Taming The Bull in Society’s China Shop

  • Mikael Colville-Andersen


It’s a fine metaphor: society as a china shop. A stylish, brightly lit room with a diverse selection of lovingly crafted and valuable porcelain. It’s been in business for 7,000 years, but a century or so ago someone let a bull loose inside. If you actually owned a china shop and someone actually let a bull inside, you would be rather dismayed. Don’t you think you would drop everything and channel all your energies into getting the bull out?

Cyclists shouldn’t have to run with the bulls. Photo: Zane Kraujina

It’s a fine metaphor: society as a china shop. A stylish, brightly lit room with a diverse selection of lovingly crafted and valuable porcelain. It’s been in business for 7,000 years, but a century or so ago someone let a bull loose inside. If you actually owned a china shop and someone actually let a bull inside, you would be rather dismayed. Don’t you think you would drop everything and channel all your energies into getting the bull out?

When you call for help, however, you’re told that there is nothing you can do. You’re directed to websites that advise you to don safety equipment and issue the same to any customers who venture inside. Your porcelain? Time to start buying kilometers of bubble wrap and packing it all in. Meanwhile, the bull just crapped on the floor in aisle 9 and knocked over another shelf.

Welcome to a century of cars in our cities. Everyone can agree that we have, indeed, let a bull loose inside our cities, but there is little desire to do anything about it on a global level.The best option would be to eliminate the danger. Either lead the bull out of the shop or kill it and have a celebratory barbecue. Until that happens, shouldn’t we at least minimize the danger? Lasso the beast, tether it in a corral in the corner in order to restrict its movements. What about castration or medication? There are numerous options, and yet, on a societal level, we choose to completely ignore the bull. We stand with our back to it and hand out safety wear to anyone who comes in. If they refuse to put it all on, accusing fingers are pointed in their direction, accompanied by tiresome, victim-blaming monologues about “safety” and how ridiculous it is that you choose to enter the china shop without assuming “your share of the responsibility.”

In the time it took you to read that previous paragraph, one human somewhere in the world was killed and around 50 people were injured by the rampaging bulls. In both Europe and America, there is a car-crash 9/11 every single month—and every single month for the past 60 years—and yet there is no war on this particular terror.

What is interesting is that for the first time in decades, Big Auto is a bit worried.

More than anyone else, the automobile industry is really quite keen on our ignoring the bull. It’s all well and good believing in the bicycle’s role in our societies, but we are faced with a daunting antagonist: a century of car culture and car-centric planning. How do we begin to take the battle to Big Auto? You would think that the companies that produce such dangerous vehicles would be held accountable or would at least make serious efforts to stop people from dying. For all the air bags and ABS brakes and seatbelts, though, the killed and seriously injured (KSI) numbers remain stable. Nothing is happening.

What is interesting is that for the first time in decades, Big Auto is a bit worried. I first noticed a shift in focus in car commercials back in 2009, and it started with Audi. You know how car commercials usually work. They have honed their marketing skills for generations in a market where they’ve had little competition. Cars roaring across breathtaking landscapes or down unrealistically empty city streets. Freedom, sex, adventure, and coolness with insane production value and astronomical budgets. But the Audi ad for their A3 model employed new tactics. The bike boom was well underway and talk of improved public transport was rising. The ad just showed the other options. A wobbly cyclist in pouring rain, a bus passenger getting jostled around by fellow passengers, and a dorky dude on a Segway. All looking stupid and pathetic. Then, the money shot. A beat-up station wagon with a “Powered by Vegetable Oil” bumper sticker is crawling up a hill, and the A3 blows past it—overtaking on a curve, which is not at all safe.

The bemused male voice-over: “Many people are trying to do their part. Some just have more fun doing it. The new Audi A3 TDI Clean Diesel.”

This is just one of many commercials in the same vein that I’ve identified over the past eight years, from a wide variety of carmakers. The tactics invented and employed by the fledgling automobile industry back in the Anti-Automobile Age lay dormant for decades until now. Ridicule, arrogance, and spin. Ready to pull out of the drawer and slapped into an expensive commercial. The reason for the return to these tactics is, if you think about it, positive. The bicycle reappeared on the urban scene in about 2006 or 2007, and the car industry identified it as a competitor and went after it, tossing public transport into the mix.

