Imagine for a moment that cities around the world are rolling out fleets of magic carpets and that those carpets are having truly wizardly effects: improved public health and safety, reduced traffic congestion and carbon emissions, and reduced dependence on foreign oil. City dwellers can check them out or drop them off at stations everywhere, and they are free to use for up to 30 minutes. After that, they cost something, but not much. Picture literally millions of citizens using these carpets for short, speedy trips all over town. Now imagine being in the Northwest and watching this opportunity fly by because fanatical carpet helmet laws discourage would-be riders.
This is exactly what’s happening. The magic’s not in carpets, though: it’s in the humble bicycle.
Public bike share programs, whether run by municipal governments, private entities, or both, are built on a simple idea: blanket urban areas with hundreds, even thousands, of identical, sturdy bikes and give people a huge network of convenient stations to park them at. Make the system accessible and reliable, so that citydwellers can get to nearby destinations, on time and without a hassle. Don’t worry about theft and payment systems, either: bike sharing has come a long way since Amsterdam’s unsuccessful attempt in the 1960s. The latest systems tie checkouts to credit and debit cards, significantly deterring theft, and fees are kept quite reasonable through subsidies from advertising on stations and the bikes themselves. In Dublin, a three day pass is only $3, while a year’s subscription to the network costs just $15!
Cities everywhere are climbing aboard. Check out these videos from London, DC, and especially Hangzhou, China (watch it below!). Hangzhou’s enormous bike sharing program of 50,000 bikes and 2,050 stations has already become an integral component of the city’s transit network. The program is so popular the city plans to expand its fleet to 175,000 bikes by 2020!
The Biggest, Baddest Bike-Share in the World: Hangzhou China from Streetfilms on Vimeo.
Public bikes in places like Hangzhou are a normal, safe part of the urban scene and people don’t think twice about swiping a card or inserting a membership key to get a quick ride any time of the day. Dozens, even hundreds, of bike share programs have popped up across the world, as the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy has documented. Almost every one of them launched in the last decade. To see just how many there are look at this map of bike-share programs.
View The Bike-sharing World Map in a larger map
If bike-sharing has been successful in so many places, why isn’t the Pacific Northwest already in on this? Why are there only two operational bike-sharing programs in all of Cascadia: a small one in Pullman, Washington, on the campus of Washington State University, and a tiny one in Golden, British Columbia? Golden has 15 bikes, which mostly go back and forth between the town center and a nearby campground. It turns out there’s something the Northwest has that other places do not, and it makes all the difference: mandatory helmet laws. British Columbia’s helmet law is province-wide. Numerous cities and counties in Washington, including King County and Spokane, have helmet laws. In Oregon, only riders under 16 are required to wear helmets, but until now cities such as Portland have been slow to set aside money for bike-sharing because the competition for scarce funding is fierce.
There is nothing more contentious in the cycling community than the debate over helmets, and though the safety research is mixed, the political lines are sharply drawn (video). When it comes to bike sharing, however, there are a few things on which the evidence is clear:
- Bike-sharing attracts first-time cyclists… As the links above show, the typical users of public bikes are not die-hard or even regular cyclists. They’re newbies who see a convenient way to get from one place to another and hop on.
- who make things safer… Just as drivers are more careful at crosswalks in pedestrian-packed downtowns, they are more aware and cautious of cyclists when the streets are full of them. Adding new cyclists to streets makes the environment dramatically safer for everyone.
- … but only if helmets are optional The only failed program in the world is Melbourne’s. It’s also the only one put in place under a helmet law. As this short video documents, Dublin has launched a program of similar scope (450 bikes versus Melbourne’s 600), but its fleet clocks 5,000 trips per day while Melbourne’s barely manages 70. It’s already racked up a million trips without a single fatality and a stunning 40 percent of users are first-time cyclists!
Forcing casual riders to don helmets is a high barrier to bike sharing. It depresses ridership, getting in the way of the overwhelming health and safety benefit of having more bikes on the roads. Providing headwear at kiosks or local businesses raises concerns about sanitation (lice!) and safety (cracked helmets). Casual, would-be riders weigh those concerns and decide to keep walking.
