Music and Cycling: Should They Be Combined?

Is it ok to listen to music while you ride your bike? It’s a question that’s almost as controversial as the great helmet debate. And it’s a question that appears to never really be settled. As long as there have been portable noise making devices and bicycles, people have been putting the two together and arguing about whether or not it’s safe.

As is common with debates like this, it was recently brought up again. Just a few days ago, another piece appeared in The Telegraph, positing the very same question, “Should cyclists be allowed to listen to music?” The article’s author, Sam Walker, was hoping to follow up on London major Boris Johnson’s threat from last fall to ban cyclists from wearing earphones. But when Walker contacted them, the major’s office was mum on the subject.

But more interestingly, Walker references a recent study by Katrina Jungnickel of the University of London and Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster titled “Cyclings Sensory Strategies: How Cyclists Mediate their Exposure to the Urban Environment.” I was pretty excited to read this, as there aren’t a lot of studies about the connections between headphones and bike safety. And not that science can exactly quell the debate, but it is fun to have some data to fuel the fire.

Nonetheless, the study is more about the sensory experiences of a cyclist navigating the urban environment than it is about the connections between headphones and safety. It’s authors are explicitly trying to dig deeper into popular media accusations of the iPod zombie cyclist to understand how cyclists develop sensory strategies for experiencing an urban environment by bike. They aren’t satisfied with the argument that earphones turn you into a zombie on two wheels, and frankly, most of us probably aren’t either.

Photo Credit: Rob O’Neal/ Getty Images

While the study is definitely interesting and useful (caveat: I’m a social scientist), it’s also more theoretical than pragmatic. It is not set up to answer the question about whether riding with headphones is any more or less dangerous than not riding with headphones. The study’s basic conclusion is that “listening and not listening are not simple or straightforward separate conditions but can co-exist, signalling a range of messy sensory engagements, networks of complex actors and social situations.”

Ok, let me translate that for the non-social scientists. Basically, what they are arguing is that simply choosing to listen to music while you ride doesn’t mean you aren’t also aware of your surroundings. Conversely, choosing to not listen to music while you ride doesn’t mean you are aware of your surroundings either. Listening or not listening to music are additions (or subtractions) to the complex array of sensations and sensory inputs that we’re already dealing with when we ride our bikes. In short, it’s not so simple.

If I can extrapolate further, it means that this question of whether or not it’s safe to ride a bike and listen to music with headphones at the same time really depends on the person and the context. Can someone safely ride to and fro work everyday and listen to a little Bob Marley at a moderate volume with the headphone earpiece in just the non-traffic side ear? Yes, most likely. Can someone safely ride to and fro work everyday and listen to a little Rammstein at full volume with noise canceling headphones on both ears? Maybe, maybe not.

But it always depends on the person. If you’re prone to zoning out the world no matter how you travel, it might not be so safe for you to ride with headphones. If you’re hyper aware and vigilant, you’ll probably zone the music out most of the time anyhow, since you’re prone to to be more aware of your surroundings and less focused on the music.

So is it safe to ride a bike while listening to music? Here’s my favorite scientific answer of all time: it depends.

It would be great to see some more studies on this topic, however. Perhaps an experiment to test riding or not riding with music and certain variables related to safety would help to answer the question further. But even with more data, I think the answer will be the same. It depends.

Oh, and it also depends on whether or not it’s legal where you live. See if your state regulates cycling and headphone use.

And for those of you who plan to keep on riding to the beat, there are all kinds of neat options available now to do so in a safer manner.

Do you listen to music when you bike commute? Why or why not?

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17 thoughts on “Music and Cycling: Should They Be Combined?”

  1. Tim Sherman says:

    I have been waiting for a bike trail to reopen since all of the rain last spring caused trees to slide and fall. Since then I don’t have a safe commute up the hill through the park. I have found that a good pair of noise cancelling headphones is the best way to wait for the safe route on a bus. They kill the sound of traffic and entertain me. I don’t ride with them on because I need to hear traffic while I ride before I get to the hill. If I did ride the trail with them on while it was open I might not hear a tree falling. I only ride with a helmet on. It depends on if you are worried about trees or cars. On the other hand it is nice not to listen to cell phone conversations on the bus. I have decided to be safe and have an enjoyable commute. There a lot of variables to a safe commute.

  2. Duncan Watson says:

    Yes, I listen to music while riding. Drivers are in sound-proofed chambers filled with music and no one protests. Yet put headphones on a cyclist and you will soon see the howls of protest from “safety advocates” and the anti-bike crowd. It is often difficult to distinguish the difference between the two groups.

    I often do the one ear thing, but I almost always ride distances with some music or phone connection.

  3. Matt says:

    No. No. No.

    No headphones while riding bikes… and no headphones while driving cars! Are we even having this discussion? This whole idea of “really, I can do it” smacks of children who know better but don’t want to give up their toys.

    What would you say to the driver of the SUV who plowed down the cyclist because she didn’t hear him shout because she was rappin’ to the latest tune? Why are cyclists any different?