It’s not just the automobile industry. Companies from industries like insurance and car-share are in on the act. There are, it must be said, examples of car companies greenwashing with bikes in the commercial, filming the car in the city from bikes, and even producing bikes that fit in the trunks of their cars.

They’re worried and they don’t know exactly what to do. Two of the main Big Auto players, BMW and Ford, are trying to reinvent themselves as “mobility companies,” but largely the industry is still stuck in its ways. Add to this the concerted effort being made to hype electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles as the next big thing that will change the world. The former only eliminates one aspect of the problem—emissions. The latter brings new problems with it. I recall reading a quote on Twitter that “In Amsterdam, a Google self-driving car would park itself after a few minutes and start crying.” Both of them still occupy an arrogant amount of urban space.

I spoke at the State of Design Festival in Melbourne a few years back. The event was bookended by two keynote speakers. The American, Chris Bangle, who is the former head of design at BMW, would kick it off, and I would wrap it up a few days later. Bangle is a charming and personable guy and entertaining as a speaker. I was looking forward to a Big Auto representative speak at a design and sustainability festival.

The program featured this blurb about his talk: “We are becoming more aware of ‘personal mobility,’ the choice we make for moving around. However, Bangle perceives the need to consider ‘personal emotional mobility’ if we are to seriously tackle behavior change and develop more sustainable mobility products. People have developed ‘emotional’ attachments to their modes of transport, so if we want change we need to provide new experiences that act equally as a catalyst for emotional connection and sustainable outcomes.”

No Henry Ford without Albert Augustus Pope. No selling their products gorgeously without the massive success of early bicycle marketing.

Okay, no mention of the environment or sustainability, but there was a fancy new catchphrase: Personal Emotional Mobility. How hip and cool does that sound? It was the pivotal point of Bangle’s talk. The car industry needs to rethink their design so that people can experience a heightened emotional attachment to their cars. He highlighted how the number of 16- to 18-year-olds in the United States who aren’t bothering to get a driver’s license is rising. The same thing is happening all over the world. But then Bangle said it: “We have to hook them back to the car.” Yep. That’s what he said. To those sitting in the audience, it was remarkable to see how many people turned their heads to the person next to them with quizzical looks on their faces, silently asking each other, “Did he just say that? Really?” I had my son, Felix, with me on the trip, and he was busy with his Nintendo during the talk—fair enough when you’re eight—but he did look up at one point and whisper to me, “Daddy…isn’t it funny that he’s talking about cars and you’re here to talk about bicycles?” Well spotted, my boy.

It’s a new century, kids.

We shared a car with Bangle from the airport when we arrived, and we discussed various aspects of our respective fields. Bangle asked me two questions in the course of the conversation. Did I think that bikes should be registered like cars? I said no, of course. It’s a ridiculous idea. He then asked an interesting question about whether bikes are the top end of pedestrian traffic or the bottom end of car traffic. I replied that bikes were the former. Cyclists move faster than pedestrians but are capable of pedestrian-like movement and spontaneity.

During his talk he referred to our conversation and added a bit of bike-bashing for good measure. He mentioned the top-end/bottom-end question and suggested that cyclists want to be both. Delivered with a crooked smile and a roll-of-the-eyes expression on his face. He also chucked out the line that “somebody has to pay for the roads.” Something that the good people at the I Pay Road Tax website would have a field day with.

I approached him at the restaurant we all went to that evening and mentioned this myth about “paying for roads.” “Oh, I know…,” he replied with a smile. So he knew…but still chucked out the line to the audience. Felix made himself famous in Melbourne that evening. He was drawing at the table, on yellow post-it notes. He asked me how to spell bicycle and I helped him, not knowing what he had planned. He tiptoed over to Bangle and put a post-it note on his back. He had simply written: “I ❤ Bicycles.”

Big Auto Dude took it with a laugh, but a whole bunch of the people at the table fired off text messages about this innocent but effective eight-year-old’s bicycle-advocacy activism.

So. What is Personal Emotional Mobility? The car industry would love you to mutter “Oooh, baby” as your hands caress the carefully chosen material on your steering wheel and “Oh yeah as you look down the elegant slope of your hood. They want to trigger emotional reactions in people. All while those people are incarcerated inside their vehicles—completely and utterly cut off from the society in which they live. Isolated and alienated. It’s no secret that the car industry has borrowed freely from the bicycle industry throughout the past century. No Henry Ford without Albert Augustus Pope. No gorgeously selling their products without the massive success of early bicycle marketing.