Besides, no bike-sharing program tells people not to wear helmets. They just leave wearing one as a personal choice.
The crux of the matter is this: the Pacific Northwest can reap the huge benefits of bike sharing without compromising safety. It just needs to tweak its helmet laws. Here are two ways to do it:
- Make riding helmetless a secondary offense. Adjusting the law so cyclists cannot be cited unless they do something else illegal would allow people to take safety decisions into their own hands. Helmets are often compared to seatbelts, so why not give them the same legal status?
- Make an exemption for bike-share users. Pedicabs (three-wheeled rickshaws for hire) are excluded from helmet laws, both for drivers and passengers, and their safety records are stellar. Vancouver’s bike share feasibility study (.pdf, see page 56) found that in the twelve years since the pedicab helmet exemption took effect there has not been one reported head injury. There are also exemptions for people with religious objections (it’s hard to put a helmet over a turban), children on tricycles, and even people with big heads. Why not public bikes?
Though our helmet fiats are the greatest legal obstacle to a bike share roll out, there are a couple other barriers worth mentioning. A recent University of Washington study (.pdf) examined the feasibility of bike-sharing in Seattle and discovered a slew of hurdles over curb space usage and the city’s sign rules. Bike-share programs sell advertising space on their bike stations to help cover their costs, so the design of the bike stations must reflect the needs of advertisers. At a minimum, that means that having consistent and easily understood sign rules is a must. In Seattle, though, almost every district from Pioneer Square to Ballard has its own sign guidelines. This patchwork of regulations makes it hard to design a single, modular bike-share station that will be legal citywide. And custom bike stations would be prohibitively expensive.
Fortunately, Seattle’s municipal code allows the Director of the Department of Planning and Development to issue signage exemptions in downtown areas. No doubt other Northwest cities have their own particular hoops to jump through, but once the helmet barrier is addressed nothing should truly stand in the way of a concerted push to bring this transportation revolution to Cascadia.
Bike sharing is too good an opportunity to let pass. It’s sustainable, healthy, and doesn’t require extra parking garages or oil imports. Fortunately, Vancouver has solicited contractor bids to design a system in spite of BC’s helmet law, and Seattle and Portland are exploring the idea. Let’s treat bike-share riders like pedicab passengers, exempt them from helmet rules, and join the global wave of magic carpet rides.
Jake Kennon is a Sightline Research Intern.
Sightline’s Making Sustainability Legal project identifies specific regulatory barriers to affordable, green solutions. If you’ve come across such an obstacle, please let us know by writing Eric (at) Sightline (dot) org.
Melbourne is not the only failed bike sharing program in the world. A much worst failure is Brisbane, Australia. Once again another system that is labouring under a mandatory bicycle helmet law, its CityCycle program is lucky if 30 of its 1,000 bikes are used at the same time during the day.
Did you mention that Mexico City repealed its mandatory helmet law at the same time it started Ecobci bike sharing last year or that last week Israel repealed it mandatory bicycle helmet law for Tel Aviv’s new Tel-Ofun bike share program. When it comes to bike sharing, one really has to take one’s hat off to its success!
Great comment, Nic. Looks like I missed Brisbane – that definitely reinforces the point, though: mandatory helmet laws are a real barrier to bike sharing. I was aware of Mex. City and Tel Aviv repealing their laws, just ran out of space… There are so many great things going on in this arena we could do a whole series on it!
Great piece Jake! You mention turbans in the context of religious exemptions but, thankfully, the letter of the law isn’t so specific. Therefore members of the Church of Sit-Up Cycling, whose other essential religious practices include travelling at a sensible pace on sensible bikes on quiet streets, should also be protected from harassment by Vancouver’s finest.
I wrote a little thought piece on how Vancouver bike share might pan out here http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=221045921257206
I would add another barrier to implementation in Seattle: hills and rain. Casual cyclists are unlikely to ride from pike place to capitol hill, but might go downhill. With continual “rebalancing” of the inventory using labor and trucks, are we really going to get a sustainable and affordable element of the transportation system?
