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A pothole for bike-sharing programs: helmets

Gigi Douban Sep 4, 2015
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There are so many reasons people don’t ride bikes. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I look ridiculous in spandex. These are what people in the bike world call “barriers to cycling.” Among the most common?

“Possibly the hair — the helmet hair,” says Lindsey West, head of the BikeShare program in Birmingham, Alabama, which is launching this month. The program organizers talked about whether to require helmets, but decided against it. The program wants people to rent bikes, and is even going so far as to put electric pedal assist on its bikes, making hills easier.

“So we want to reduce, kind of reduce a barrier to BikeShare,” West says.

Bike-share programs — where you swipe a credit card or a key fob to unlock a bike for an hour or a few days — are popping up all over the country. Cities have backed these programs because they make roads less congested, not to mention the health benefits for riders. Corporations are often quick to support bike shares because of the visibility. But these programs are grappling with one issue: helmets. One study showed most bike-share users — about 80 percent — didn’t use helmets; that’s contrasted with about 55 percent of cyclists overall going helmetless.

West says people don’t ride bike share bikes the way they do road bikes, flying down streets at about 15 miles per hour. Instead, these bikes are designed for tooling around town at a more leisurely pace. People sit upright; the bikes are sturdy.

“You also can’t miss them,” she says. “They’re green, they’re blue. The lights are on there. So, I think that encourages safety also in its design.”

Ralph Buehler, associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, has studied cyclist safety, and says there are bike-share systems that require helmets, like in Australia.

“But still, these systems are not doing as well as systems where bike helmet use is not mandatory,” he says.

People in Seattle know this well. Their bike-share program launched a year ago. In Seattle, cyclists must, by law, wear a helmet. Holly Houser, executive director of the program there, says it’s definitely been a challenge.

She says the program knew requiring helmets would affect usership. Plus, it’s a burden in terms of logistics and cost.

“The cost of the helmet cleaning and helmet pickups, as well as the hardware that holds the helmets and the helmets themselves,” Houser says.

She says helmets are collected after every use, hand washed and inspected for cracks. If they’re good, they’re wrapped up and ready to rent again. If not, that’s another liability.

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