So here’s what we should do. Pluck this catchphrase of Personal Emotional Mobility from the clutches of the car industry and plant it firmly in the blossoming garden of urban cycling. Because you know what the great thing about Personal Emotional Mobility is? It describes perfectly what the bicycle can offer the person who rides it. It is a brilliant description of what I, personally, get out of riding a bicycle in cities. My personal and emotional attachment with the cityscape, as well as with my fellow citizens, whether on bicycles or on foot, is intensified, heightened.

I interact with my urban landscape as I roll down the cycle tracks or streets of my own or any other city. The bicycle is independent mobility and on it I am an integral, active, and visible element in the city. Offering yet another human thread that strengthens the social fabric. Thank you, Bangle. Thank you BMW. Your desperate attempt to sell cars has given us the perfect phrase with which to describe the beauty of the bicycle in cities.

It is a bit of a departure, though. Think about all the car commercials you’ve ever seen. Think about the logos of carmakers. Proud stallions, imposing rams, fearsome birds of prey, big cats, mythical dragons. Virile symbols of power. Now we see Big Auto either ridiculing the competition or trying to get all warm and fuzzy. But it’s like that aunt or uncle at the family gathering who has had too much to drink and wants to hug everyone. Awkward and comical.

So perhaps Big Auto is struggling to rediscover its role in a society that is rapidly changing, what with all this talk of bikes, public transport, liveable and life-sized cities, but their legacy remains unchanged until further notice. Ever since they orchestrated the paradigm shift in our perception of streets, generations of citizens have just accepted it without any critical thought.

Traces of car-centric planning are everywhere, like scars on our cities’ skin.

Traces of car-centric thinking are everywhere. Study every nook and cranny of your neighborhood. Every crack in the sidewalks. Every centimeter of bike infrastructure. Each and every crosswalk and intersection. Traces of car-centric planning are everywhere, like scars on our cities’ skin. Individuals, organizations, and policymakers in every country subconsciously do the bidding of Big Auto, even though they may feel their intentions are good.

Traffic safety organizations abound. Local, national, international. My company did a meta-analysis of the communication techniques used by a selection of them. From the Danish Road Safety Council to FIA—the international automobile association. It was easy to find their common denominators. Their techniques are firmly rooted in the Culture of Fear, so aptly described in the book of the same name by British sociologist Frank Furedi. They’re all about scaremongering, but none of it is rational or helpful to encouraging cycling or pedestrianism. In fact, most of it attempts to brand cycling and walking as dangerous. If they do focus on car safety, the general theme is your safety inside the car and that of your passengers. Very few campaigns focus on your high odds of killing someone outside your car. Science doesn’t feature high on the list of their communication strategies. The Danish Road Safety Council is notorious for handpicking one or two studies that support their ideology about bike helmets, for example. They place them on a pedestal and haughtily declare, “See? Proof!” Then they cross their arms and refuse to discuss further. All the campaigns and rhetoric from these organizations are vague and based on the failed notion that putting up cute signs suggesting people slow down will change behavior. There is little evidence that such campaigns have any measurable effect. Global organizations use the same vague tactics and no real-world solutions apart from financing helmets and reflective clothing. Firmly slapping the responsibility on the vulnerable roadway users with emotional propaganda and car-centric arrogance.

Campaign by RACC, the Catalan Automobile Association. “In Barcelona, 1 out of 3 traffic accident deaths are pedestrians. Attention, we are all pedestrians!”

Funky victim-blaming campaign from New York’s Department of Transportation.

Credits: New York City Department of Transportation Art Program and John Morse Curbside Haiku © 2011, Image used with permission of the artist.

Desperately trying to cement, in the public consciousness of its citizens, the rather outdated philosophy that cars rule supreme and everyone else is a mere pawn to be swept aside without regret.

When look at similarities between all these organizations, one thing is shockingly clear. None of them will ever say that a drastic reduction of cars would save lives. It’s all talk and no serious action. They also have a tendency to support electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles, not at all aware of the irony that such vehicles still take up public space and will still contribute to death and injury.