    Let’s turn that around… like when a rider with headphone is killed after he didn’t hear the SUV coming from behind… Would you blame the driver there, too?

    Cell phones, iPods, texting… they’re just means of forming our own self absorbed bubble. Just ride and hear a bird once in a while.

    Okay… I shall get off my soap box, now.

  4. Dan says:

    Throwing out a question:

    If a government doesn’t allow headphone wearing cyclists, should deaf people be allowed to ride on the streets.

    (my answer is “sure, let ’em ride”, but it does change the question a little)

  5. Bob Rogers says:

    I bought a bluetooth wireless speaker for my handlebars and it is awesome. I now listen to music quite often when before, I didn’t feel comfortable listening to music with headphones. The speaker is loud enough but not booming so as to bother other people near you.

  6. Joe Commuter says:

    I agree with the article “it depends”. I commute daily with headphones and music playing. I keep the volume at a level to hear the traffic and feel very comfortable with my situational awareness. I do not believe hearing the SUV coming from behind will not save me from being run down. As well, if I were deaf, would it be safe to ride?

  7. plh says:

    I listen to music and spoken word, as well as singing along with choir rehearsal recordings. I also use a glasses mounted rear view mirror which is far better for letting you know what is coming up behind than hearing it, which in any case I can do anyway. Been doing it for almost ten years.
    You can have my Skull Candy when you pry them from my cold, dead … never mind.

  8. Ted Johnson says:

    This reminds me of another great debate: Should you ride on the sidewalk?

    It seems that people have a tendency to imagine their own commute and/or locale, and they answer that question for everyone else based on that context.

    There are contexts where music in your ears is perfectly safe, and other contexts where it is perfectly stupid. It depends.

    When I’m mixing it up with busy motor traffic–hell no, I don’t want anything interfering with my situational awareness. But when I’m taking the scenic route — a car-free trail, a quiet road with little or no traffic — then music is an option. (In my case, it would be news podcasts.)

  9. Bill Cavalieri says:

    I commute 11.5 miles each way 5 days a week, and listen to music or audio book. The whole time is spent on the road, but in bike lanes.

    Between the wind, and the loudness of trucks, and cars, I would not be able to pick out what sound is going to hit me vs passes me.

    If your not comfortable or feel safer, don’t wear headphones. I feel fine with them so will wear them.

  10. Reece says:

    I don’t do it. I would feel extremely vulnerable. However, with that said, the main reason I don’t is because I enjoy being outside and I feel more connected with just the sounds of nature and life around me.. I feel more a part of the world around me, one of the best benefits to commuting by bike. Plus, I am just not a big music person anyways.. So I enjoy the ride as is.

  11. footsweep says:

    Not with headphones on.

    I do ride with a bluetooth portable speaker though. It provides music and serves as “engine noise” for my bike so that vehicles and pedestrians can hear me coming.

  12. EK says:

    I agree with footsweep. I carry a portable JBL speaker and have it attached to my cycle in a custom made carrier that looks like a water bottle cradle.

    I can’t fathom having my ears blocked up while riding when there are so many idiots driving on the road. Maybe if I were on a secluded track I’d use earphones. Otherwise, I’m rolling with the speaker set up.

  13. Papa Tom says:

    I, too, use handlebar-mounted speakers, but would not feel comfortable wearing headphones. As another person wrote, we’ve been driving automobiles with blaring loud radios for years. What’s so different about listening to music on a bicycle?

  14. Velodrone says:

    Some cars have such amazing soundproofing but you can’t even hear a jackhammer outside when you close the doors. If one isn’t allowed to listen to music on their bike with earphones then those cars should be illegal as well. I was surprised to hear that riding with your phones is illegal here in Montreal. Which just makes me a criminal 🙂

  15. Terp Fan says:

    I always ride with one earbud in my right ear. The other earbud is tucked into my shirt since that’s my traffic listening ear. Trust me, I can hear the stupid priuses crunching gravel or small twigs behind me. Of course, if the debate were truly about safety than the notion of an electric car making no noise would be banned on roads.

    I don’t suggest anyone ride with both earbuds in and frankly get annoyed when people do who can’t hear me calling passes. I also wish runners would follow the same policy so they stop acting all surprised.

    As for the “getting distracted” argument, I’m pretty sure people can zone out on anything from staring at a bird to thinking about some trivial personal matter.

  16. Brian says:

    No but I’m considering using loudspeakers so drivers can hear me.

  17. Beatrice says:

    We have good cycling infrastructure on my commute so I’m only on the actual road for a couple of hundred meters, the bike path is next to the road but separated by grass and in town I ride on the sidewalk (there is also a fair few bike lanes in town). I find the ride more relaxing with music, don’t have to listen to traffic, but I make sure the volume isn’t too high and I’m check carefully and use my bell and hand signals when I’m moving around cars and pedestrians and other cyclists.

    For my situation I feel safe doing that, but I’m rarely riding during peak hours (night shift) and I ride on a designated path in a small/mid size town in Sweden where the infrastructure and drivers are pretty courteous to pedestrians and cyclists. I would not feel save listening to music if I commuted on the road in a very populated city.

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