13 Jan 2011

Toss the Albatross: Bike share needs helmet choice

Posted by Mike Rubbo

A bike share scheme is a beautiful, sociable, thing. And Melbourne Bike Share is no exception..

When MBS gets its act together, it will provide great city transport links and be an exciting attraction for visitors.

Right now, the new Victorian Government faces an exquisite dilemma. Clay Lucas lays out the drama in The Age today.

The Liberals has inherited a Labor bike share scheme which is just limping along at a fraction of its potential.

The way to save it is thought to be continue to subsidize what are virtually give-away helmets, each of which costs the tax payer $13. That’s crazy, surely?

Our protest ride last year. 20 helmet-less riders.

With this subsidy, the last months have seen ridership go up to around 320 a day from a previous average of 200 a day.

Is this good enough the new Govt. must asking itself?

No, it’s not. Dublin bikes, with the same number of bikes on the streets of that city, (around 500 bikes as has Melbourne) has averaged around 5000 rentals a day. 25 times as many.

The new Govt might be encouraged to keep going with the subsidy, given that 62% of Age readers in an ongoing poll, think the scheme should be saved.

But to do so is to sidestep the problem because it is doubtful that the numbers will get any better.

The MBS basket case will still be a basket case, still a drain on the public purse, a white elephant which the new Govt will soon find it owns.

Where are your helmets?

No bike share scheme can work at full potential with compulsory helmets. That’s acknowledged world wide.

Comp. helmets run counter to the very nature of such schemes since the bikes are usually taken impulsively, impossible without a helmet in hand

Even if you do plan to pick up a bike, you wont happily carry a helmet around all day for the half hour you need to be on that bike.

Nor do you want the added complication of buying a lid, no matter how cheap.

Remember that only the first half hour is free, and 5 minutes spent sorting out a helmet, eats into that free time.

All bad, all the wrong vibe entirely!.

What are the options?
If helmets are essential and the dispensing system won’t work, the choice is clear. Let the Scheme die. Write off the $5 million.

But it’s not an option because the world is watching and would judge us as stupid. Stupid because helmets are not essential.

Other cycling societies have much better safety records than we do, and with helmet choice. Strange as it may seem , we’d probably be safer with helmet choice, the very freedom needed to save MBS.

But change is hard and the temptation is going to be to let MBS die.

Perhaps if these schemes were not not postivelytransforming cities like Montreal, Barcelona and London, we might get away with a quiet closure of MBS.

Not any more, not with Boris bikes, for example, getting positive headlines locally and internationally everyday.

No, there is no going back now. Not with honor. Nor can we plead ignorance or special circumstances. MBS was warned helmet would be their albatross. They ignored the warning

What do do? Firstly, stop throwing good money after bad. Subsidized helmets will always be a band-aid.

Secondly, bite the bullet and toss the albatross. Bring in a helmet exemption for these bikes, on a trial basis if necessary.

How can Minister Mulder justify what will worry some in the medical and law enforcement fields and upset cyclists who are sure helmets offer them vital protection?

1. Marshall the evidence that bike share works safely around the world, and in fact delivers safer riding than cycling in general.

This is because the bikes are invariably the sit-up variety which ride slower and on which you see better, and are seen better.

Bike Share delivers reliable stats so it’s not hard to find out how few serious accidents befall it’s riders in the 130 cities around the world in which Bike share operates.

Of course all human moving around involves some degree of danger which must be kept in mind. We readily accept that in the case of cars.

But let’s be reassured. Dublin Bike share
has had only two accidents in the year plus that it’s been operating.

Here, Andrew Montague, who helped set it up (and who, by the way, says he’s happy to advise Melb. if desired) explaining how it works so well.

Montreal’s Bixi scheme, soon to be in its third year with 5000 bikes on the streets, clocked up 3.5 million Kms. in its first year with just five minor Bixi accidents.

Same story for Barcelona and London, though London has had a few more prangs but no deaths with over 1.35 million rides taken

Bottom line, a helmet exemption on a trial basis could be introduced for MBS with very little risk.

Doing so will not only
1. Allow MBS to thrive,
2. Save the Govt a lot of money, but
3. Stand as the trial we need for going forward for the whole country.

