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The effectiveness of helmet legislation for adults continues to face scrutiny.
Since the Vélib’ public bicycle sharing system landed on the streets of Paris in 2007, over 500 cities around the world have discovered the transformational properties of bike share. Bike share has proven to be a key part of public transportation systems while boosting real estate values and retail sales in the area around any given docking station.
The stellar safety record of bike share programs speaks for itself. These sturdy, upright bicycles are designed for utility – not speed – proving to be several times safer than riding your own bike. After 3.1 million trips, no user in New York City, NY, has been seriously injured or killed in a traffic crash. Minneapolis, MN, can boast the same impressive record after 1 million trips; Boston, MA, after 1.1 million trips; Washington, DC, after 4 million trips; and Mexico City, Mexico, after 1.6 million trips.
As mentioned, injury rates among bike share users are much lower than among general riders. Helmet use is significantly lower for bike sharers, too. A study of Boston and Washington, DC, found that while about half of all riders on their own bikes donned head protection, only one in five bike share users chose to wear a helmet.
The effectiveness of helmet legislation for adults continues to face scrutiny. Jessica Dennis, a researcher at the University of Toronto, found no evidence to link reduced hospital admissions for head injuries to helmet laws across Canada, especially among adults.
Operating a spontaneous, flexible, and financially viable bike share program under a mandatory adult helmet law has yet to be successful. The only three schemes to attempt to do so – Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland – have all been unmitigated disasters. Brisbane City Cycle, for example, sees just 0.3 trips per bike per day, even though the city provided free helmets for its users. By comparison, Dublin, Ireland – a city much smaller than Brisbane in size and population – boasts an average of six daily riders per bike.
Several jurisdictions have recognized adult helmet laws as a barrier to bike share usage and have taken legislative action. Mexico City fully repealed their adult helmet law before the launch of their now successful EcoBici system in 2010. In the same year, the Israeli government rescinded their helmet law for adults riding on designated bikeways within city limits, allowing the Tel Aviv bike share to flourish.
While mandating helmet usage can be linked to a bike share system’s limited potential for success, several cities are looking at providing helmets – without requiring them – to users who want them. Boston, a city with no helmet law, will be the first city in North America to offer sidewalk helmet kiosks, HelmetHub, at bike share stations. In New York City, Citi Bike offers a $10 helmet coupon with an annual membership and has partnered with bicycle rental and tour company, Bike & Roll offering helmet rentals.
Vancouver, BC, and Seattle, WA, both in jurisdictions with helmet laws, will be watching these programs closely. Helmet legislation is a factor in the five-year delay for Vancouver’s system, and is widely expected to reduce ridership by a third, while doubling the start-up and ongoing maintenance costs. In the face of bike sharing’s undeniable social and financial benefits, tremendous safety record, and several precedents for helmet law revision, whether Vancouver’s launch will be successful in terms of ridership remains to be seen.
Chris Bruntlett is a Residential Designer and father of two, living the car-free dream. He cherishes the ability to live and work in a dense, vibrant, and sustainable city and contribute to that vision on a daily basis. @Cbruntlett