Helmets are the Kryptonite of Bike Share

Bixi Chic
Helmets are the kryptonite of bike share systems. Nothing puts a damper on the fun, spontaneous travel that bike share facilitates like a foam lid designed to prevent brain damage in the most severe accidents. Shared helmets are gross and carting your own helmet is not convenient. It’s no surprise then that bike share users are less likely to wear helmets then cyclists who ride their own bike.

So what happens when you flood city streets with casual cyclists (many of them tourists) who have no desire to wear helmets? Many pundits predict carnage but time has proven them wrong. Bike share systems around the world have outstanding safety records. Even in busy New York City, where Citi Bikes are being used for bar hopping, it’s a safe way to travel.

Emergency room and city officials say they have not seen a notable spike in bike-related accidents since the 6,000 Citi Bikes were unleashed on the city streets in May. “There’s no obvious sign that there have been more bike injuries,” said Dr. Marc Stoller, the associate chairman of the emergency department at Beth Israel Medical Center, which serves much of Lower Manhattan.

Meanwhile, personal injury lawyers are on standby. Daniel Flanzig, a lawyer who focuses on New York-area bike accidents, said last month that he was “absolutely amazed” that he had not had a single case involving the bike-share program. “My phone rings three or four times a week with a private bike crash, but nothing involving Citi Bike,” he said.

Bike helmet vending machine for Melbourne bike share.Riding a bike share bike without a helmet is statistically safe, but in some cities it’s strictly illegal. So how do you introduce bike sharing in cities with helmet laws? Melbourne offers taxpayer subsidized bike helmets at vending machines and convenience stores, but uptake has been slow. Now they’re leaving free helmets on the handlebars of the bikes, but it isn’t working. Riders continue to shun the system and the Mayor of London openly mocked the helmet law when he visited Melbourne last week. Mexico City and Israel took alternative approaches when they opened their bike share systems. They simply scrapped the helmet laws and watched their bike share systems thrive.

Unfortunately, after years of delay and study, Vancouver has chosen to follow Melbourne’s flailing lead. Hamstrung by a provincial helmet law, Vancouver is getting a bike share system with an integrated helmet share system. I think it’s a bad idea for a number of reasons.
1) It’s expensive. The City won’t reveal exactly how much is being spent on helmet vending machines, but think millions of dollars. That’s money that could have been spent on buying more bikes and extending the area bike share covers (initially limited to the central core).
2) Requiring a helmet will deter ridership. There’s a significant portion of the population who won’t ride a bike with a helmet. Some may still rent a bike and risk the fine, but many will just skip the experience all together.
helmethub-beta3) It’s a logistical nightmare waiting to happen. Balancing a bike share system is complicated enough without helmets. You need to ensure that every station has bikes available and empty spots returns. If you have a good mix of users taking a variety of trips, this will happen naturally. When it doesn’t, you need to pay people to shuffle bikes around.

With the helmet system being proposed for Vancouver, you can’t rely on even trip patterns to balance the system. Each helmet vending machine only holds 36 helmets and each helmet will only be used once before it’s cleaned and inspected. In a successful bike share system, each bike is used 5-10 times per day. There just isn’t enough capacity to store that many helmets. So a lot of time and money will be spent shuffling new helmets stations and picking up the used ones, assuming people use them at all.

I really want Vancouver’s bike share system to succeed, and the helmet law needs to be scrapped before that can happen.

10 thoughts on “Helmets are the Kryptonite of Bike Share”

  1. The lid debate is now getting going in the UK due to a vast increase in cycling due to the Olympice and the Wiggo effect. I always wear a lid now that I ride a full on road bike but never did as a casual rider. It boils down to a game of percentages and should be left to personal choice though I do think parents should have to make sure that young kids wear them as they cannot make the choice themselves.

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    1. Absolutely. Helmets are more important for faster riders than casual riders. Conversely, when you make helmets mandatory you end up with more faster riders than casual riders. I’m not the only one that has noticed that Vancouver seems to have more Lycra clad cyclists than other cities. The same goes for cities in Australia. Check out this picture of bike commuters in Sydney – all helmeted, all male, and almost all are wearing Lycra.

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      1. After the Olympics and Brad Wiggins win for the UK in the tour we have seen a missive increase in middle aged men on road bikes, they even have a name here. “mamils” middle aged men in lycra. I am afraid that I am a mamil!

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      2. That was one of the first things I noticed when I thought of moving to BC. All the images of cyclists I saw (didn’t matter what city in BC), they were all lycra clad, helmeted cyclists on road bikes.

        My city use to be the same. The only people on bikes were the “weekend warriors”. I always felt like the odd one out, but since we’ve had bike lanes put in, the ‘casual commuter’ has taken over.
        We still have our fair share of lycra/helmeted cyclists, but they are no longer the majority and for the most part are tourists from out of the region (bicycle tourism is pretty big in Niagara).

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  2. I agree. Like the saying goes, the only thing helmets prevent are fines.
    The type of bikes that tend to be in bike share systems are incapable of tilting forward. They’re heavy sit-up style bikes, not road bikes or mountain bikes.
    Vancouver thinks that it has “cracked the nut” of how to have a successful bike share with a helmet law. I hope they’re right but I have a feeling they’re not.
    I much prefer we just get rid of the helmet law.

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  3. Where does your mayor stand on this issue? I know it’s a provincial matter, but it would be nice to have a politician stand up and speak out against the law.

    Also, I think a lot of people would be turned off on the idea that helmets are re-used (even if cleaned). To me that’s disgusting.

    I haven’t worn a helmet in around 8 years now. In that time I’ve fallen off (all do to my own stupidity) and have been hit by a car. Didn’t come close to hitting my head once. Twice however in the winter, I came within a centimeter of hitting my head when I slipped on ice…while walking.

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    1. The official line out of City Hall is that they’ve learned from Melbourne’s mistakes and are confident that the helmet vending machines will solve all the problems. Secretly I think the mayor is against the helmet law (see this picture from Critical Mass taken before he was elected), but he’s unwilling to push to province. The only city councillor who supported a review of the helmet law was George Affleck, but he’s reneged on that.

      In addition to the provincial law, the City of Vancouver has a matching helmet law for off-road paths like the Seawall. It would be a great start if that was revoked, and it’s completely within the City’s power to do so.

      I wear a helmet every day while biking. Last month I had a close call with a head injury – I walked into a pole while staring at my cellphone. I’m now a firm advocate for mandatory helmets for pedestrians who text.

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