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Shared Bicycle Rental Programs and Helmets

Summary: There are good questions about the now popular shared bicycle rental systems and helmet requirements. The success of the movement could be hampered by requiring helmets. But head injuries could discourage users as well. Reported crash rates are very low for all the programs. A 2014 study showed an increase in the proportion of head injuries after bikeshare programs were implemented, but a large reduction in total injuries. At present, rental users are following the same helmet regulations as other riders in each community. Seattle has a new program that requires helmets, and provides $2 helmet rentals.

In cities throughout the world new bicycle rental systems (cycle hire schemes in UK English, Velib in French) are being installed. The pioneer was La Rochelle, France, in 1974, and others have started up since. But the movement has taken off following the very visible success of the 2007 Parisian Velib system. The Paris system now has more than 20,000 bikes and 1,639 stations. More than 100 programs are now operating in more than 150 cities around the world. Bikes are picked up and dropped off at automated stations, typically in central business districts. After membership fees, most rides are free or very cheap for the first 30 minutes and more expensive after that, encouraging their use for short rides between their urban stations.

Rental bikes have always raised a helmet question, since the renter may not have a helmet with them. Shops generally provide rental helmets to their customers, but an automated bike stand on the street poses a different problem. The systems are designed to appeal to casual renters for short trips, including those who did not plan to rent a shared bike when they left home and would not have a helmet along. Requiring those renters to use a helmet would discourage them from using the system. Early adopters are likely to be experienced bicyclists, and many would have helmets, but the real success of these systems comes from attracting new users who are not habitual riders.

In almost all cases, the rental system sponsors are recommending but not requiring helmets. Where there are local helmet laws they do not usually apply to adults, who are the typical users of an urban shared bike system. The notable exception in the US is Seattle, where the Pronto program opened in 2014. Pronto provides rental bike helmets for $2. The helmets are sanitized between users. Results there so far are good. Another exception is Melbourne, (see below) where the law requires helmets for all ages. Brisbane is considering a system as well. Since most of the systems are recent, time will tell if usage rates for the ones in localities requiring adult helmets will differ solely because of the helmet requirement.

California's legislature is considering a bill that would extend their State law to all ages. Some bikeshare proponents are opposing it, believing it will cut down use of shared bike programs.

Mexico City had adopted a mandatory helmet law, but this article on the European Bicycle Federation site says they repealed it in February of 2010 in an effort to support their shared bicycle rental program, Ecobici. This is the only report we have seen of a law repealed to facilitate shared biking.

Bike sharing programs in the US are concerned about the legal liabilities of both the program and the helmet question. In our society, anyone head-injured on a bicycle without a helmet whose family is desperate for funds to pay medical bills and support the injured one finds an attorney who sues everyone in sight. That may include the bike share program, the bike supplier, the car driver involved, the ambulance crew, bystanders who tried to help, the hospital and more. Fault is not an issue, it's just a search for deep pockets and those with liability insurance coverage. Helmet companies rise and fall with the skill of their attorneys and the ability of their staff to support lawsuits. The shared bike programs who advocate helmets but do not supply them could be particularly vulnerable to accusations that they knew helmets were an essential piece of safety gear but did not supply one. Again, time and court precedents will tell.

Boston has launched a comprehensive bike safety program incuding driver education, cyclist education and aggressive helmet promotion to complement their 57 new miles of bike lanes and their shared bicycle program. There is no adult helmet law there. Officials say crashes are down as cycling goes up.

First injury studies appearing - 2014

The first injury study published in a peer-reviewed journal appeared in mid-2014. The study concluded:
"In PBSP cities, the proportion of head injuries among bicycle-related injuries increased from 42.3% before PBSP implementation to 50.1% after (P? Conclusions. Results suggest that steps should be taken to make helmets available with PBSPs. Helmet availability should be incorporated into PBSP planning and funding, not considered an afterthought following implementation."

The abstract does not address changes in all cycling injuries in both the shared bike program cities and the control cities. That turns out to be more important than the rise in the proportion of head injuries. In cities after bikeshare implementation, all cyclist injuries declined 28% and head injuries declined 14%. In cities without bikeshare, all injuries increased 6% and head injuries declined 4%. A lot depends on what you assume the shared bike programs were responsible for, and what other factors were at work, such as improved bike accommodation and local safety programs. The study does not take exposure into account. And the numbers include all bicycle injuries: mountain biking, road racing, fast training rides on road bikes, BMX, kids riding, as well as transportation cycling and bikeshare. In short, there is no way to isolate the effect of the bikeshare programs on injuries.

Although head injuries might have been further reduced in bikeshare cities if every rider had worn a helmet, the shared bike program might not have worked with helmet requirements, and the overall injury reduction might or might not have occurred.

The analysis uses only two years of injury data before the shared programs were implemented and one year after, although annual variations are normal in bike injury stats.

Our conclusion is that it is still very early to be trying to analyze the effects of bikeshare programs, and we need to be careful interpreting any statistics. The recommendation to make helmets available as part of bikeshare programs makes sense to us.

Folding Helmets?

Folding a helmet can make it easier to carry, although it still requires the same volume of impact foam. There is at least one folding helmet on the European market now, and two more have been announced in France and Italy. One that meets the US CPSC standard is now available. There should be more folding designs to come as the market for them increases. See our page on folding helmets for more. Folded or not, the helmet is another item for a pedestrian to carry, unless planning in advance to use a shared rental bicycle. That may not be a problem for backpack users, but those with purses or briefcases usually have to carry the helmet elsewhere unless it folds.

Rental Helmets

We have a page up on rental helmets with some information on what commercial rental companies do to provide helmets to their customers. The Seattle program gave away helmets to new members during the first months, and now rents them for $2. The helmets are sanitized after each rental.

London Cycle Hire

The very successful Barclays Cycle Hire scheme in London (also known as the Boris Bike Scheme for strongly pro-bike London Mayor Boris Johnson) logged more than 750,000 trips in less than two months, according to Transport for London. For the 6,000 bicycles that works out to just over two trips per day per bicycle. A spokesperson for TfL was quoted in the September 28, 2010 issue of the London Telegraph saying "There have been five incidents since the scheme launched on 30 July where a cycle hire user has been injured." That would be an astounding bike safety record anywhere in the world, but it is not likely that TfL has good statistics yet on how many injuries there have been presenting at hospital emergency rooms, and that they are stating how many reports they have received.

After press reports of two head injuries on London scheme bikes, a spokesperson for the non-profit, Brake, was quoted in the Telegraph article calling for helmet use by those hiring cycles, provoking a reaction from those opposed to helmet laws. If the actual numbers were as low as TfL announced for 750,000 trips, they would have a point.

Given the vocal opposition to helmet laws in the UK, there should be more recent references in this Google search.

Melbourne Bike Share

Melbourne's system was launched in April of 2010. It is sized at 50 bike stations in the central business district and 600 bicycles. As with all other Australian states, Victoria requires helmets for bicycle riders of all ages. The sponsors have given thought to the helmet question:

"In line with Victorian road laws, the use of helmets is compulsory for all users. Helmets are available for free as part of corporate memberships and for purchase with individual annual subscriptions. Helmets are also available at selected local Central Business District retail outlets located near the bike stations, with some retailers offering discounts of up to 20 per cent for Melbourne Bike Share users."

"Helmets are not supplied with the bikes. The main reason for this is due to safety. We cannot compromise on the safety of our users; if we were to provide helmets with the bikes we would need to check every helmet after each ride to ensure they are not damaged - and are clean. Those using the scheme will need to bring their own helmet or purchase one from a handy location near the bike station. In addition, subscribers to Melbourne Bike Share will have the option of purchasing a low cost helmet with their annual membership."

The Melbourne system is about one-tenth the size of London's. It was launched in winter, with anti-helmet law proponents gleefully declaring ridership to be a failure, but the test of acceptance comes with time.

Melbourne has announced a plan to provide inexpensive helmets through vending machines and local stores close to their bikeshare locations. The helmets will reportedly sell for $5 each, making the cost of a helmet and shared bike ride less than a taxi ride in most cases.

Recommendation that Queensland suspend helmet rule

Brisbane's shared bike program has experienced low usage, blamed by some on the compulsory helmet law. In 2013 the report of a Queensland parliamentary committee recommended a trial suspension of the helmet rule for those 16 and over riding on trails and low speed roads, or using shared bike program bicycles.

Vending Machines

While Melbourne had the first helmet vending machines on the street for a shared bike program, a team of MIT students calling their company HelmetHub developed a much more ambitious design. It is compact to fit in the limited space available for most shared bike stations. The first ones are being installed in Boston in 2013, with one put in service in November. Here is a good description, and here is another with more detail. They show promise, including rental or purchase options, but the cited price for purchase seems high at about $20.

Airbag or cardboard headgear?

In October of 2010 the Swedish firm Hövding announced a new product in the form of a collar that deploys an airbag around the head. The London bicycle press immediately asked if it would be ideal for shared bike users. We doubt that it will be ideal for anything, but time will tell, and at least somebody is applying out-of-the-box thinking to the problem of providing head protection for riders of shared bicycles. There is also a design for a helmet with a corrugated, cardboard-like liner that the inventor thinks might be ideal for shared use program venting machines. We think the liner is not likely to be a lot cheaper than a foam liner, and there are other potential problems.

This page was updated or partially revised on: March 17, 2015.
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