Also, it rains quite a bit here and my feeling is that casual cyclist, like those who wouldn’t want helmets, also would not want to wear raingear.
While I love the bikeshare concept, the combination of these two challenges may make it even harder to implement in Seattle than in other areas.
I live in Vancouver, BC and we have the same issues with hills and rain, but the way I see it, even if you can only get people on bikes during the summer months, that’s still about one quarter of the year that we’re reducing our GHGs, along with all of the other benefits of cycling. Still not bad. Portland also has a similar issues, but has nonetheless been able to attract a significant number of people to cycling year-round because they have invested significantly in their cycling infrastructure. Copenhagen gets its fair share of rain (170 rainy days according to my quick Google query) and they still have a phenomenal cycling mode share–approaching 40%.
It’s not the rain nearly as much as the hills, which Portland doesn’t have. In Seattle, the hills are steep and they are everywhere, including the heart of downtown. This doesn’t stop me from cycling everywhere but people constantly ask me how I can ride a bike with all these hills.
I live in Vancouver BC, and these are my perspectives on the effect of hills and rain on cyclists; I don’t have much to say about the helmet issue, except that I think perhaps making elmetless riding a secondary offense is a pretty good idea (i.e. leave it as an option for ticketing riders who otherwise display unsafe riding).
In any case, having spent time in the low countries of Europe during the winter season, the it-rains-too-much objection really doesn’t bear up under scrutiny (presumably, a place like Copenhagen is similar).
There is certainly no shortage of well-dressed, all-weather riders in Belgium and Holland during the winter season. How do they do it? They wear overshoes, raincoats and rainhats (many of them also carry an umbrella *while on the bike*…)
In other words, many of the riders there wear the same clothes they’d wear if they walked or rode the bus. In my experience, whether or not a cyclist wears (or needs to wear) dedicated “cyclist” raingear has more to do with the kind of bikes they’re riding than anything else. When using the bike-share type bikes (which are upright, comfortable bikes with fenders, skirt-guards and ordinary pedals), there’s not really a need for clothing any more involved than what you’d wear to go out and wait at the bus stop on a rainy day.
This may be unfair of me, but I sometimes feel that the objection that would-be cyclists somehow won’t be able to cope with rain can only come from people who are so used to driving from door-to-door that they simply don’t know anymore how to dress for the rain. I have no definite evidence that this is true, so take me with a grain of salt here 🙂
As far as hills are concerned, the typical use of a bike share system is for short trips in or near a city’s centre. And central Vancouver, while it’s no Amsterdam, is really quite flat. From roughly, Burrard, 4th, 2nd and Main Street in the south and east, to English Bay, Stanley Park and Vancouver Harbour in the north and west, there are few hills of any size–certainly nothing like some of Seattle’s monstrous hills.
This area of Vancouver encompasses tens of thousands of residences (it’s the most populous part of the city by far, and many of the residents live in small condos with little bike-storage space), many major tourist attractions, the entire business and financial district, and a hefty proportion of the retail space. And something like 35% of *all* the commuting trips in Vancouver are under 5km–a distance perfectly suited to bike sharing systems.
You’re suggesting that the rain is a barrier, yet the DublinBikes scheme is incredibly successful and it rains a hell of a lot here!
Why do you suggest “tweaking” the helmet laws instead of simply repealing them?
Tweaking is probably more likely possible given the politics required to repeal anything.
You say that most of the people who would be using the bikes are novices. Then you make the leap of logic that those novices, due to their inexperience, are somehow SAFER? Is there any practice where this is true? Are student drivers safer than normal drivers? Is someone carving a turkey safer for the first time less likely to cut themselves than an experienced chef?
The people who are least adept at bike riding are exactly the people I MOST want wearing protection.
Putting it mildly, this is idiotic. Putting more, and more casual, cyclists on the road without helmets will lead to more people in the emergency room with head traumas. Those people certainly are going to see an “overwhelming health and safety benefit” – they are going to see their lives changed forever. I have a friend who went out for a short ride near his house without a helmet – his chain caught in a twig, stopping the bike on a dime and sending him flying over the handlebars where he struck his head awkwardly on a curb. He has a permanent speech impediment and has had difficulty getting and keeping a job. Another friend of mine, an oncologist, tells me her cancer patients always worry when they enter remission, so she gives them the big 5 things to do: Don’t smoke, get some exercise, eat some fruits & vegetables, wear your seat belt, and wear your bike helmet.
I’m a big biker myself and I would LOVE to see more people bike to work, to see friends, or to an appointment. But helmets are protecting people (and our health care system and our social welfare system, if you want to worry about the societal issues) from far greater costs.
Although I appreciate your anecdotal evidence, I prefer statistics and documented studies, which happen to prove you wrong: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8249504
(I would also suggest that an oncologist is not a bike safety expert.)
The article you cite doesn’t prove Eric wrong. It simply supports the idea that cities in California with a high bicycling rate tend to have a lower risk of fatalities for all road users. (They actually say it has largely to do with “street network density”, so the higher bike rates might be a result, not a cause, of the slower speeds and safer streets.)
However, the study did not look at whether bicyclists wore helmets, so there is no way the article could disprove the idea that adding new riders without helmets is worse for overall safety, which was Eric’s point.
I prefer documented studies and statistics too, but one has to read them carefully, use them correctly, and not infer things that they don’t actually say.
Only if we can imprison thieves the way they can in China.
The main barrier?
Looks like Portland is on board! Linky: http://www.koinlocal6.com/news/local/story/Portland-City-Council-approves-2M-bike-sharing/8gA2soaZVUymWzYpLnChaw.cspx
I personally would use ride-share bikes in Seattle even if the helmet law remained as is. I would eagerly buy a helmet just to be able to use a bike, and grab one as I left the house if I planned to use it. It would be annoying to keep track of the helmet but totally worth it considering how much I want to ride a bike everywhere I go but don’t have a place to keep a bike where I live.
That said, I agree with the sentiment that a ride-share program would be much more successful and things would be much better overall if the bike helmet law were modified to be more lenient.
Great article. Although as someone else pointed out above, there are actually 2 failed (or failing) bike share schemes in the world – Melbourne and Brisbane. Both are failing due to helmet laws which are in place almost all around Australia. And these laws are quite punitive and heavily enforced here – the fine for not wearing a helmet in Victoria is $175.
It’s a real shame because the Brisbane bike hire is actually very good. I use it quite a bit, but usually take the risk of getting fined by riding without a helmet.
There’s a good comparison of the usage rates of different bike hire schemes here:
Adelaide South Australia has bike sharing under helmet laws. It’s growing, not a failure.
Adelaide’s free bike share scheme is really not at all comprable to the large scale automated schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane.
I have a great roadbike, but when I movd to DC, I discovered that it was much easier to use Capital Bikeshare on a daily because I don’t have to worry about locking up and storing a bike. These cute, sturdy klunkers are perfect for my 20 – 25 minute commute. Combined with DC’s flat terrain and impressive network of bike lanes, this is a great city for bicycle commuting. You can’t go fast on these bikes, which makes them safer for more relaxed and casual commuting. I recently decided it was worth the extra effort to wear a helmet because accidents do happen. I have noticed that the majority of DC riders do wear helmets, even though not required.
I’ve used the new DC system a few times and it’s pretty good-I often use it for quick jaunts across downtown to appointments (and nothing beats riding by the White House every time you cross town)-it’s saved me a lot on cab fare. Capital Bikehshare was smart enough to market a one year half price membership on one of those daily deal websites. You can’t beat $35/year for bikeshare and I think they signed up thousands with just that one deal.
The network of stations was a little sparse at first, but they’ve expanded quickly to key locations, although they could still use more by some federal office buildings.
Not having a helmet restriction makes it much easier to use. When I commute by bike I always wear a helmet, but it’s a pain to remember to bring it for I just need bikeshare for a quick ride across town.
My only issue so far with the DC system is that it’s been a victim of its own success. At rush hour times, I often ride by further out racks that are empty, but downtown racks are often full at the same time, forcing one to find another rack to park, which is time consuming. The program managers have looked for creative ways to deal with this, such as redistributing bikes by truck (they have specialized vehicles for this) and offering rewards for reverse bike commuters who help redistribute bike from crowded downtown racks to farther out racks.
I’m up in Montreal, where one of the largest bike share systems started (Here it’s called bixi, but it’s the same system used in DC, London, Ottawa, and more). We already have a huge bike culture here, but with the bike share program it is probably more than doubled.
I have to disagree with your point #2 though, about more bikers make drivers more careful. From first hand experience (I was here before and after the bixi boom) that’s definitely not true, if anything it’s the opposite, because cars are now even cockier when passing bikes or pulling out in front of us. Same goes for pedestrians – just standing in bike lanes as if they weren’t there. I’m not saying bikers are innocent either, but honestly so many cars do not look where they are going. I know many people who have had a car door opened up into them while passing parked cars, gotten hit by cars, and we all get cut off on a daily basis. We need more driver education – when people took drivers ed years ago, they were taught to watch out for peds. Now they need to be taught to look out for bikers.
who make things safer… Just as drivers are more careful at crosswalks in pedestrian-packed downtowns, they are more aware and cautious of cyclists when the streets are full of them. Adding new cyclists to streets makes the environment dramatically safer for everyone.
oops, the last paragraph of my comment above was a copy paste from the point #2 in the article. Sorry for the confusion!
Adam Bejan Parast
At last months Bicycle/Pedestrian Adivosory Committee (PSRC) Ref Lindmark gave a update on Metro’s bikeshare study (this is different than the UW study and is being done by Alta Bikeshare. They were just about to release their business plan. Haven’t looked at it yet. Below is the same presentation given to the city council.
I think they are approaching bike sharing with a philosophy that any system must conform with the existing laws. I know that Children’s has said flat out they will walk away from any system that doesn’t require helmet use. This is important because the funding model for US bike shares is essentially grands and seed money from large private/public institutions (Childrens, Microsoft, UW, Amazon, etc.).
At this point my read is they are looking to create a way to “innovate” their way out of the policy issues through some kind of helmet dispensing system that either has low cost helmets or reusable helmets. I would say I’m fairly skeptical but if they can get it to work it will certainly create a new model.
Adam – A minor correction: Alta Bicycle Share is part of the consultant team working with Metro and other stakeholders. The full consultant team is comprised of staff from Alta Bicycle Share, Alta Planning & Design, Nice Ride MN (Minneapolis’ operating nonprofit), and Nelson Nygaard.
Would one technical solution be for all bike share bikes to include a saddle carrier holding a reusable helmet? That way the option would always be available but the choice could be the riders.
Ye gods we went thru the helmet fiasco with the motorcycle guys.
Now we gotta do it with you bicycle guys.
OK it infringes on your freedom. Oh well too bad.
Having been in the safety field and volunteer fireman I can say we are tired of scooping your brains out of the gutter. That is how helmets got the name brain bucket.
They do reduce injuries.
I really do not care if you wear a helmet. IF you want to jump off a building go ahead just make it quick. Dont hit anyone on the sidewalk.
Wear the helmet or get a ticket. In either case shut up we dont want to hear your whining and crying.
There is at least one other failed bike sharing effort in France.
Requiring helmets will make any Vancouver scheme DOA.
The following TED video is thought provoking if nothing else: “Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet”
Oh please . .
Shut the F**k Up .. this Republican Anti Logic is stomach churning.
Which one of you writers have stood next to a Helmet-less cyclist that crashed on a Greenwich Village NYC street after their colliding with a pedestrian – their bleeding from ears indicating massive internal head trauma ? HmmMM? Speak Up Dim Wits .. .. Nobody?
Right! .. it was Me watching the 20 something person die before me .. from a preventable injury if .. IF a Helmet had been.
Are we to now discuss the COSTS incurred for a BRAIN INJURED PATIENT’S HOSPITALIZATION and WHO PICKS UP THE TAB should they survive?
So enough with this ‘Tea Party’ Logicon Celebrati .. just Shut the F**k Up.
This piece ignores the roots of these bike-share programs: they are inventions of outdoor advertisers to get more space to rent to companies to promote products. They are not creations of people wanting to re-humanize city transport.
Their pricing of free use for the first half-hour ensures lots of short-term use (good for advertising), but the rates for longer periods is punishing. Ottawa’s Bixi program (https://capital.bixi.com/; 10 stations, 100 bikes) charges $1.50 for the second half-hour, $3 for the third, and $6 for each half-hour after that, with no daily maximum (which is a sting that most affects visitors who don’t usually find out until after they leave the city). That makes the bikes cost-per-day more than renting a car, even counting the cost of gas. The confusion is between the access fee and use fees (both measured in time).
The point made earlier here about new riders being just the people who should be wearing helmets (especially on bikes that are quite heavy, require a different riding posture, and have fewer internal-hub gearing) is correct. The bikes have been designed to fit different size bodies, but the companies don’t want to address the similar challenge of a helmet design that fits different-sized heads! There’s probably also a hygiene angle as well to overcome.
As a former carsharing entrepreneur, I would point out that most bikesharing programs are subsidized, something no carsharing service is. Why?
Bike sharing needs to be rethought before anyone can expect some kind of benign revolution.
Great piece Jake!
We have been working with a non-profit company in BC (www.bikeshare.ca) to bring a solution not only to the areas where there is a helmet law, but also to cities that want to offer a choice to the potencial riders that would prefer to wear a helmet.
One thing we all agree on is the success of public bike share!
From Vancouver, I now live in Paris. There is a Velib rack right outside our apartment door, beside the Metro steps. People are riding them all the time, in all weather, at night. And it rains in Paris, I can tell you. It’s pretty similar to the Northwest. Less hills to be sure!
The helmets would have killed it here. It’s the spontaneous choice that allows it to work. People are not going to carry a helmet just in case they decide to do a short ride from one neighbourhood to another for 10 minutes. They would probably take the Metro (which is mass transit but still uses energy and doesn’t have the health benefits of biking).
I used to be a hardcore proponent of the helmet law in BC, and had multiple helmets for everything from rollerblading to rockclimbing. But I see that we need to be flexible on this, to save the planet and get people on bikes.
What do you think of the on-demand helmet Station we have developed?
Any complex problem needs a complex solution:
Seattle has hills, rain and a helmet law. (And a legal system that finds any government agency–even barely tangentally involved–responsible for any injury.)
To the hills: put about a half dozen elevators adjacent to several bridges. Aurora, Twelfth Avenue (Jose Rizal), (near) West Seattle, Magnolia and a few others. Expensive? We are spending $4 BILLION on 520; we can afford a few elevators that would turn bike commuting on its head. Cameras, clear plastic walls and push-button activated phones to the police will go a long ways to making the elevators safe.
As to helmets, three different answers:
–Re-do the helmet law (half charge to rent the bikes if you take/wear a helmet).
–Some kind of ‘micorwave-sized’ cleaning machine for helmets available.
–Invent the helmet into a collapseable flat helmet that would slip into any back-pack (and I know that you ALL have a back-pack, constantly.
The real problem is, if the City of Seattle has anything to do with the program, we will be sued for allowing people to use ‘our’ bikes without a helmet–and all of the legalese in the world won’t prevent it.
As to the rain, that I can’t change, but we could offer rain slicker overalls with the bikes–maybe. But at the very least, the bikes should be made to keep the rain to a minimum (in other words, fenders over the tires).
Without going into too much detail, more bike trails should be built and maintained (why isn’t the Burke Gilman Trail lit by ground level lights? We light ALL streets, throughout the night, regardless of how little we use them?).
Finally, it is a tragic mistake to take arterials, stripe them for bike lanes and call it a day. The bike lanes should be on side streets in most nearly every case, with speed bumps (with room for a bike to avoid the bump) and signs that indicate that the side street is for local traffic only and bikes–strictly enforced.
(I guess I wasn’t really through)
I saw in California a bike called ‘The Zipper’, electrically assisted. You still have to pedal, but the electric motor doubles your speed. You pedal for ten miles per hour and do twenty.
Now I am done; it is safe to come out now.