Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bike helmets and a cold ride home

I forgot my bike helmet yesterday morning. Caught my bus to downtown with half a minute to spare, but I'd hurried getting out of the house, and in my haste forgot about three things that would make for a much more comfortable bike ride: my helmet, my fingerless gel gloves, and an unmentionable. Once on the bus but while still digging for change to pay for it (the bus was already moving towards the next stop), I bonked my head on the high handrail, which immediately brought to mind the fact that I was not wearing a helmet.

So at the next stop, transfer slip already in hand after paying for it, I dismounted my bike from the bus, rode the 3 blocks home, and got all the stuff I'd forgotten earlier.

As a bike commuter for the past 25 years, even though I've never had a significant accident during that time, I can't say enough good stuff about bike helmets. As a little background, there's some debate within the bicyclist community about whether bike helmets are a good idea. The argument against requiring wearing bike helmets is, as near as I can puzzle it out, that in communities where bike helmets are not required, and are in fact often not worn, that bicyclists are actually safer than they are where they are required. The cost of a helmet is also characterized as a barrier for some who would otherwise bike.

There is some merit to these arguments, of course, and I'm doubtless not relating all of their subtlety (if not entirely omitting other arguments against requiring bike helmets), but the fact of the matter is that you are dramatically safer from head injury -- especially catastrophic head injuries -- while wearing a bike helmet. Which is good enough reason for me. Sure, it would be great to be able to live in a city where drivers are aware enough of bicyclists, and where bicyclists have safe enough bike facilities (and ride safely on them!), that the danger of such a head injury is so small as to make bike helmets unnecessary. But we don't live in such a community, however much progress we might be making in the right direction … the greatest threat to adult bicyclists in Seattle, as it is most everywhere else in the United States, is from drivers who don't see them.

Wear your bike helmets, people!

Once back on the road, I biked towards downtown along the Greenwood/Phinney/Fremont corridor towards the Fremont Bridge. As I rode south past N 80th Street, I spied a King County Metro #5 bus almost half a mile ahead, and thought how nice it would be to put my already-purchased bus transfer slip to good use by overhauling that bus sometime before it made its turn onto Aurora Ave, then riding it the rest of the way downtown -- I might be able to shave 5-10 minutes from my commute by doing so. At that point, my bike ride was mostly flat, and I can almost always outrun a local bus on the flat, much less downhill, even though it has a higher top speed than I do, simply because it has to make all those stops.

Sure enough, I'd nearly caught that bus just after it crossed the N 46th Street arterial, but unfortunately there was a red light between it and me, so it receded into the distance again. The green light came a minute later, and I caught the bus again just as it was turning from N 43rd Street onto Fremont Ave N. Then I passed it as it stopped a little ways down that hill, and pulled into its last stop before it entered the Aurora Ave expressway. So I got to ride a #5 bus to downtown after all, then biked from its stop on Wall Street to Westlake Plaza. At Westlake, a pedestrian asked if I was cold, as I was wearing my usual swim trunks and T-shirt (plus a thin day-glo vest), but I hadn't thought about the temperature at all, and found that I wasn't cold. Then down the first set of stairs where I normally see Tito the tunnel flautist (who has a new CD out!) there was a fellow with a blind man's cane and a guitar, playing a very credible Ray Charles blues-y version of "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys", which made me smile so I dropped a buck into his guitar case. Then when I got to the platform, my connecting bus was just pulling in. It ended up being a great morning commute -- this is just not the sort of great experience I get while driving!

It was considerably colder on the ride home, but I still biked about 10 miles of my return commute even though I was still wearing just swim trunks and a t-shirt with a thin nylon dayglo-vest over it. But my experience with the #5 bus getting home was the flip side to the excellent timing I'd enjoyed in the morning; as I was passing that #5 bus at its last stop in Belltown it abruptly pulled out alongside me and I came to a screeching halt to avoid a collision -- it had not signaled its intent to merge back into traffic until the very moment it began moving. I sat behind it as it waited to turn right onto Battery Street and then again at its next stoplight, but there was only one person waiting to get on at its next stop just before Denny, and as I rode up on the sidewalk alongside, it took off without me. So I ended up biking the rest of the way home, which I hadn't really wanted to do in this cold while wearing as little as I was. I could see that it had even snowed that day along my route, though that snow hadn't stuck. Ah well, the hill-climbing did me good (and kept me warm!).

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