There is a precedent on our Continent if further reassurance is needed. The NT has had a partial helmet exemption since the mid nineties which has had only beneficial effects. No increase in head injuries.

I went to Darwin to check it out.


A trial exemption is only a matter of time in Australia, so much sense does it make.

The mayor of Freemantle, Brad Pettitt, is going to bat for helmet choice for his city, as you see below . Melbourne should be leading the way, given the more urgent need.

For Brad Pettitt, Mayor of Freemantle, that penny has dropped.

It’s not as if MBS wasn’t warned. I posted this cautionary analysis before MBS was launched flagged the obvious solution.


As I said, MBS will neither die nor limp along quietly. The whole world is watching as the Dublin film shows.

Riding a share bike is more and more a global tourist expectation, and if we can’t make MBS work, we are going to look very stupid as well as suffering financially.

Right now, there is nothing sadder than stands of unused bikes


My next posts will delve exactly how the NT exemption came about, and also how the famous Bicing Bike share scheme is faring in Barcelona. My team will be filming there next week.

One last point. The opposition, and it will be strident, will come from the trauma doctors. Those on the front line who see the damage hitting one’s head can do.

Sadly, they have played a negative role globally since they want policy made on a tiny number of dramatic events, whilst not taking onto account the over all health picture of the population.

The rampant obesity and diabetes are infinitely greater threat, one alleviated by riding, than a bike head injury.

Their call must be respected but resisted just as Montreal resisted the pressure from Dr. Tarek Razek, head of the McGill Trauma unit seen here.

If this good doctor had got his way, Montreal would not have the flourishing bike share scheme it has today, and that city would not have been transformed for the better as it has been.

True safety is under the wheels not on the head.

When the emphasis moves from head protection, the public and political resolve emerges to build what’s really needed, that is separated paths.

This is how Europe got its great cycleway networks and why they are so far ahead of us today.

Thanks to Gen. and Henrik for being in the photos.

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12 Responses to “Toss the Albatross: Bike share needs helmet choice”

  1. Very good point, Mike. Separate (good quality) paths are the only way to get more people biking. It’s next to impossible to have a bike spill on a good bike trail. Perhaps the reason why politicians seem to ignore this is the initial cost of building the paths. However, the return on investment is very good over long term in so many different ways, not only financially. As a bonus, while they construct the new bike paths, they can upgrade whatever other infructructure is in that place.
    I’m very fortunate here in Toronto that I live right by a nice separate bike trail crossing the city east-west. Though it’s true that a part of my commute is along normal city streets, as well. If my whole commute had to be along city streets, I would stop biking.


    Micheal Blue

  2. As someone who has spent a considerable time in both London & Dublin it has to be said that the climate in Melbourne is much more conducive to cycling. Therefore, why are our elected officials not asking questions about the failure (and cost) of the bike shares in Melbourne & Brisbane? If taxpayers money was being wasted on any other initiative there would be some form of inquiry to asertain why. It seems amazing that no political party is willing to approach the issue with even the Greens remaining silent on this one. It is an embarrassment to watch our politicians bury their heads in the sand while the rest of the world watches & laughs at our incompetence to implement a very simple scheme which has been a proven success worldwide.


    Gary MacDonald

  3. Cycling advocates in Vancouver, Canada are watching Melbourne with more than a fair bit of anxiety.

    Slated to be the first major North American city to host a public bike share system, and provide a showcase example to the world during the 2010 winter Olympic games, the scheme has been placed on hold, due in great part to our all ages mandatory helmet law.

    During the delay, a number of successful PSB systems have sprung up around North America, including one in Montreal, Canada.

    Despite being told by administrators of successful PBS around the world that mandatory helmet use would impact PSB use negatively, the belief that helmet legislation saves lives has led both the city and provincial governments to keep the helmet law in place, in spite of the risk of failure of the initiative.

    Auckland, New Zealand, Melbourne and now Brisbane, Australia, have been the only examples of PSB with mandatory helmet use, and they haven’t been pretty ones.

    It’s possible the experience down under may yet again halt the start of Vancouver’s system. City politicians are up for re-election this year and the opposition would love nothing better than to hold the current administration to task for investing in a system that isn’t being used.

