Biking fashion might seem like a frivolous topic to some, and yet it overlays a chasm in safety philosophy that divides many in the biking community. At the heart of the divide is the question, who should bear the ultimate responsibility for the safety of people riding bicycles, should it be city planners who design the transportation infrastructure, or should it be the individuals riding their bikes? You might enjoy this cartoon by John Greenfield which captures the gist of the debate in this imaginary rap battle between two well known bicycle advocates on opposite sides.
High Visibility Clothing
Evidence from multiple studies leaves little doubt that high visibility clothing does increase safety. During daylight, wearing florescent colors, as well as some non-florescent colors such as white, yellow, and red has been proven to increase drivers’ detection, recognition, and reaction (Kwan & Mapstone, 2002; Hagel et al., 2007). Nighttime detection, recognition, and reaction is improved by wearing light and reflective clothing (Kwan & Mapstone, 2002). High visibility clothing is also associated with fewer major crash related injuries (Thornley, Woodward, Langley, Ameratunga, & Rodgers, 2012).
But is high visibility clothing it the best approach? I recently read a post on BikePortland.org that included this great illustration of randomly photographed cyclists in Portland and Copenhagen. The Copenhagen cyclists look like normal people, not road construction workers. Notice no one is wearing helmets in these photos from Copenhagen either—wow! They must be terribly unsafe, right? Wrong. Copenhagen has very low traffic (motorist and cyclist) fatality rates. Research from Copenhagen indicates that as the number of kilometers traveled by bike increased by 40% from 1990 to 2000 the number of seriously injured bicyclists decreased by 50% (Jensen, 2002). Here in Portland, as the proportion of trips made by bike increased from 1.2% to 5.8% from 1990 to 2000 the total number of road fatalities decreases from an average of 60 per year to less than 35 (City of Portland Bureau of Transportation, 2009). It would seem that biking infrastructure and the sheer volume of cycling it encourages could have a greater impact on safety than factors like visibility and helmet use. Based on injury data different riding environments can be placed on a continuum of risk from lowest starting with cycle tracks, multi-use paths, low traffic local streets, high traffic streets with no parked cars and bike lanes, high traffic streets with parked cars and bike lanes, to the highest risk, high traffic streets with parked cars and no bike lanes (Teschke et al, 2012). From a public health perspective it makes sense to adopt better infrastructure rather than leaving safety up to individual discretion.
Balancing Ideals and Practicalities
Unfortunately, we still don’t compare to Copenhagen, with their 37% trips by bike. Often, especially in SW Portland/Beaverton I find myself walking or biking on streets where cars are moving at 40+ mph and there are no sidewalks or bike lanes. So, until we get some better infrastructure, and a higher percentage of trips are made by bike, it seems advisable to make visibility and helmet use a personal priority.
That being said, I remain torn, I like to wear regular clothes when biking for several reasons. First, when you’re on a bike you’re on display. I don’t always feel comfortable looking like a traffic cone; I want to look like me. Second, it is just easier have one set of clothes that takes me through the whole day. Like many of you I am balancing multiple roles (spouse, parent, employee, friend, volunteer) — who has time for multiple wardrobe changes. The final reason is the most important to me. I want those who see me riding to identify with me and want to join in the fun.
I often get my best ideas while biking, there is a lot of space to reflect and ponder. One day I was mulling over this debate while biking and I got an idea. I decided to experiment with creating a garment that would be visible (both day and night) and blended into my office habitat. I wanted a pattern that would accommodate reflective piping in the neckline and waist where they could easily be seen. As well as the arms to help with visibility when using hand signals for turning. I was taking a class at Modern Domestic to learn how to make pattern alterations. We were making the Dahlia, a dress pattern by Collette Patterns. It seemed to fit the bill and so a new project was born.
I began searching the internet for reflective piping. I would have loved to have found it in a variety of colors, but alas, silver was all I could find. I purchased mine through the internet from Seattle Fabrics.
Next, I needed to choose the fabric. I wanted to choose a color that was proven to help with visibility but yet would be appropriate for the office, red seemed like a fitting choice. I chose a wool blend. Wool has several properties that make it desirable for cycling: it absorbs and releases moisture quickly, maintains warmth even when wet, and minimizes body odor. This fabric has some lighter fibers woven in that nicely tied in the silver piping.
Sewing in piping is trickier than I anticipated. In class, my instructor recommended that I used a piping foot. At home I didn’t have a piping foot, but I thought I could get by using a zipper foot which allowed me to get closer to the piping than the standard foot. I quickly noticed the advantage of the piping foot. It has a grove on the bottom which insures that the seam is at a consistent distance from the outer edge of the piping giving it a very professional appearance. Try as I might to control my stich with the zipper foot, the results were noticeably inferior. I decided to rip out all that hard work and start again. I invested a couple of dollars in a piping foot, it was well worth it! If you are curious you can check out this YouTube video.
I chose to combine the top of one dress with the bottom of the other. I wanted a dress that would be warm enough for spring and fall riding, thus the top with sleeves, yet offer room for movement when pedaling, thus the fuller skirt.
Another lesson that I learned was that adding piping adds bulk to the seams making it nearly impossible to zip up the invisible zipper. I ended up having to rip out my first attempt and make a few adjustments. In order to facilitate the invisible zipper I clipped out the cord from the inside of the piping a little bit past the seam allowance. In addition, when sewing in the zipper I adjusted the needle position in the area of the garment where the piping added bulk so that the zipper has a little more room to get by. This seemed to do the trick–its smooth zipping now.
Here is the final result, one that is visible when I’m on the bike, doesn’t look like a traffic cone, and blends in, in the office.