Bike Share and Helmet Laws: An Uncomfortable Relationship

The effectiveness of helmet legislation for adults continues to face scrutiny.

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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 Mexico City fully repealed their adult helmet law before the launch of their now successful EcoBici system in 2010. In the same year, the Israeli government rescinded their helmet law for adults riding on designated bikeways within city limits, allowing the Tel Aviv bike share to flourish.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


  • chris

    The evidence seems to overwhelmingly in favour of getting rid of the helmet law.
    Even the folks that claim the effacy of bike helmets in crashes are referring to a very small
    group of the population, since so few people are getting injured on bicycles compared
    to any mode of transportation.

    Persons that are doings stunts or racing; like downhill racing,
    that end up in hospital are further skewing the numbers,
    because their risky behaviour are not common in cycle
    commuting, but still gets counted as injuries in many of
    these studies.

    So it makes me wonder who is trying to stop the
    repeal of the bicycle helmet law in British Columbia
    and on what grounds?

  • Brad

    It’s not just Melbourne, but Brisbane as well that have failed pbs systems. Sydney wants a PBS program as well, but the city won’t consider having one unless the government grants a helmet exemption to its users, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume a large portion of blame of failure of Melbounes pbs lies at the foot of Austrailias helmet law

  • Gary Beaton

    The failure of the Melbourne bike share system had little to nothing to do with mandatory helmet laws but is an urban myth that works to mask the poor business planning that preceded the implementation of bike share in the city.
    The Melbourne bike share disaster was a result of the extraordinarily high mode share of bikes, which is directly correlated to the existence of one of the world’s most effective bicycle promotion organizations – Bicycle Network.
    What is astounding is the fact that Melbourne bike share could fail in the city with a bicycle advocacy organization with 50,000 members and a solid track record of (social) marketing under the oversight of Canadian Dr. Doug Mckenzie-Mohr.
    The same consulting company, Alta Planning, was responsible for the counter-intuitive conclusion that bike share would work in Calgary. The Transport Canada guidelines were conveniently hidden from the public in the Calgary debate.
    Blaming helmet laws for the demise of a bike share program is not responsible social science research.

    • Duncan Hurd

      A 2% bicycling mode share is by no means “extraordinarily high”. While there are other factors influencing the low use of Melbourne’s bike share, including a lack of infrastructure and a limited service area, the restrictive helmet law and its negative effect on the perception of cycling as a safe mode of transportation is undeniable.

  • Brad

    A publication recently submitted to the BMJ addressed the helmet issue as one of a simple attitude towards people who use bicycles as transportation.

    “The enduring popularity of helmets as a proposed major intervention for increased road safety may therefore lie not with their direct benefits—which seem too modest to capture compared with other strategies—but more with the cultural, psychological, and political aspects of popular debate around risk.”

  • Duncan Hurd

    Thank you for the comment. The article has been updated.

  • Mike

    Saddens me to say but I understand the London scheme had a fatality. Not that a helmet would have helped.

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