    Funny how in places like London or Montreal, the presiding mayor improves his standing through the success of their well used PSB systems, but in Vancouver, the initiative is being handled like a bomb; the Mayor Robinson doesn’t want it to blow up on him and kill his good standing.


    Brad Kilburn

  4. Bike share schemes are too good an opportunity for ‘normal’ cycling to squander.

    If you live in Australia, you can do something about it by writing to your state member to have these crippling laws repealed.

    All it takes is 5 mins to copy, paste and print one of these letters. http://helmetfreedom.org/145/helmet-exemption-for-bike-share/?official=366

    There’s plenty there so please please please, do this once a month until the law is repealed and let our pollies know that we like helmets but hate helmet laws.



  5. Separate bike infrastructure is a superb thing. I am 100 percent for it. However, separate paths are only part of the solution in Australia.

    The other part is the attitude of riders. I have stopped using the ( in theory) excellent bike path along the river because of the ridiculous macho attitude of many of the wankers who use it, who seem to think that being overtaken by other riders or having to slow momentarily in order to overtake safely is somehow beneath their dignity as serious cyclists.

    Around a month ago, following any number of near misses, I was finally bought to earth by one of these tools. I was riding around a bend at my usual sedate pace. There were 2 cyclists riding abreast approaching from the other direction, with about 100 metres of clear path behind them. Suddenly, a bearded wonder in lycra swept around from behind me, moving atvspeed, trying to get around and in front of me. He didn’t have room to do, so he wound up clipping my front wheel, bringing himself to the deck, and sending me flying over his bike and landing in the middle of the road.

    If this goon slowed down and waited 10 seconds, he could have passed with complete safety, but he preferred to take a bone-headed risk in order to shore up his own self-image as a hard-ass competitive rider.

    In every part of Melbourne where cyclists gather, you see this numbskull attitude. It is part of why, in my opinion, our ridership skews heavily in favour of males. Women want to ride for and exercise, not to participate in a pissing contest.


    Jo Henshaw

  6. That’s an important story you tell, Jo pointing to what is seriously wrong. I’ll email about this for further talk. Mike


    Mike Rubbo

  7. I agree with dave, there are too many wankers who view riding (particularly commuters) as a tour de france time trail. I am a BMX bandit from the early 80′s and have not died out. For all those who want to develop cycling as a culture, live (Like I did for 4 years) in Holland, and see that people cycle coz it’s the easiest way to get around, most efficient way to park and is socially excepted. There are networks of separation, and no growly fools in cars to shunt you off the road. The network is also consistent!! Bike is #1, and rspected. I can’t beleive the idiots that put up with peak hour trafic and spend time going nowhere on a daily basis( try macaulay road in kensington melbourne for example). Melbourne bike hire scheme is a good idea, but what for those tourists riding in the Melbourne CBD with no lanes, parked cars on the kerbside and oops, riding on the other side of the road. Sorry, didn’t see you mate. What I also love, is those drivers pulling out from side streets into a congested road to advance 10 feet, only achieving so much as to sticking there nose out so cyclists can’t pass. Australia, is a dumb blonde for transport infrastructure! Plenty of nature strip, sidewalk that oozes potential for redevelopment. Government spends too much money on faesibility studies without looking at the basics.



  8. The Melbourne bikes shown in the top photos really need helmets. Because its specially for city purpose where there is a lot traffic. I haven’t seen any people wearing helment when they ride these bikes because you can get them by inserting coins so it’s obvious you may not have helmet.


    cheap bikes melbourne

  9. [...] The same goes for Barcelona, London and other cities with flourishing bike share programs (the troubles of Melbourne’s bike sharing scheme support the conclusion that bike share and helmets don’t [...]

  10. What are you advocating a helmet exemption and not simply the removal of this sutpid law once for all?



  11. Yes, because because choice for all is not politically possible in one go. Mike


    Mike Rubbo

  12. A well researched article. I suppose at the end of the day its about choice but at the same time there is no doubting that helmets save lives. Maybe it would have been better if the government gave money to its citizens to go by a bike so then you can have one all year round and then just install a lot more bicycle racks to compensate for the explosion of bikes in the city. It has the same success rate of Brisbanes scheme which might as well be nought.


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