None of them have urban-planning experience, or if they do touch upon it, they never mention it. They spend most of their time vehemently protecting their status as “traffic safety authorities.” I know this from personal experience. I have been interviewed in various Nordic newspapers about the science of bicycle helmets and the negative effect that promotion and legislation have on cycling levels. I learned from some journalists that the Danish Road Safety Council had contacted them with the intent of discrediting me as a source. I have the emails. It’s amusing. Colleagues in other countries experience similar situations with their local or national versions.

The point is that such organizations love their status, and if you question it—which we obviously should—they come out like a raccoon backed into a corner. A pattern you often see when ideology is elevated over science.

Cities employ various methods in order to draw attention to themselves. Tourism campaigns, posters on bus stops for events or municipal services, and the like. City Branding is also a thing. Countries and organizations do the same. Usually the money is spent on highlighting positive angles. It’s a basic marketing concept to be positive. What often goes unnoticed is that cities have a tendency to broadcast the sad and undeniable fact that they are often completely inept at keeping the streets safe. They try, unsuccessfully, to disguise their incompetence as “safety” campaigns. It’s not exactly billboards declaring “We Suck!”—but it’s close. These campaigns are often funded by taxpayers, so you would think there were some sort of moral check-and-balance to the process.

Examples from around the world could fill an entire book. There are American cities that buy flags and put them in buckets at crosswalks, telling pedestrians to grab a flag and wave it vigorously above their head while walking across a crosswalk where they already have the right of way. Seriously. You can’t make stuff like that up.

Even here where I live, in Frederiksberg in the heart of Copenhagen, we cannot escape the city advertising its incompetence. It rhymes in Danish, but reads: “He listened to music but died in traffic.” What a stupid pedestrian. Cars are everywhere and they’re not going away anytime soon. It’s his own damn fault for impeding their route. Think of the poor motorist who had no choice but to run him down as music blasted from his earbuds. The driver was just a regular citizen on their way to or from work. Not only were they forced to suffer the mental anguish of killing a text-messaging pedestrian (shockingly sans walking helmet), but they were made to wait around at the scene of the accident to be interviewed by the police, and they were probably late for dinner or work.

The Danish Road Safety Council was granted permission from the City to paint bright yellow graphics pictograms on the cycle tracks. They read, “Keep an eye on the side roads.” I checked to see if there were corresponding signs for motorists on the side roads reading, “Keep an eye out for cyclists and pedestrians who have the right of way,” but in vain. It was a campaign placing responsibility on the cyclists, even though they are protected by laws that dictate that cars must stop.

Some stickers appeared on sidewalks around my neighborhood a few years back. “Cross at the intersection.” With arrows pointing in either direction. I saw one on a long stretch of street, and the intersection to the left was 250 meters (273 yards) away. To the right, it was 350 meters (383 yards). So much for prioritizing pedestrians in Denmark’s most densely populated city. Send them on epic detours instead.

Consider the simple idea of school crossing guards. It’s a concept well known around the world. Hey, I used to be one back in the day (and I remember hating having to do it). This concept is merely an advertisement for municipalities that have failed to make their streets safe, despite the existence of solutions that would actually do so. So just slap children onto the front lines and dress them up as clowns.

Let’s face it—if a city had safe, human streets, then they wouldn’t need school crossing guards.

Let’s face it—if a city had safe, human streets with intelligently low speed limits, modern street design, and a sincere will to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists, then they wouldn’t need school crossing guards. In New York City, the Department of Transportation consistently produces fancy ad campaigns seemingly aimed at maintaining the status quo of the automobile’s role in society.

Seriously…I can’t think of any other city on the planet in recent times that has spent so much advertising money on finger-pointing and “behavioral” campaigns aimed at the vulnerable traffic users of their city. Desperately trying to cement, in the public consciousness of its citizens, the rather outdated philosophy that cars rule supreme and everyone else is a mere pawn to be swept aside without regret. Stand in the way of a queen, you’re stupid. You’ll get taken. And you know what? We can afford to lose you.

Car-centric campaign on a cycle track from the Danish Road Safety Council. “Keep an eye on the side roads.” Motorists were not bothered with corresponding signs.

