What bike helmets can teach about climate change


My previous post on bike helmets seems to have garnered a lot of interest. My little blog went from a handful of visits a day to several hundred visits an hour. According to my web host, my week to week page views are up a projected 62,000%. Someone even linked my post on Reddit. I'm not sure if this counts as going viral (33,000 viewers is far short of millions of viewers), but for some reason my post seems to have struck a chord.

Many have found my reasoning to be counter-intuitive. And it is. I want to focus on one counter-intuitive result from my piece that I think has wider implications for a series of difficult problems that we face today.

The problem of collective action 

If having a helmet reduces the chance of getting a serious head injury, how can biking without a helmet increase my safety?

If we zoom out and look at this problem from a bird's eye view, we'd see this as a type of problem that economists, sociologists, environmentalists, and political scientists all call a collective action problem. These are conundrums that occur when a group of individuals, acting in a completely rational, self-interested manner, collectively produce an outcome that hurts everybody. Wearing a bike helmet makes me safer, but it also sends a message that cycling is dangerous. This means that when I put on my helmet, I am incrementally increasing the risk to me and to all other cyclists because a helmet indicates to the casual cyclist that the roads are dangerous, dissuading her from cycling and making the roads less safe because there are fewer cyclists on the road.

This is exactly what a collective action problem looks like. The direct benefit to me outweighs incremental cost. I perceive the benefit of protection to me now is far greater than the potential costs — in this case et cost is my helmet's contribution to the culture of fear surrounding urban cycling.

This dynamic of individual benefits producing a collective cost was identified in 1968 by Garrett Hardin, a biologist at UC Santa Barbara. The Tragedy of the Commons goes like this: Back in the day, communities used to have pastures for cattle grazing. These commons were open to the entire community. All you had to do to take advantage of the common was to just show up with your cattle, and they'd be allowed to graze happily.

Unfortunately, the common has a limited capacity to support cattle, and with enough cattle, what results from the unlimited, unregulated use of the commons is its degradation. Eventually it becomes useless for everybody. Everyone is working in their own self interest, and the collective outcome of these individual, completely rational choices, makes everybody worse off.

In the case of bike helmets — because helmets can discourage cycling, they may actually have the effect of making cycling less safe by reducing the number of bikes on the road. The more people feel that one shouldn't bike without a helmet, the less likely they'll bike. The resulting lack of cyclists on the road makes it more dangerous for all cyclists.

You can see the same kinds of dynamics in other problems. Highway rubbernecking is one. An action that takes a fraction of time — slowing down to look at an accident — causes massive amounts of traffic congestion because of the number of drivers who partake. It makes total sense that drivers pause to look: You've been stuck in traffic all this time for no reason. The least you could get out of it is to see what all the fuss was about. It may be a split second for you, but the result of so many drivers spending that split second is what creates the congestion behind you.

When it comes to the bike helmet issue, there are two collective action problems that we need to consider, both with significant implications for bike safety. The first was addressed in my February post: The more cyclists feel as if helmets are mandatory, the more cycling is discouraged. This causes streets to be less safe for all people. 

The second collective action problem is related to the sharing of available street space. Many cities in North America have seen a doubling or tripling of cycling over the past decade, much of that in the amount of commuting (as opposed to recreation).

This increase in bike traffic creates another collective action problem: There's only so much road space. Right now it's within everyone's personal best interest to wrestle for space every city's limited roadways. It's easy to make this a car versus bikes argument: The rights of one person versus the rights of others. How do we incorporate the growth of cycling into the urban streetscape? How do we build our cities so that they incorporate safe modes of transportation towards all users when there's limited space?

A car-centered culture may have made sense in the 1960s, but our cities can't handle a car-based culture anymore. There are far more people than many of these cities were designed to handle. Here's another way to think about the problem: Today, more than half of the world's 7 billion people live in cities. That's 3.5 billion people living in urban centres. In the 1960s, when most of North America's car-centered cities were designed, there weren't even that many people on the planet.

