Bike sharing raises helmet issue
New York is not alone in promoting bicycle riding through a bike share program. In fact, New York is coming rather late to the party. Many other cities, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, Des Moines, Miami Beach and Minneapolis, have established programs for bicycle sharing. European cities such as Paris, Barcelona and London have embraced bike sharing as a way to reduce pollution and traffic congestion.
Sometimes it seems as if there are no downsides to bike sharing programs, which promote health and fitness, are inexpensive for riders and improve air quality. However, there are public safety concerns associated with bike share programs – concerns that must be addressed as alternative transportation systems such as bicycle sharing grow in popularity.
First, people using bike share programs are probably not regular bike riders. This means that they are not familiar with the roads and streets from a bike rider’s perspective, leaving them more vulnerable to accidents and injuries. Second, because they are infrequent riders, they are less likely to have bike helmets.
A recent study by doctors and medical researchers in Boston and Washington revealed how large the gap is between regular riders and riders using a bike share program. The study found that half of people riding their own bikes wore helmets. However, only 19 percent of riders using bike share bicycles wear helmets. Bike share users were 1.6 times less likely to use helmets than people who rode personal bikes. Casual bike riders in particular were even less likely to wear helmets – only 15.7 percent of occasional bike share users wore helmets.
Why is there such a gap between bike riders who share and bike riders who own? One story suggests that riders, even if they are willing to share bicycles, are not willing to share helmets. One writer refers to this as the “cootie conundrum,” or a reluctance to put on a helmet previously worn by someone else.
Another part of the problem is that most trips made by bike share customers are short – maybe 10 blocks. Riders are reluctant to carry a helmet around all day to use during a ride that may last 15 minutes.
Managers of bike share programs note that requiring helmet use will probably reduce ridership. They say that providing helmets would require them to invest in one-size-fits-all helmets or carry a large inventory of different sizes – something that could also impact the financial viability of a bike share program and limit the number of people willing to use the rental bikes.
New York City has given away 50,000 bike helmets since 2007 and has plans to distribute vouchers that will allow bike share users to purchase helmets at a discount. Although New York law does not require helmets for bike riders over age 13, the City Council is considering a bill that would require helmets for riders of any age.