Rail-to-trail near Girona, Spain. Photos: Barry Evans.

A couple of years ago, I wrote here (approvingly) about research from around the world questioning the wisdom of promoting cyclists to wear helmets on urban streets. The last couple of months, living in Spain, France and Italy, my opinions have only hardened. To a first degree of approximation: (1) no one here wears a helmet on city streets, and (2) everyone does in the country. (“Here” in this case is Barcelona and Girona, Spain; Sisteron, France; Verona and Bolzano, Italy.)

And (3): bikes are ubiquitous! They’re everywhere, ridden by everyone, young and old. Regular street bikes, smaller 20-inch wheel bikes (our Dahon folding bikes fit right in), electric bikes, racing bikes — we’re seeing whole carnivals of them. And no wonder, all the cities I just mentioned have dedicated bike lanes, which make all the difference on busy city streets. Every tourist office we approached had bike maps, in addition to “regular” tourist maps. Bikes over here seem to be part and parcel of the culture, whichever one we’re in, taking cars off the streets, reducing noxious emissions, keeping folks healthy, making for less stressful commuting.

Wide sidewalks in Verona, Italy, accommodate both cyclists and pedestrians.

In my previous article — it bears repeating — I wrote that the key to reducing injuries to cyclists is in numbers. The more cyclists are on the roads, the more drivers pay attention to them. Unfortunately, helmet laws have the perverse effect of discouraging cyclists, thus making accidents more likely. And vice versa. For instance, this study found that bike-share schemes (pick-up in one location, drop-off in another) in Washington DC, Minneapolis, New York and Montreal reduced total bike-related injuries by 28 precent. (This, despite there being many more bikes on the road, ridden by riders without helmets.) Meanwhile, a study of 200,000 people using Barcelona’s “Bicing” bike-share scheme concluded that it reduced the number of expected deaths by about 23 percent.

Shared bike station in Verona, Italy.

So my appeal is for our local authorities to do more to promote bike use with dedicated bike lanes, traffic calming systems (being from the UK, I love what are called there “roundabouts,” like the ones in Arcata and Bayside), bike-share schemes, and driver and rider education. Kudos to the folks at Humboldt County who created the Humboldt Bike Map! And to Humbikes (Humboldt Bay Bicycle Commuter Organization, humbikes.org) which puts on regular bike safety classes for youths — call Rick Knapp 445-1097.

Pedestrians and cyclists co-exist happily in front of Verona’s Roman amphitheater.

And of course, whatever you or I think about helmets, they should be mandatory for kids (who are more likely to get into accidents). And the bottom line is this: helmets or not, cyclists live longer than average. I still say it’s how the gods meant us to travel.

Pile o’ bikes, Bolzano, Italy.