I'll say that again. There are more people living in cities today than there were people on the planet during the era when cities became car dependent. Why do we insist on designing our cities around the car? Even if we take away all the concerns about oil and gas, air pollution, climate change, and car accidents: Eventually cities will simply run out of space for single-occupancy vehicles. Why do we continue to believe that our cities should be based on a car-centered design paradigm when it's clearly unsustainable?

Climate change as a collective action problem

In trying to solve climate change we're faced with some of the same kinds of collective action dynamics that we see in bike helmets. Or rubbernecking. Or the Tragedy of the Commons. These are problems that can only be solved collectively in an environment where the most rational choice for individuals is to act against the common good, like burning fossil fuels to go to work or to stay warm in the winter.

Like many collective action problems, climate change can't be solved by changing one variable or by changing a single law or rule. It may work, but in many such cases the temptation to disobey is often too great to pass up.

For example: What do you do with a roommate who doesn't scrub the shower even though it's clearly their turn? You can try to set up punishments. Maybe shame her into cleaner behaviours. But doesn't that just make the living situation less tolerable? Ruin a friendship?

If you ponder the roommate question, you'll immediately see how difficult the question gets the more roommates you have. With four people in a flat, it's easier for one person to free ride than it would be if there were only two. 

Like the roommate who doesn't clean the tub on their turn, these kinds of problems tend to require a significant shift in thinking away from individualist, ego-driven thinking towards collective problem-solving. Rather than make cleaning an independent chore, perhaps you'll make it into a fun social activity where cleaning suddenly becomes a desirable activity? Or maybe you adjust the standardized norm that everyone must clean everything and collectively agree to hire a service that does the cleaning that you as a group are unwilling to do.

The same goes with bike safety. Or climate change. These kinds of problems require us to shift to a point of view outside of ourselves, to transform ourselves from individuals caught in a system to become problem-solvers within that system. We need to move towards more holistic ways of looking at these problems. And that's hard to do. One of my justifications for not using a helmet is that biking is not nearly as dangerous as we've been socialized to believe. But that doesn't eliminate the fact that a helmet does, indeed, have protective value. Cyclists shouldn't feel like the choice to wear a helmet is 'damned if you do, damned if you don't'. Building separate bike friendly infrastructure, separating bikes from other forms of traffic, teaching drivers and cyclists to share the road... these are what we should be arguing for. Unfortunately getting a bike lane installed with a group of your friends doesn't give you the same dopamine hit that you get when you win an argument about helmet use.

Similarly, it doesn't matter how much an individual reduces their individual carbon footprint. The best that it can do is give him some level of moral authority. But there's no way we can solve climate change unless a mass social, cultural, technological, and political change occurs. It's easy to focus on the smaller things... the LED light bulbs and the reusable bags. What becomes difficult is creating sustainable change that lasts into the future.

Moving forward

About five years ago, environmentalists were up in arms with one another. There were enormous arguments as to whether or not carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system was the superior policy instrument to tackle growing emissions. Both policies would place a cost on carbon in a manner that economists agree would reduce emissions (though the extent either would do so was in contention).

What happened? Support for any type of carbon pricing fizzled. Any political momentum we had created was lost. Like the pro- and anti-bike helmet debaters, climate change activists had chosen the wrong problem. For cycling, the problem isn't bike helmets, the problem is bicycle safety. Rather than focus on helmet versus non-helmet, cyclists should be using the energy we see in the community today to push for better road infrastructure. Because there's no guarantee that this momentum will last.

Similarly, climate change activists should have realized that the key problem about carbon pricing wasn't whether or not a tax or a cap-and-trade program was superior. The problem was that the public had not yet been sold on the idea that carbon has a cost. Instead of having a convoluted argument about whether or not a cap-and-trade or a carbon tax was the better solution, we should have used our political momentum to simply push for any carbon pricing system — to go to governments and say "here are the benefits of a carbon tax, and here are the benefits of a cap-and-trade. We'll support whichever one all the way." In other words, socializing governments and the public to accept a price on carbon was far more important than what the mechanism would be.

Unfortunately that didn't happen. Getting environmentalists to agree on policy is, itself, a collective action problem. How do you get a diverse and disparate group of passionate people to agree to such a strategy when each person is quite logically pushing for what they believe to be the best outcome?