How crazy (and naked) bike rides make cyclists safer
The numbers are in. This year's World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) in Portland, Oregon drew more than 9,000 riders, a more than 10% increase from last year's ride.
Part of Portland's celebrated Pedalpalooza (a month of seriously wacky bike events), the Naked Bike ride attracts lots of attention, as well as some criticism from drivers offended by the nudity and/or the inability to drive across town during the ride.
From the outside, WNBR and Pedalpalooza rides seem to be all about the fun. During the more than three weeks of Pedalpalooza, a cyclist can do anything from a Pedal Car Karaoke ride (where one karaoke singer entertains the rest of the riders as they proceed around town) to a Prince vs. Bowie ride (basically a moving dance party) to a scavenger hunt ride, pirate ride, or even a combination Champagne/Prom Ride. During Pedalpalooza there truly is a ride to appeal to everyone, from road riders to MTB riders, from zoobombers to casual urban cyclists.
Along with the fun, however, is serious intent to promote and increase cycling.
"With this ride you are basically convincing people that taking off their clothes is the scariest part about going on what is in essence a protest ride," said WNBR organizer Meghan Sinnott. "Rather than the biking itself, they are thinking 'Is my body paint okay?' or "Will I see anyone I know?' and not whether whether they are up for riding seven miles."
The fun comes first, Sinnott said, and the cycling and the protest - WNBR originated with people taking off their clothes to demonstrate that cyclists are vulnerable in our car-centric culture - follow along for the ride. While there's no way of knowing how many new WNBR cyclists continue to ride (with clothes), Sinnott said the steady increase in participants each year is "pretty awesome".
Greg Raisman, traffic safety specialist at the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), said wacky rides generating increased safety is an indirect effect rather than a scientifically demonstrable one.
"People want to have fun and they want to enjoy being with their friends and riding in a safe way," Raisman said. "Pedalpalooza is such an important part of creating that culture of fun that makes us want to do it - makes us want to ride."
From there, Raisman said, it is an indirect hop to increased safety.
"Research is showing that everyone is safer when you have a city where more people are walking and biking," he said.
And of course, the more people that bicycle, the more the "safety in numbers" effect kicks in.
In a recent Census report from May Portland was named as the U.S. city with the highest percentage of bike commuters anywhere in the U.S. - 6.1%.