This New York Postian attitude from New York’s DoT towards a city that otherwise has great potential for being much more pedestrian-, public-transport-, and cyclist-friendly is the primary reason why New York is so far away from reaching any sensible level of life-sized. Paris makes New York look like the illegitimate love child of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier. This approach is right out of Mad Men. “Cars! They’re toasted!” If I were a walking/cycling New York taxpayer, I’d be rather irritated that the city was chucking money into campaigns like these. A single #fail campaign is one thing, but this is just a continuation of a theme. A few years back, they had a series of funky haiku posters going after pedestrians. “She walks in beauty/Like the night. Maybe that’s why/Drivers can’t see her.” “Oncoming cars rush./Each one, a three-ton bullet./And you, flesh and bone.”

Victim-blaming in my neighbourhood. “He listened to music and died in traffic.” Because the city couldn’t keep him safe.

I would rather see a campaign that announces a citywide plan to redesign all the streets to slow down cars, prioritize pedestrians and cyclists, and improve safety. New York City has a budget for campaigns with a high creative bar and amazing design. But they throw it all away.

I’ve spent years seeking examples of campaigns that are focused on the actual problem, campaigns that place responsibility on the heavy hitters in the traffic equation, rather than on the vulnerable traffic users (or the “soft traffic,” as it is in Danish). One example, or rather exception, is the annual campaign described above. It is a staple around Denmark when the kids start school. “Watch out for Laura, she is new in traffic.” Simple and effective communication, yes, but then again, quite useless without modern road design to slow down cars. Such positive campaigns are rare. Easily 90–95 percent of the campaigns I’ve seen from all over the world are car-centric and use victim-blaming communication. I could go on. And on. Instead, how about a quick and dirty list of ideas and campaigns that turn the tables? If we were to apply rationality and a focus on the rampaging bull, we could consider these:

Health Warnings On Motor Vehicles

What started out as a fun thought experiment back in 2008 turned into something surprisingly realistic. Cigarette packaging now has to include health warnings to make people aware of the dangers of cigarette smoking. A common-sense idea and something most of us can get behind. Back in 2008, the European Union had standards in place that required 30–50 percent of the cigarette packaging to be covered by these warnings.

Imagine if all motor vehicles were required to have health warning stickers.

Instead of campaigns that scare people away from a life-extending, healthy, and sustainable transport form, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to campaign about the real and present dangers of automobiles? Many people in car-centric countries no longer regard cars as dangerous. Or maybe that knowledge is there, under the surface, but the car is such an ingrained part of the culture that the perception of danger rarely rises to the surface of people’s consciousness. What if we just cut to the chase? Only a couple of decades ago, cigarettes were an integral part of life, whether you smoked or not. That has changed radically. I gathered all the approved health warnings for cigarettes and asked a doctor friend if they would also be appropriate for use in car-related health warnings. The answer was a resounding “Yes.” Every single one.

Car emissions cause emphysema. / Driving causes cancer./Driving clogs your arteries. / Don’t transport your children by car. / Driving—A leading cause of death. / Quitting driving will improve your health. / Driving harms unborn babies. / Driving is addictive. / Car emissions are toxic.

Removing the status associated with driving is something that is slowly evolving in this, the Age of Demotorization. Speeding that process might be a good idea. We don’t even have to mention bicycles, because it’s not all about that. It’s about reducing societal harm caused by car crashes, harmful emissions, and noise pollution. In Denmark, an estimated 4,000 people die every year because of the health hazards related to cars—and that’s twenty times greater than the number of people actually killed in car crashes. Respiratory illnesses, heart disease, stress-related illnesses caused by noise pollution, etc. The numbers are just as nasty everywhere. Very few people are aware that the levels of dangerous microparticles from exhaust are actually higher inside the car than if you’re cycling next to it. So let’s focus on this fact and, hopefully, encourage motorists to think twice about their last-century transport form.

Where is the legislation dictating that 30 percent of the surface area of cars must feature health warnings? Seriously. Imagine carmakers having to plaster 30 percent of the surface of each side of the car with health warnings. On the sides of trucks, the message would be massive. Imagine the impact it would make on the public psyche from one day to the next. If we think practically about implementing this idea, certain clauses would be necessary. Electric cars might be exempt from displaying the dangerous emissions warnings, though not the ones about how driving kills, etc.

Removing the status associated with driving is something that is slowly evolving in this, the Age of Demotorization.

In the first phase, car owners would be required to purchase large stickers with heavy-duty adhesive and in various sizes, depending on their vehicle. Using reflective material so the warnings are visible at night would be a good idea. A little cottage industry would pop up, with companies offering to stick the warnings on, while you wait. Consumers could choose from a list of approved warnings instead of just being stuck with whatever they’re given.

In time, carmakers could implement the warning labels directly into the design and paint job of the car, as long as they adhere to the directive’s requirements for size and font. Public transport companies would benefit, and they could propose targeted warnings that would benefit trains, buses, and even bicycles. If there is a fee involved with purchasing the stickers for your car—which there should be—the proceeds could go to planting trees in cities, or to charities dealing with obese children or illnesses caused by car pollution. A good idea whose time has come—and one that is backed by science.

External Airbags On Cars

This idea started as a crazy “what if” article in the magazine of the Dutch Cyclists Federation (Fietsersbond) back in 2008 but quickly morphed into something very real. Current airbags protect the car occupants to some extent but do little for cyclists or pedestrians. If we are serious about placing the responsibility where it belongs—on the most dangerous animal in traffic—placing airbags that deploy externally is a simple and intelligent idea.

The idea captured the imagination of Dutch authorities and they first financed a feasibility study and then moved into actual prototyping and crash tests. The airbags would add a couple of hundred euros to the price tag of a car but would ultimately save lives. Volvo’s V40 now has pedestrian airbags, although TNO, the company tasked with developing bags that would also benefit cyclists, found that the placement of them varies for pedestrians and cyclists. The technology is there, ready to use. This should be standard on every new motor vehicle.

Strict Liability

One would hope that laws are balanced, rational, and fair to all, but that isn’t always the case—certainly not with the dominating force of car-centric thinking. The easiest way to kill someone in America is to hit them with a car. The repercussions are minor. Many countries in Europe have strict liability. Indeed, only five countries don’t, including the United Kingdom. Strict liability—rendered also as presumed liability—simply means that a person is automatically legally responsible for any damage to persons or property caused by their actions, regardless of fault. From the moment you get into your car, you are presumed liable simply because you are driving a dangerous vehicle. France introduced such a law in 1984 after a dark period of many cyclist fatalities. Making the motorists liable reduced the number of fatalities by 60 percent over the next twenty years. If I get hit by a car, the motorist is responsible for paying full damages as long as the collision was unintentional—meaning neither of us tried to hit the other.

One would hope that laws are balanced, rational, and fair to all, but that isn’t always the case—certainly not with the dominating force of car-centric thinking.

If I ride through a red light in the middle of the night without any lights on my bike and get hit, the motorist is still responsible for paying 50 percent of the damages. In the Netherlands, if the cyclist is under 14 years old, it is always 100 percent regardless of fault. As the vulnerable traffic user, I am not obliged to prove the motorist’s negligence or intention. Talk about leveling the playing field. We’ve not seen a lot of action on this front but in 2017, the province of Onatrio, Canada, proposed a law that would raise the fine for careless driving to CA$50,000. A bold and rational move.

Establishing 30 Km/H (19 Mph) Zones

Back in 1983, a pilot project was started in the small German town of Buxtehude. The speed limit was lowered to 30 kilometers per hour (19 miles per hour) in order to see what effect it would have on traffic safety. It was a success and the “30kmh” movement was born. Well over 100 European Union towns and cities have 30 km/h as their baseline speed. In the United Kingdom, the “20’s Plenty” movement (20 miles per hour being approximately 30 kilometers per hour) is encouraging more British cities to adopt this as a norm.

The risk of injury or death increases drastically with higher speeds.

While I was writing this chapter, Paris announced that 85 percent of the city with the Peripherique motorway will be a 30 km/h zone by 2020. That is nothing short of amazing. Barcelona is pursuing a similar goal. The 30 km/h movement has truly arrived. Lowering the speed limits to 30 km/h has multiple effects, and all of them are positive. The body of science that supports the idea grows yearly. First, it drastically reduces death and injury levels. If you get hit by a car doing 30 km/h while cycling or walking, you only have a 5 percent chance of dying and a 15 percent chance of walking away unharmed. At 40 km/h (25 mph), you have a 50 percent of dying, and at 60 km/h (37 mph) it’s 95 percent. Right there, we can see that the reduction of societal harm is massive at lower speeds.

The flow of motorized traffic is unaffected by the speed; in fact, it is often improved. Vehicles traveling through a city at this speed do so quietly. Noise pollution decreases by up to 40 percent. In my city, millions of Danish kroner are spent on fancy noise-reducing asphalt, which is only really effective for a few years. Lowering the speed limit is much cheaper, and the noise-reduction levels are the same.

