With Portland officially passing funding for a bike sharing system, Seattle can no longer pretend bike sharing is something that only happens in other parts of the country and the world. Bike sharing is proven, effective and safe — so safe that Barcelona estimates their city’s bike share program saves 12 lives every year. And now it’s finally coming to the region.
The potential for bike sharing in transit-dependent Seattle is enormous, but one big impediment stands in the way: We have a rare, all-ages helmet law that is enforced as a primary offense. Of the hundreds of bike share systems across the world, the only major bike share systems in the world that have completely flopped are in Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia. Those systems are also the only ones in cities with all-ages mandatory helmet laws.
A bike share feasibility study conducted by the University of Washington found that, despite the great potential for a system here, our helmet laws would need a solution to avoid having a negative impact on the system’s success:
The self-service nature of most bike-share programs limits their ability to provide helmets. Most bike-share programs in existence do not require helmets for users over the age of 18, and we did not find any program that actually requires users to wear helmets. Helmet use would be a challenge to bike-share use in Seattle and throughout King County, as people might not always be carrying a helmet with them. Unless a way around the helmet law in King County is discovered, the helmet requirement could dramatically reduce the number of bike-share riders by eliminating the spontaneity of bike-share use.
King County is very interested in starting a system, and the county received a grant to study and design a system here. That study is currently under way. Ref Lindmark with King County has been leading the effort, and he recently acknowledged the challenge of starting a system under our current helmet laws on KUOW’s the Conversation.
“There’s a lot of folks who just want to walk up to one of the kiosks and check out a bike and make that short trip,” he said on KUOW. “It definitely can suppress short-term walk-up demand.”
The effect of mandatory helmet laws on the success of bike share systems can be massive, as Jake Kennon pointed out in a recent article at Sightline:
The only (sic) failed program in the world is Melbourne’s. It’s also the only one put in place under a helmet law. As this short video documents, Dublin has launched a program of similar scope (450 bikes versus Melbourne’s 600), but its fleet clocks 5,000 trips per day while Melbourne’s barely manages 70. It’s already racked up a million trips without a single fatality and a stunning 40 percent of users are first-time cyclists!
That’s right, not a single fatality. Bike share systems across the world are showing that the public bikes are significantly safer than riding your personally-owned bicycle, according to StreetsBlog. This could be because the bikes are upright, well-maintained and have functioning lights. Or it could be because they are slower with lower gears meant for cruising, not racing. Or it could be because the high density areas where they are most likely to be ridden are more used to bicycle use or have better facilities and slower traffic.
Whatever the reason (or, likely, combination of reasons), after 4.5 million trips on London’s bike share system, there has not been a single fatality. In the first 1.6 million trips on London’s public bikes, only ten people were injured, none of them seriously.
And the incredible safety record with these systems is not just over seas. The system in DC, hardly a bike-friendly mecca, saw similar safety numbers. From Streetsblog:
So while only seven bike-sharing riders were injured in 330,000 trips, on average, 13 people riding personal bikes are injured over the same number of trips. And bike-sharing riders suffered no serious injuries, while riders using their own bikes suffered injuries that were sometimes serious or even fatal.
Same with Minneapolis:
Similarly, Minneapolis’s NiceRide system reported “no significant accidents or major injuries” in its first year of operation. In that time, Minnesotans took 37,000 NiceRide trips.
Bike sharing is among the safest ways for people to get around, yet a law intended to increase safety could make it impossible to implement a successful system in Seattle and King County. A law intended to save lives might prevent our city from saving lives in a different way.
Something needs to change.
The helmet law debate is one of the most divisive among people who ride bicycles. It’s an argument that has played itself out thousands of times on the streets and on Internet forums and comment streams. The county has not signaled any intent to repeal the law, and any such attempt would certainly be painful and difficult.
However, there are options that may not require the painful process of completely reversing the law in the case that the county remains steadfastly opposed to repeal. Kennon presents two ideas:
- Make riding helmetless a secondary offense. Adjusting the law so cyclists cannot be cited unless they do something else illegal would allow people to take safety decisions into their own hands. Helmets are often compared to seatbelts, so why not give them the same legal status?
- Make an exemption for bike-share users. Pedicabs (three-wheeled rickshaws for hire) are excluded from helmet laws, both for drivers and passengers, and their safety records are stellar. Vancouver’s bike share feasibility study (.pdf, see page 56) found that in the twelve years since the pedicab helmet exemption took effect there has not been one reported head injury. There are also exemptions for people with religious objections (it’s hard to put a helmet over a turban), children on tricycles, and even people with big heads. Why not public bikes?
First off, I am pretty sure wearing a seatbelt is actually a primary offense in Washington State, not a secondary offense as Kennon notes (correct me if I’m wrong). However, I am intrigued by his suggestion that helmet laws would more comfortably fit into the secondary offense category, meaning law enforcement could only tack it onto a ticket for a separate traffic offense. After all, the adult unhelmeted users that attract the most attention and scorn are the minority of people illegally blowing through stop lights and weaving dangerously through traffic, and the helmet law would still target them. The laws mandating helmet use among children would also remain unchanged. Regardless of how you feel about helmet laws in general, this seems like a good compromise.
I also see lot of promise in the idea of simply exempting public bikes from the law. Given the incredible safety record of bike share systems across the globe, it would be more than reasonable to provide an exemption so that a system here would be allowed to thrive. After all, a law intending to increase safety should be rethought if it gets in the way of other road safety initiatives.
Both Mexico City and Israel have adjusted their mandatory all-ages helmet laws in the past year in advance of bike share systems. And, indeed, Mexico City’s public bikes system has had an extraordinary safety record, according to StreetsBlog:
In Mexico City, for example, only three ECOBICI riders have required a trip to the hospital after a traffic crash in the 1.6 million trips taken so far. That’s an impressive safety record in a city known for its dangerous traffic.
With miles and miles of new bicycle facilities, King County is a much safer place to cycle today than it was in 2003, when Seattle first fell under the county’s existing all-ages helmet law. These investments in safe streets and trails have lead to rapid growth in the number of people who feel comfortable bicycling for everyday transportation.
Considering the promise of bike share safety, the 2003 Bicycle Helmet Regulation now appear to go against it’s stated primary purpose, which is “to provide for and to promote the health and welfare of the general public.”
The compromises proposed above will not likely go far enough for the most adamant of anti-helmet crusaders, and the most staunch helmet boosters may refuse to budge an inch on the law currently in place.
But I believe the vast majority of people fall into the middle of this debate, more interested in pursuing the broader goal of public health than winning an decades-old argument about pieces of Styrofoam. We want our laws to adapt to changing realities as is necessary for King County to remain an innovative and increasingly safe place to live.
When the county looks to implement a bike share system, which could launch as early as 2012 (more on that soon), a reasonable modification to the helmet laws needs to be part of the package for approval. If the county is uninterested in addressing the issue, the City of Seattle could feasibly lower the priority of helmet enforcement as a primary offense within the Seattle limits.
For more on the awesome power of bike share programs, sit back and enjoy these videos: