Why bike hire and helmets don't mix

Today we focus on Australia, where the city of Melbourne has launched a bike hire scheme of its own just like the system we are about to get in London.  Unlike London, Melbourne's cyclists have to wear helmets by law.  The Mandatory Cycle Helmet Law came into being in the state of Victoria in 1990 and since then anyone on a push bike - adults or children, rider or passenger - has had to wear a helmet or face a fine of up to $100AUD or a fixed penalty notice (of which some 20,000 were issued in the first year of the law coming into being.)

Of course, successful cycle hire schemes around the world work on the basis that many of the riders who use the schemes can do so on an impulse, just turning up at a docking station, swiping their credit card, grabbing a bike and setting off across town.  And this is where cycle helmets and bike hire don't mix; the need to carry a helmet around with you negates the ability to hire a bike on an impulse.  Hiring out helmets with every bike is a hygienic conundrum and selling helmets to keep with each hire bike defeats the ability of the cycle hire scheme to be cheaper than other forms of public transport or riding your own bicycle.

Needless to say the bike hire scheme in Melbourne is proving to be less than successful as a consequence of the Mandatory Cycle Helmet Law, but the law is not going unquestioned.

Sue Abbot, an avid everyday and ordinary cyclist from the rural New South Wales town of Scone was stopped last year for cycling without a helmet and ticketed.  She has since had her ticket quashed and is currently seeking special exemption on human rights grounds to be allowed the choice of whether she cycles with a helmet or not.  Her blog charts her progress, or frustrating lack of therein.

Mike Rubbo, who writes the Sit Up Cycle blog has said from the start that bike hire schemes can not work in conjunction with cycle hire.  And last weekend he decided to do something about it...

Mikael Colville-Andersen, the rabble rouser from the Copenhagenize blog, was in Melbourne at the weekend to give a public lecture about urban cycling as part of the State of Design Festival.  Rubbo decided to time Colville-Andersen's visit with a little direct action of his own to speak out against the cycle helmet laws.  His protest?  He and a group of like-minded friends rented hire bikes and rode them in their normal clothes around town without helmets on.  That doing so could see them receiving a criminal record seems beyond belief, and perhaps doing so is what is needed for the public debate to be had about the rationale of the law.

According to accounts of the day there was a heavy police and media presence  at the little protest ride, and a number of cyclists were fined in accordance with the law for riding lid-less.  With Mexico City having repealed it's mandatory helmet law in order to initiate a successful cycle hire scheme, and Tel Aviv in Israel considering doing the same, let's hope this is the kick-start to an important debate that Australia needs to have.  And may it be a warning to our coalition Government that, despite helmet lobbyist's best efforts, it would not be a good idea to introduce such a law here in the UK (and there are indeed forces at work who would seek to see the same realised, despite the consequences)

Mike Rubbo's 2009 film 'Bike Share and Helmets don't mix', via Sit Up Cycle Blog.

The Mandatory Cycle Helmet Law in Australia served to bring about a 40% drop in cycling rates, encourages drivers to get closer to the remaining cyclists on the road, helps to portray everyday cycling as somehow sporty, unusual or 'other' and as has been demonstrated has stymied Australia's attempts to introduce a working bike hire scheme. On the contrary, in Montreal where the Bixi bike share scheme (on which the London and Melbourne schemes are modled) operates with no mandatory helmet laws, some 3.5 million KMs were ridden in the first year with only 5 accidents and none of them serious, according to the Bixi press office, which just goes to show that a lack of helmet laws hardly brings about a two-wheeled apocolypse.

Of course if you are going to race a bike down the slopes of the Alps or across the country on some gnarly dirt track then a bicycle helmet makes good sense.  But to HAVE to wear one just to hop on a bike to pop 5 minutes down the road to the shops?  Why not let adults be adults and decide for themselves?  Any investment in cycling infrastructure, cycle hire schemes and increases in cycling rates depend on it.


anna said...

Interesting, that they even have bike share systems down under. Same crazy politicians in Vienna actually suggested to give away single-use styrofoam helmets... The world is full of idiots. Hard to talk to them in a sensible way.

Good luck for Sue Abbot. Once such a law is in place, it must be hard to rebell.

ibikelondon said...

Hi Anna, I agree that at times this debate becomes so heated that it is almost impossible to have; people have such strong convictions that it is almost impossible to show them common sense. But let's hope common sense prevails, for the sake of the success of such a scheme!

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crapcyclelanes said...

As I said on Mike Rubbo's site....

....Here is my posting to the UK based Cycling and Society listserv. I am not sure we really got any words of wisdom from the State of Design panel, since nobody mentioned the word politics, and Mikael seems to be more into advertising messages. So I am only partially with you in spirit (but pounding the roads in Melbourne daily!)

“Interesting debate Down Under about Australia’s first citybike hire scheme, which started a few weeks ago in Melbourne. It is probably doomed to failure because of compulsory national helmet laws, which make the idea of just taking a bike from a stand and dropping in off a while later, somewhat expensive! (a $144 fine for no helmet is sometimes policed here).
Assessment in the broadsheets here, with video http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/helmet-law-makes-nonsense-of-bike-hire-scheme-20100722-10my2.html .
It is somewhat galling to hear of the success of such schemes in other countries.

Over the weekend we also had Mikael Colville-Andersen, who has somehow become the spokesperson for Copenhagen’s utilitarian approach to urban transport that favours bikes, deliver an address on the Copenhagen experience, down on the Melbourne riverfront during our ‘State of Design’ festival. The gist was that cycling levels increased in C. not because of a Danish propensity to embrace non-polluting modes, but because getting from A-B was simply quicker on a bike, enabled by enlightened infrastructure planning and high car tax. He argued Copenhageners do not self-identify as “cyclists” and nor are they terribly attached to their bikes – it is just what you do to get around. No-nonsense infrastructure is the way to go, but cycling also needs to be marketed and well presented as a lifestyle choice.

Remembering an earlier paper I had written (below 1) when I lived there, I thought he had skipped over one essential ingredient – the political economy of Danish cycling. Saving Copenhagen’s famous trunk-road bike lanes from being ripped out, and to then get them extended, did actually require concerted political action, at a time when car use was rising in the 70s. There were numerous street protests and political lobbying. My many years setting up the Ealing LCC group in London also taught me that you have to “fight for the streetscape” (below 2) against Council infrastructure planners and road engineers, and this becomes a constant battle. And, there was no smooth and ‘gradual’ increase in cycling in central London, surely – it was the congestion charge and financial commitment by local and metropolitan councils, all of whom were elected. But let me know – I left in 2001.

Similarly, in Melbourne, in order to save a decent public bike scheme, which some think is really important (I am not so sure) we will have to fight to get an exemption to the helmet law- otherwise thousands of commuters and tourists will be sticking to the tram and the pavements. This will be a very big campaign, about which cycling organisations are currently split. Unfortunately “the Law” is Holy Grail in this country and it has been around since 1990. It makes us a laughing stock in European cycling circles.

PS seeking literature on these topics – I actually work on other things, mainly.

1) Simon Batterbury 2002. Cycling in Copenhagen http://www.simonbatterbury.net/pubs/copenhagen.doc
2) Batterbury, S.P.J. 2003. Environmental activism and social networks: campaigning for bicycles and alternative transport in West London. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 590: 150-169. http://www.simonbatterbury.net/pubs/annals.htm "

crapcyclelanes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ibikelondon said...

Hi crapcyclelanes, thanks for taking the time to post and for your insight.

It must be frustrating to hear how similar (indeed, the same!) schemes can be succesful in places like London.

I agree entirely that there has to be political impetus at the start for emerging bicycle cultures to succed. Just as the motoring lobby pushes for roads to be built so it is for cyclists if they want facilities installed for them. Melbourne (and indeed all of Australia) has just such a situation as this on it's hand right now.

It will be interesting in the extreme to see how things pan out; I'll be sure to keep abreast of developments.

Thanks for the link to your paper, I'll be sure to check it out!

All the best,


Kim said...

The important thing to remember about helmets is there is a lot of money at stake. A product the cost less than £2.50 to make and sells for up to £100+ leave a lot of profit to be used for palm greasing, cough, I mean lobbing and marketing.

crapcyclelanes said...

More crazy developments.

Chris Gillham said...

Update on the Australian bike share failures

Anonymous said...

Yes, cyclists should be able to do what they like, and no laws or restrictions (no matter how sensible) should ever apply to them, simply because they are using a morally superior form of transport. By the same token, motorists should be subject to heavy restrictions and draconian enforcement in order to punish them for using an irresponsible mode of transport (and never mind if they're disabled, or going a long way without adequate public transport alternatives, etc, etc...we must assume that all drivers are inherently evil and selfish).

It follows that cyclists should not be made to wear helmets (even if it saves lives), we should have speed cameras everywhere (even if they don't save lives), and cyclists are perfectly entitled, nay *obliged*, to ride around displaying a belligerent self-righteous attitude towards all and sundry (even police officers...from watching some YouTube videos, you'd think that stopping a cyclist for jumping a red light amounted to the most hideous persecution and abuse of their human rights).

No need to tell me I'm completely right, I already know. But perhaps someone will remove this comment if it's too near the bone.

ibikelondon said...

@Anonymous I won't delete your comment, Anon, your opinions - no matter how misguided I might think they are - are just as valid. Doesn't mean I have to agree with anything you've said though.

Hope you feel better now!


Anonymous said...

are you interested to race a bike down the slopes of the Alps or across the country on some gnarly dirt track then a bicycle helmet makes good sense. Bikes Melbourne

Tiago said...

I moved to Argentina in 2010 and I am staying in a buenos aires apartment. The government here have made a great job to impulse cycling. Now there is a lot of places to take a bike for free and return it in another spot, and no helmet is required so many people used it.

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