News & Politics

The Father of Bike Lanes Was Photographed Without a Helmet

Should we be mad at him?

Gabe Klein doesn't apologize for his bareheaded photo from our last issue. He's facing against traffic because the light was better. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

For our December interview with Gabe Klein, the former District transportation chief who oversaw the creation of Capital Bikeshare, we photographed him sitting on one of the program’s signature red bikes. The published image was as controversial as anything Klein said about ridding apartment buildings of parking spaces or how to fix Metro.

Reader Peter Everett e-mailed us about “the glaring lack of any helmet worn by Gabe Klein while jauntily sitting on a bike.” Everett, a personal-injury lawyer in Fairfax, reminded us that helmets “are critical in preventing and ameliorating the impacts of head injuries from bicycle accidents” and—perhaps noting that Klein cuts a rather hip figure for a transit official—added: “I’d hope this public-health imperative would trump fashion.”

It turns out Klein isn’t the least bit chastened by the criticism.

“I purposely don’t wear helmets now in photo shoots,” he replied when we showed him Everett’s message. “I would never ride my fixed-gear [bicycle] in mixed traffic, my mountain bike off-road, or my racing bike without a helmet,” he continued, “but when traveling at slow speeds in bike lanes, helmetless riding is quite safe.”

And as far as Klein is concerned, the helmets-for-all ideology has a major downside: Studies show that requiring a helmet discourages people from adopting cycling—something he says is a bigger danger: “The risk of not being active outweighs the risks of experienced adults riding. We want to destigmatize riding as they have in Northern Europe, where no commuters wear helmets.”

Those findings, as well as analyses of bike-accident data showing that helmets aren’t as good at preventing head injuries as was once thought, prompted the Washington Area Bicyclist Association to help defeat a 2013 Maryland bill mandating helmets for all adults. (Kids, both by law and by WABA’s recommendations, should always wear helmets.)

It wasn’t just the helmet, though. The same photograph drew criticism from Annapolis resident Barry Scher, who wrote that “the photograph you ran clearly shows Klein biking the wrong way on a one-way street.” In this case, there was no political agenda behind the shot. Klein is firmly against “salmoning,” as the practice of riding the wrong way in a bike lane is known. Our photographer posed him that way because the light was better.

This article appears in our January 2016 issue of Washingtonian.