Then there is the all-important sense of safety and comfort. Riding a bike or walking next to cars driving at 30 km/h is an amazing game-changer. The city just feels slower and more civilized. I often spend summer holidays in Barcelona with my kids, and they both noticed the slow speeds of cars in the densely populated neighborhoods. It was obvious to them. Especially coming from our neighborhood, where cars still zoom past our apartment at 50 km/h (31 mph).

Lowering the speed limits to 30 km/h has multiple effects, and all of them are positive.

Changing the speed-limit signs and enforcing the law are important. Road design, however, is also a factor. I did an experiment a few years ago here in Copenhagen. I drive in my own city only every couple of years. I was in a car-share car and it was Sunday, so the roads were empty. I decided to drive through a residential neighborhood at 30 km/h. The streets were wide and, damn, it felt slow. So we absolutely need to alter the road design and, in the process, win back space for pedestrians and cyclists.

What’s likely to give you a head injury? Data: German organization ZNS Hannelore Kohl Foundation

Commercial motoring helmet from Davies, Craig. ©Carlton Reid

Copenhagenize graphics applying a rational approach.

The Hierarchy of Hazard Control applied to urban cycling.

Motoring Helmets

Helmets for car occupants emerged as an idea in Sweden in the 1960s. The first commercial model appeared in Australia in the 1980s, produced by a company called Davies, Craig, which produces cooling systems for car engines. The box reads: “You have made a sound decision to purchase your Davies, Craig Motoring Helmet. Wear it and don’t feel self-conscious. Driving even for the most proficient is dangerous. Ultimately, motoring helmets will be commonplace, but in the meantime, you will be a leader whilst those who may consider your good sense misplaced will follow.” In the instruction manual, more advice is offered:

“Davies, Craig recommends you wear your Motoring Helmet at all times when motoring but particularly at the following, documented high-risk times:
  • » After consuming any alcohol.

  • » When other drivers are likely to have consumed alcohol, especially 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

  • » After dark and during twilight.

  • » In rain or when the roads are wet.

  • » During long trips when you may become tired.

  • » Within five kilometres of your home or destination

  • » Christmas, Easter, and long weekends.

  • » If you are aged under 25 or over 60.”

Basically, don’t wear it if you’re 30, driving on a short trip in the sunshine eight kilometers from home on a Tuesday. Otherwise, strap it on your head. Fun, right? Quirky. Goofy. Well, listen to this. In 2000, a report came out of the Road Accident Research Unit at the University of Adelaide entitled CR 193: The Development of a Protective Headband for Car Occupants (Andersen, White, McLean 2000). It was commissioned by the national government’s Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which was trying to find solutions to the massive number of head injuries in car crashes. The prototype that was developed ended up being more of a headband, since that zone is where most head injuries occur in car crashes. It’s rare that a head strikes the ceiling of the car, which is padded anyway.

The report estimates that the potential benefit of the headband would be as high as AU$380 million in reduced societal harm, even with seatbelts and airbags. Considering the fact that half of all serious head injuries happen inside cars, this product makes sense. The car industry, of course, won’t touch this with a ten-foot pole. Imagine if the word got out that driving was dangerous? Not good for business. And business, for the car industry, is more important than safety. We cannot credibly promote or legislate helmets for cyclists without extending that to pedestrians and motorists. If we really want to take safety for cycling seriously, we should be applying the Hierarchy of Hazard Control to the discussion. It’s a system used in industry to work towards minimizing or eliminating workers’ exposure to danger. It’s standard practice. Here’s what it looks like if we apply it to cycling and pedestrian danger in our cities.

What about these quick and easy ideas? If intersections are the most dangerous places for crashes, why don’t motorists have to stop, push a button, and wait for permission to proceed? Or better yet, in a rational take on the Cyclist Dismount signage, let’s force the motorists to do it. They’ll get some exercise, too. All good.

The economist Gordon Tullock once joked that if the government wanted people to drive safely, they’d mandate a spike in the middle of each steering wheel. Traffic fatalities would plummet immediately.

Finally, simply make car horns just as loud inside cars as outside. Imagine the peace and quiet that would descend upon your city.

Copyright information

© Mikael Colville-Andersen 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mikael Colville-Andersen

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations