legislators may feel it makes sense to require everyone to wear one. WABA asked two federal agencies to correct the misinformation, and after a lengthy process, they've agreed to do so.

How effective are bicycle helmets?

In theory, helmets should absorb the shock from a crash. If your head strikes the ground or a vehicle, your brain could be seriously shaken by the sudden deceleration. With a helmet, the foam around your head forms a cushion.

They can also prevent head fractures by spreading the force of the impact. It's like the difference between being hit on the head by a rock or a beach ball with the same weight.

It's hard to tell how often helmets actually prevent head injuries, however. Experiments on people are unethical, so instead researchers collect hospital data on people involved in bicycle crashes.

In 1989, a team of researchers led by Dr. Robert S. Thompson, a preventative care specialist at the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, collected data about cyclists in Seattle who went to area hospitals after a crash. Only 7% of the cyclists with head injuries wore helmets, but 24% of those without head injuries did wear helmets. Their statistical analysis, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, estimated that helmets had reduced the risk of a head injury by 85%.

Dr. Thompson's study was a "case-control study" like those that first found a link between smoking and cancer. There is no true "control" group, but epidemiologists say these studies are good for showing whether something has a good or bad effect on health, though not for quantifying it.

Dozens of researchers sought to replicate the Thompson findings in their own communities. They also found that helmets reduce the risk of head injuries, but less frequently than Thompson's team found. Some studies even found that helmets increase the risk of neck injuries. If you consider the entire body of research rather than just one study, and look at both head and neck injuries, helmets only reduce the risk of injury by about 15% to 45% .

Nonetheless, public health advocates seized on the 85% estimate as a good way to communicate risk: failing to wear a helmet makes you more than 6 times as likely to experience a head injury. Government websites and newspapers have repeated it to the point where it has become ubiquitous in discussions about bicycle helmets.

Misinformation encourages helmet laws, discourages better helmets

Bicycle safety is one of WABA's central missions. It requires helmets on all rides that it organizes, and it sponsors the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, an independently-funded organization that reviews bicycle helmets and encourages improvements in their design. In the 1990's, WABA supported proposals to require children under the age of 16 to wear bicycle helmets, which eventually became law.

But WABA draws the line at laws requiring adults to wear helmets. Such laws do little to promote safety, but they discourage bike sharing and other uses of bicycles for short trips.

This year, WABA fought hard against a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would have required all adults to wear bicycle helmets on any trip, no matter how short. The Maryland Department of Transportation supported the mandatory helmet bill, citing the 85% estimate, while an article about it in the Washington Post cited a figure from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that helmets prevent 80% of head injuries. Fortunately, objections from cyclists persuaded the bill's sponsor not to move forward with it.

Recently, most helmet research has focused on making helmets cool, rather than more protective. Better ventilation and more fashionable designs might encourage more people to buy and wear helmets, but it does not make them safer. Could that be because everyone is assuming that helmets are already 85% effective? Would that change if people thought helmets were less than 50% effective?

WABA pushed agencies to correct the misinformation

Last February, I sent emails to both CDC and NHTSA, pointing out that the 85% estimate is incorrect and providing citations to newer research. Laurie Beck, an epidemiologist from CDC promised to remove the error.

Meanwhile, NHTSA staff told me that they were too busy to discuss the matter, so we made a formal "request for correction" under the Data Quality Act, which requires information on federal web sites to be accurate and supported by appropriate research.

Two months later, NHTSA agreed to remove the 85% estimate from its website. We expect other agencies to follow the lead of NHTSA and CDC, though some may need some encouragement.

This probably won't be the last we hear this factoid. Some nongovernmental public health advocates have ignored the results of the last 20 years of research and won't correct their stump speeches simply because the federal government removes an outdated estimate from its websites.

Will NHTSA step forward? The agency funds a lot of data collection efforts, and it clearly seems to think that the public needs to know how effective helmets are. Now that it concedes that it has been propagating the wrong answer for all these years, will it fund the research needed to provide the correct answer?

A version of this post is cross-posted at WABA Quick Release.

Support Us

How can our region be greater?

DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC