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Times: King County’s adult helmet law could hold back Seattle’s new bike share system

Yours truly breaking the law by riding a Pronto bike a short distance on a trail from UW Station to the Ave.
Yours truly breaking the law by riding a Pronto bike a short distance on a trail from UW Station to the Ave.

The debate about bike share in Seattle is contentious enough without bringing up one of the most divisive bike-related issues out there: Adult helmet laws.

Though I understand that it may seem counter-intuitive at first, best practices from the the safest cycling cities in the world do not include helmet laws. In fact, nearly all major cities in the U.S. and across the globe have declined to regulate bicycling headwear for adults.

But surely with good intentions, King County’s Board of Health decided in the 90s to require helmets for people of all ages, and that rule started applying to Seattle after a 2003 City Council vote to adopt the county’s regulation. 13 years later, that decision is very likely hampering the city’s ability to get the most from its bike share efforts.

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How big an impact is the helmet law having? That’s nearly impossible to say for sure, but bike share experts are pretty much in agreement that it’s an impediment.

“[A helmet law] will kill your system regardless,” Baltimore’s bike share leader Scott Tillman told the Seattle Times’ David Gutman recently. “You can still encourage it, but when you pass a law like that you have a lot more challenges. Once you make it a law, you just kill it.”

But Andrew Glass Hastings, SDOT’s Director of Transit and Mobility, does not think the helmet law is a leading factor holding back bike share here.

“From the surveys that our operator does, helmets and the helmet law are not coming up as a limiting factor,” Glass Hastings told the Times. “If we really thought of the helmets as being an impediment we’d be actively trying to address the issue.”

Seattle does buck trends when it comes to helmets. While many cities saw decreases in cycling after helmet laws were enacted, Seattle has only seen more cycling since 2003. With lots of big downhills — which result in higher speeds even for people who aren’t trying to bike fast — maybe helmets just make more sense to more people for more trips here than in other places.

A helmet seems a bit silly when making a short trip to the neighborhood grocery store or transit station (the kinds of trips bike share is great at serving), but it doesn’t seem so silly going 20 mph down Fremont Ave en route to downtown. Even in places without helmet laws, helmets are nearly ubiquitous in bike racing and training.

Then again helmets are also required for car racing, yet requiring all car drivers and passengers to wear helmets seems ridiculous. The same applies to biking.

The safest cities in the world for biking have very low helmet use. Instead, those cities have found that building high-quality bike routes and increasing the number of people biking are the best ways to improve safety. Rather than focus energy on requiring people to wear a specific kind of onerous safety gear to protect against a specific kind of injury in the rare instance of a collision, why not focus on preventing collisions in the first place?

Bike share systems are flourishing all over the world in cities without helmet laws or helmet dispensing systems, and the safety record for bike share is remarkable. By getting more people on bikes, successful bike share systems make cities safer for everyone biking. More people biking also leads to other good public health outcomes, like fighting diabetes and heart disease.

Seattle Bike Blog’s stance is that King County should simply follow best practices and remove the law, or at least change it so it only applies only to minors. If you can drive a car at 16, it seems weird you can’t be trusted to decide whether the bike trip you are about to make requires a helmet.

Cascade Bicycle Club does not have a solid stance on the issue. The Times paraphrases that Cascade “encourages helmet use but does not take a position on Seattle’s helmet law.”

“It’s yet another barrier to getting on a bike,” Cascade’s Policy Director Blake Trask told the Times. “And that has a real public health impact, in terms of less riders equals less safety.”

In the end, it will take leadership in the city and county to change the law, and it’s not clear who is going to make the issue a priority. That’s the problem with well-intentioned safety laws that have unintended consequences: No politician wants to look like they are anti-safety. So even if there’s little or no evidence that the law has helped or hurt bike safety in Seattle, it’s hard to make the law change a political priority.

Perhaps the more people talk about the adult bicycle helmet law, the more people will understand the nuances of an issue that seems so cut and dried at first. And that’s a good thing. So thanks to the Times for covering it. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s the rain. There are the hills. There’s the fact that the last, smaller system failed and the new contractor has never done a project anywhere near this size.

As the Seattle City Council ponders whether to spend $5 million upgrading the city’s foundering bike-share program, there are a lot of challenges to overcome. But bike shares have been hugely successful in cities both much larger and much smaller than Seattle. Why can’t it work here, in a city with a famously active and outdoorsy culture?

There is one challenge facing Seattle’s bike share that no other city in the world has so far overcome: a mandatory helmet law.

Somewhere around 1,000 cities worldwide have bike-share programs. Fewer than five of those cities also have a law requiring adults to wear a helmet when riding a bike. No American city with a bike-share program, save Seattle, has a helmet law for adults.

Bike-share experts are all but unanimous that helmet laws, while not necessarily a fatal factor for a bike share, add another layer of complication and make the system less likely to succeed.

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52 responses to “Times: King County’s adult helmet law could hold back Seattle’s new bike share system”

  1. Jort Sandwich

    I am pretty bothered by the pull quote used in the story: “It’s like having to bring a seat belt with you to rent a car.” – Paul DeMaio, a bike-share consultant

    This is an absurd comparison. A seat belt is a piece of equipment in cars that demonstrably reduces the risk of injury and death (the science is, at the least, conflicting on this for helmets), is built into the automobile itself, and does not exist as a barrier to automobile usage in anyway (nobody says, “Oh, this car has seat belts. I’ll pass, I guess.”)

    Furthermore, automobiles are, by design, deadly, dangerous and capable of incredible amounts of personal and property damage. Bicycles are not.

    Equating seat belts and helmets is a horrible, horrible comparison and does not help with the anti-helmet cause.

    We want to reach a point where cycling is safe enough that helmets are never needed. By the very design of automobiles (multi-thousand pound metal devices that can accelerate to 100+ mph) we will never, ever, not ever reach a point where cars can go without seatbelts.

    This is infuriating to read. But, then again, the Seattle Times isn’t exactly great about non-automobile transportation coverage.

    1. bidab

      I mean, it’s not a 1:1 equivalence (it would be better to say “it’s like having to bring a HELMET with you to rent a car”), but I think the analogy is apt. Like a bike helmet, wearing a seatbelt helps, but it doesn’t prevent injury in all cases. Like bike helmet laws, seatbelt laws are a favorite point of complaint for enthusiasts of the respective mode of transportation. And if I were choosing between, say, a car2go and a cab ride, and car2go made me bring a seatbelt or pay an additional fee to rent one, I’d choose the cab almost every time.

  2. Tim F

    Some interesting points in this article. It’s good to see the e-Bikes are outperforming the classics in Birmingham. The helmet law’s not really my thing, but the best research I’ve seen is mixed on the causes of the Australian systems’ lackluster performance. They also have problems with system size, station density, sign up difficulty and infrastructure that don’t really need helmet laws to explain their low ridership.

    Even Seattle’s ridership wasn’t out of line with what would be expected for any similarly sized network and I expect Vancouver’s much larger network will do fine. A dense 100-dock system as planned for the expansion should be big enough to overcome any “head-winds” from a helmet law. That said, any smaller systems that might be contemplated in East side cities or Tacoma (smaller than Pronto’s 30-ish dock core network) probably would have to consider going a lot bigger to get decent usage.

    I certainly wouldn’t oppose a bike share exception to the helmet law (and I’d leave it to others to argue the pros and cons of such laws in general) but to me SDOT is correct in continuing with the Pronto reboot plans in spite of the current helmet situation.

  3. Peri Hartman

    Here’s the kind of statistic I’d like to see: what is the percent of head trauma for cyclists who have an accident wearing a helmet to those who don’t. Notice this is irrespective of the percent of overall number of people cycling or the percent of cyclists who have an accident. This is a measurement of the serious of the accidents.

    I have not looked to see if this statistic exists. Even if it does, it might be very unreliable since so many bike accidents are unreported – even serious ones.

    But I think this is more important than measuring the overall safety. Do I wear this somewhat cumbersome piece of gear every time I ride because I think it reduces my risk of accident? No ! It’s because I think it may reduce the severity.

    As for mandatory helmet usage, I’m generally against “nanny” laws, this one included. But I would like bike shares to offer me a helmet so I can use it if I desire.

    1. Josh

      Teschke et al’s “Bicycling injury hospitalisation rates in Canadian jurisdictions: analyses examining associations with helmet legislation and mode share.” (BMJ Open, November 2, 2015) found, in part, that

      “For traffic-related injury causes, higher cycling mode share was consistently associated with lower hospitalisation rates. Helmet legislation was not associated with hospitalisation rates for brain, head, scalp, skull, face or neck injuries.”

      In other words, over multiple years and multiple jurisdictions, helmet laws had zero apparent impact on injuries that could plausibly be prevented by helmets.

      1. Peri Hartman

        That study makes an excellent case that more people cycling reduces the risk of a collision with a motor vehicle. I have no dispute with that.

        What I can’t see in the study, and correct me if I’m wrong, is any relation between the severity of a head trauma with and without a helmet. In my opinion, that is the most important question driving me to always wear a helmet. If proven otherwise, maybe I’ll ditch the helmet.

        Someone once put it to me this way: “Get down on your knees, bend over, and tap your head on the sidewalk. Now, imagine your head hitting the sidewalk when falling off a bicycle.” I didn’t need any further convincing.

      2. Josh

        In part, that’s because they’re studying the effectiveness of helmet laws, not helmets.

        If you read Piet de Jong’s analysis of the public health impact of mandatory helmet laws, he assumes that helmets are as effective as their strongest proponents claim, and still comes up with a negative public health impact from helmet laws.

        de Jong isn’t a cycling activist, he’s an actuarial expert in modeling unintended consequences. Even if what you’re mandating really is a Good Thing, the act of mandating it has consequences of its own.

        (Helmets are just one case. Consider Prohibition. It started as a good idea, fighting the scourge of alcoholism. But the act of making alcohol illegal drove the rise of drive-by shootings, bombings, well-funded organized crime, corruption, etc. The damage from a helmet law is obviously less extreme than that of Prohibition, but no law has zero unintended consequences.)

        Getting back to the Canadian study, though, it actually does imply very little, if any, attenuation of injuries.

        If a helmet law increased helmet usage, and helmets were effective at reducing the severity of injuries, some fraction of crashes that were severe enough to merit hospital admissions would become less severe and no longer require hospitalization. It might not be a huge impact, but it should be visible in the numbers.

        But the study found no correlation at all. Either the helmet law caused no difference in helmet use, or increases in helmet use don’t really drive the sort of injury reductions we’d expect.

    2. Wm

      Practically speaking, that’s a tricky statistic because of confounding. Assuming you mean a relative risk statistic something along the lines of (head trauma cases / individuals presenting in ER after bicycle crash with helmet) / (head trauma cases / individuals presenting in ER after bicycle crash without helmet) you’ll likely end up with an inflated effect, due to the confounding variable of behavior (plus, perhaps, alcohol, age, etc.).

      Put plainly, what I’m saying is that those who do not wear helmets are not likely to be similar to those who wear helmets, with regards to other risk factors. To make some assumptions (and we can debate these until the data comes home, but the point remains) helmet wearers are perhaps: less likely to engage in dangerous riding, younger, less likely to be under the influence, wealthier, etc. The reason the literature is lacking is because it’s a damn difficult study to conduct. Even if you set up a randomized control trial (i.e. those randomly assigned to group A wear helmets, those randomly assigned to group B do not, somehow sneak this by the IRB and follow head trauma over the years), confounders may still exist–there is some data that suggests that people without helmets ride more carefully, and that automobiles give a wider berth to them.

      Further, there’s a good chance that some individuals presenting who were not wearing a helmet will report they were, for legal and/or social reasons.

      1. Peri Hartman

        Yes, it is a difficult study to do. Regardless, I want to be clear: just because we don’t have a good study showing whether helmets are effective in reducing head trauma doesn’t justify using an irrelevant study. It is completely unfounded to say that riding in a group without a helmet is safer to your head than riding solo with a helmet – until we have real data.

        Anyway, I would support repealing the law. It’s not enforced, it’s a nanny law, and I can still use a helmet without the law.

      2. Josh

        I’d be less supportive of repealing the law if it were uniformly enforced, because the fact is it is enforced, but enforced very unevenly.

        Helmets are an exceptionally convenient pretextual stop for people who are bicycling while non-white or bicycling while poor. There are hundreds of helmet stops every year, but I suspect I could ride bare-headed all year and never get hassled. Yet it’s routine to see news coverage of “X was stopped for riding without a helmet and arrested for drug possession” or “Y was arrested for attempting to ride off when Officer Jones pulled him over for riding without a helmet.”

        One thing we don’t have is reliable numbers on how many people are profiled, stopped on a helmet pretext, and let off without a helmet citation when the fishing expedition doesn’t turn up any “real” criminal charge.

      3. ryan

        We have the study. British Medical Journal. Analysis of Australian helmet law. Insistence on helmet riding led to fewer people riding. Minimal health impact of wearing helmets overwhelmed by health impact of less riding. Result – reduced life expectancy.

        The problem with your theory is that if you decide “I can’t ride without a helmet,” you (or at least normal people) are also very likely to decide “I can’t ride to (x, y or z) because a helmet will be inconvenient, muss up my hair, or something else.” And it would seem the mere imposition of a helmet law changes people’s perceptions of riding from something basically safe to something not so, which seems to have a significant impact on the number of times & places they’ll ride.

        The likelihood of catastrophic head injury while riding (in the absence of other mortal injury) is extremely low. The likelihood of dying younger because of choosing to ride less frequently is significant.

  4. Ryan Packer

    One part the Times gets wrong: “As the Seattle City Council ponders whether to spend $5 million upgrading the city’s foundering bike-share program…”

    It would be more accurate to say: As the Seattle City Council decides how to invest the remainder of the $5 million it already budgeted to expand bike share.

    We already decided to hit the gas, so to speak.

    1. ChefJoe

      It’s already budgeted and they said they carved into it for the Pronto bail-out ($1.4? million), but they also told the bidders in the Pronto expansion RFP to build their plans with all $5 million available to use, even when asked about the total budget post-bailout during the July Q&A linked here http://thebuyline.seattle.gov/2016/05/19/bike-share-equipment-and-operations-program-rfp-trn-3599/ . Apparently when it comes to city budget allocations, 5 minus 1.4 equals 5 .

  5. David Boneham

    Helmet laws tend to send a subliminal message that the activity of bicycling is dangerous and needs to be disciplined by authority and those who don’t comply punished. It makes cyclists into “others”. It messages the inherent recklessness of two-wheeled activities. It makes the sensible, voluntary use of helmets by thoughtful riders into a travesty. Everyone has a helmet because there is a law compelling this behavior; as if the riders were too infantile to make the decision on their own. Our region’s helmet law is counter-productive. It makes scofflaws of most of us when we make an informed decision to ride without one.

    1. Jonathan

      Agreed, in fact if there were a helmet law for children riding as automobile passengers, it might save more lives and send a more accurate message about the danger of different transportation modes. Bicycle helmet laws may result from a misperception of the dangers of cycling, as well as contributing to this misperception.

      “Among children aged four to fourteen, motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of brain injury.”

      Article that cites an Australian study finding a lower rate of head injury for cycling than for being a motor vehicle occupant, per million hours traveled:

    2. Law Abider

      I’d like to see your source for your statement “Helmet laws tend to send a subliminal message that the activity of bicycling is dangerous and needs to be disciplined by authority and those who don’t comply punished.”

      When you use the word “tends”, you’re implying that the statement is made up, likely by someone that is anti-helmet.

  6. Matthew Snyder

    Vancouver attaches their helmets directly to the bike-share fleet with a retractable cable. You unlock your bike, you remove the helmet from the cable, and the cable slides back into the bike frame. You reverse the process when you get to your destination.

    I get that they’re trying something different, and they’re working within the confines of having the helmet law, but that isn’t really an optimal solution for a number of reasons. First, if you already have your own helmet, or if the bike-share helmet doesn’t fit you, you’re stuck with carrying a useless helmet you didn’t ask for or want. You can’t leave it attached to the extended cable loop, as that would be hazardous while biking. So you either stick in the front basket and bring it with you as baggage, or (more commonly, from what I saw), you just leave it behind. Then the bike no longer has a helmet attached to it.

    There were a few times I showed up at a dock in Vancouver and there were several bikes available, but none of them had helmets. I actually preferred this — the provided helmets were useless to me as I could not fit them onto my head (seriously, I am not exaggerating) — but it’s an indication that nobody’s really figured out the logistics of providing helmets for a bike share system when there’s a helmet law. It’s like showing up to a Pronto dock in Seattle to find that the helmet bin is empty. What do you do, decide to walk instead? Walk to the next dock? Wait around for awhile and hope one shows up? No, you just get a bike and go (and break the law).

    I don’t have the solution here. I just think this is money poorly spent.

    Out of curiosity, has anyone in Seattle (or Vancouver) received a ticket while using a bike-share bike without a helmet?

    1. ChefJoe

      If the helmet bins run out, the city can be fined for renting bikes to people without helmets as well as the ticket to the actual helmet-less rider.


      E. No person shall rent a bicycle not powered by motor for use to another person unless the renter possesses a helmet that meets the requirements of subsection (A) of this section.

      1. Breadbaker

        I’ve used Pronto a lot and every time I used the helmet bin, there was a pretty much entirely full bin. This doesn’t seem to be a problem.

  7. Jon K.

    Good to see some honest criticism of the bike helmet law. It’s important to note that the “85% reduction in injuries” was based on junk science. The study, conducted in Seattle, cherry picked the control group to create the illusion of crisis. He compared ER reports of injuries of middle class kids wearing helmets riding on paths and cul du sacs, to poor kids riding in the streets without helmets. Guess which group had more severe injuries. USDOT backed away from the study a few years back. No one has been able to come close to replicating his results because they were fudged. And this is the basis for King County’s helmet law. I’ll be glad to see this law retired.

    1. Erik

      Jon, fall of your bike at a slow speed and let your head hit the ground without a helmet and tell me that in crash situations helmets don’t significantly reduce or eliminate severe injuries except in extreme cases.

  8. Jim

    My thoughts on helmet law insanity: I had a crash a year ago while commuting. I was travelling downhill and a dog ran in front of me. I had very little warning. These kinds of crashes are why I would never recommend anyone go without a helmet on a regular street. There is no level of bike participation that prevents the damage I would have suffered had I not been wearing a helmet.

    Is not wearing a helmet considered to be some kind of gateway? You won’t start biking unless you don’t have to wear a helmet? But after you start riding and experience a crash, then maybe you will?

    The logic on this issue is cuckoo. We don’t get the level of participation in biking or bike-share, so we get rid of the helmet law?

    I have one life to live and based on the sample of one in my study, the helmet has always been appreciated in the aftermath of a crash. Biking and bike-share should succeed on their own merits. Not on some fairy-tale we want to tell ourselves about participation and “safe” infrastructure.

    1. Josh

      “Data” is not the plural of “anecdote.”

      Decades of peer-reviewed public health research have failed to support mandatory helmet laws for adults.

      Actuarial analysis shows it’s almost impossible for a mandatory helmet law to produce a net health benefit to society — cycling is already so safe, and so beneficial to health, that even a tiny dip in participation overwhelms any benefit from even the most-effective helmets.

      Helmets are probably a good idea for people who know they’re taking risks while riding.

      Helmet *laws* almost certainly kill more people than they save, and they drive up public health spending.

      1. Jim

        Well, I would sure love to be educated about how helmet laws kill people instead of saving them.

        The choice to wear a helmet feels great. And cycling feels so safe. Until it’s not.

        That anecdote is the outlier that everyone wants to throw out of their data. We all make our lives into a personal study and draw the wrong conclusions. “I didn’t wear a helmet and I never got injured.” Until you did. Or whatever is your personal experience. You are invincible or never take risks or only ride to the coffee shop.

      2. congokid

        @ Jim

        One crash on your bike and you’ve become convinced – though you probably already were – of the protective powers of the helmet you happened to be wearing.

        Have you ever damaged your head in a fall or collision while doing other activities, such as walking or driving/travelling as a passenger in a motor vehicle? It actually happens quite a lot (car occupants represent almost 50% of total head injuries), but while advocates like yourself cherish your bike helmet anecdotes and wheel them out at every opportunity, you invariably scoff at the idea of helmets for other activities that are known to potentially lead to head injury.

        It seems the evidence from other cities and countries without helmet laws, and the persistent lack of population data that unequivocally supports bike helmet usage, aren’t enough to break your unshakeable faith in your anecdote.

      3. Law Abider

        @Jim: Josh is referring to some study, I think performed in England, that basically said that overweight people that die from heart attacks, were overweight because helmet laws precluded them from riding a bike and losing weight. Then the author invented some fancy equation that proved it, but admitted that you have to take an incredible amount of liberties to even get the equation to point towards his findings. It was a joke of a study, without trying to be a joke.

        I could have some of the basic facts wrong, but the findings of the study were in line with that.

      4. Josh

        This being online, I can’t tell if you’re being intentionally ironic, or simply misrepresenting the study in its entirety.

        The study doesn’t require overweight people, doesn’t say anything about weight loss, and isn’t limited to heart attacks.

        But I suspect you knew that.

        You’re right though, that it does make some assumptions — de Jong uses the high end of helmet effectiveness, and low estimates of ridership impact, in order to avoid the tendentiousness of the helmet-efficacy debate — if helmets are as effective as their most ardent supporters claim, they still save very few lives compared to the number of people who die from reduced cycling.

      5. Law Abider

        @Josh: I think it’s YOU that misinterprets the study. The study makes a broad assumption that the people dying from lack of exercise would all of a sudden hop on a bike if helmet laws went away. If somebody is dying from an unhealthy lifestyle, a helmet is not an obstacle keeping them from biking. It might be a convenient excuse, but not a legitimate reason.

        For my argument I would state to look at other cities without helmet laws and compare their rates of dying from lack of exercise to Seattle’s. I would make a WAG that Seattle probably has a LOWER rate of dying from lack of exercise.

  9. kirk

    I bought one of the first Bell Biker helmets when they came out in the early 1970s. The benefits were obvious to me. Wearing a helmet while riding a road bike at speed is an easy choice. Wearing a bike helmet when commuting with traffic is another easy choice. Not wearing a helmet when riding my vintage Schwinn 3 speed to the corner coffee shop is also an easy choice. I want to have that choice.

  10. Michael from Arlington VA

    The bikeshare-required helmet discussions seem inevitably mix a number of issues and give the impression that the discussion is complex but certain issues can be teased out and considered by themselves.

    Is there an example of a bikeshare system that has been highly successful that was in a jurisdiction with a mandatory helmet law? No.

    Bikeshare can best succeed where it has among its larger (if not largest) target user group person who are not now riding regularly. Therefore when people who read a blog like this regularly voice their thoughts about assessments of safety, keep in mind you aren’t the desired user. And that’s OK. If you let it be.

    Bikeshare’s contribution to rider safety is not at the one-rider, one-helmet level but at providing further growth to the cycling community overall that leads to more respect from motorists.

    In the DC area, a fair number of people ride bikeshare bikes wearing a helmet that they bring along with them. (Capital Bikeshare does not provide them at the stations.) But most don’t. So it should be clearly understood – removing a mandatory helmet requirement isn’t going to mean all bikeshare riders won’t wear helmets ever.

    1. Breadbaker

      There are three cities that had bike shares with helmet laws. The plural of anecdote is not data. Pronto did not fail because of the helmet law. It failed because it was poorly designed for the city, it was launched in the fall when the rains came and its network wasn’t large enough. I can’t speak to Brisbane at all, but the article is incomplete in describing the Melbourne helmet situation (when I was there in 2012 you could buy a helmet for $5 at any 7-11 and there was a 7-11 near every bike share station. I remember having a lot of trouble finding docks in Melbourne (plus this weird law that you can’t pass a trolley on a bike and there’s a trolley line on every major street). My guess is there were multiple reasons for that failure, too. It’s not like there are no examples of failed bike share systems without helmet laws. There is always politics involved in these systems, since they’re subsidized.

  11. Ballard Resident

    Here’s another take on helmets.

    Ted talk by David Camarillo called “Why helmets don’t prevent concussions”


  12. Clark in Vancouver

    I think it’s one factor. A big one but not the only one. This is just a theory on my part so everyone feel free to analyze it and add their take on it.
    Here it is.
    To make a bike share system successful there are several factors that should be in place.
    – Sponsorship
    – Density of stations
    – Flattish terrain
    – AAA cycling infrastructure
    – The lack of a mandatory helmet law
    – Well designed bikes and software (Good ergonomics, convenient to check out, etc.)
    – Launched in the summer or spring (therefore annual renewals are at that same season.)

    So my theory is that you can probably not have all of these and it’ll still work out okay but if you’re missing too many it won’t work.

    I look at Vancouver’s Mobi system which is less than a year old but is very successful. It’s in a province with a mandatory helmet law and some hills but it has a fair amount of AAA infrastructure, density of stations, was launched in late spring and has sponsorship. The bikes are mediocre but they work well, the software is awkward but it works. The good things might just be outweighing the helmet law, awkward software and the hills.

    What do others think of this theory?

    1. Breadbaker

      It’s not unreasonable. Pronto had sponsorship. Anything else?

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        The bikes, docks and software for Pronto are very good and dependable. Compared to the old PBSC (Citibike, Divvy) and B-Cycle systems, Pronto is almost luxury. There were some docking problems here or there caused by moisture in the dock controllers, but they’ve been fixed.

        My problems with the renting process are not the hardware or software, it’s the pricing structure. If membership sales had continued on the up and up, perhaps the existing structure would have worked like it has in Chicago or DC or NYC. But once memberships started going down (October 2015), they should have tried a pay-per-ride model. That way members would get a certain number of “free” 45-minute rides each day, and people paying at the kiosk could try the system for a lower cost (say, $2.50 for 45 minutes). The $8/day price is just too steep for people who are only trying to make a single trip.

      2. Peri Hartman

        I completely agree. The current pricing is stupid and makes a high bar to entry. $8 for a 5 minute ride is more expensive than taking uber. If I want a bike for the whole day, I would probably be willing to pay $25 and get something better and lighter and that I don’t need to return within 30 minutes.

    2. RossB

      The studies (so far) have said that density of stations, along with overall coverage are the key. That is why there is a disagreement (as stated in that article). One side is basically saying all we need to be successful is add a lot more stations, while the other side is saying the helmet law will kill the system. My guess is the first guy is right.

      But I do think every other issue plays a part in the success of the program. I would add a couple more factors:

      1) Urban area, which means that car parking is difficult and there are lots of places to visit.
      2) Good mass transit system.

      In the first case, even if you happened to drive into work, bike share would make sense for a little trip. For example, if I drove into work in Fremont, I would still prefer bike share to get to the other side of Fremont.

      In the second case, though, you have the really big market. Folks who took the bus or train to work, but want to visit some place nearby. It isn’t worth the hassle to take a bus, but it is still a bit too far to walk. For example, you might work at Seattle U, and want to go over to Broadway for lunch.

  13. Dave B

    there seems to be some confusion: nobody is saying that helmets dont help in a collision, what they are saying is that requiring helmets reduces the number of riders which causes more collisions (by preventing drivers from learning to drive safely around cyclists) and that this failure to educate drivers by experience causes more total damage than the damage that is prevented when people crash with helmets

    1. William

      Let’s initiate an endless debate about helmet laws while waiting endlessly for the city to implement the bike infrastructure that might make bike share useful to more than a tiny fraction of potential users?

  14. Law Abider

    Going to use some anti-helmet logic here:

    People that don’t wear helmets clearly don’t care about their own safety THEREFORE people that don’t wear helmets clearly don’t care about my safety THEREFORE people that don’t wear helmets are clearly dangerous and should be banned.

    1. jay

      Great logic!

      continuing in that vein; Did you hear about that Christmas market in Germany?
      Terrorists (well, at least one so far) used motor vehicle as a weapon.
      THERFORE; motor vehicles are terrorist weapons.
      THERFORE; People who operate motor vehicles are terrorists and should be banned!

      As long as we are giving anecdotes, today I crossed a major arterial on foot, I pushed the beg button and waited and waited… While waiting I noticed that a motorcycle officer had a car pulled over on the other side of the street, made the looong wait a little less frustrating :-). Finally, the light changed, as usual a driver or two really pushed the yellow light rule, being only a few inches past the stop line when the changed to red, but of course that is normal and accepted so even doing it less than 10 yards behind a cop’s back is not so odd. But then, two drivers blatantly ran the fully red light (at substantial speed), again right behind a cop’s back and then two divers who where turning from the cross street failed to yield to me (a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk with a walk signal) in accordance with the law. But then nobody really does, we should probably be satisfied that they usually don’t literally hit pedestrians, that that “within one lane of the half of the roadway…” is probably unrealistic, even if one is only a few yards from a cop.
      While drives “usually” don’t literally hit pedestrians, “usually” is not “never” and when they do hit pedestrians (or sometimes even people in other cars) the person hit sometimes suffers head injuries!
      Now while clearly the solution is to ban driving, as a stopgap measure we could at least require everyone to wear a helmet. In addition to SAVING LIVES, this would also eliminate the negative effect on bike share, since everyone would have a helmet (and helmet hair) anyway, continuing to wear the helmet while on the share bike would not be a hardship.

  15. […] mandatory helmet law would hinder its success. In light of its current struggles, Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog raises the same […]

  16. RainyTown

    While the helmets are an issue (more for non-members who have to rent one instead of getting them for free as members do), I suspect others are more of an impediment. There was a guy who posts here sometimes that did visualization of ridership data for Pronto’s data challenge. The fact that Capitol Hill is essentially a ski lift shows that hills are an impediment. The locations of stations also appeared to be a problem. The U District had very low ridership. I don’t recall member vs non-member trips, but if the data shows that it’s mostly members we need to examine why occasional local riders and especially tourists aren’t using them.

    I don’t have confidence that the city is really going to adjust locations to have the right density and location. Where are the stations in Fremont? In the summer I see Pronto bikes on the bridge and locked up in front of Fremont Brewery frequently. What about along the Burke Gilman, which people will feel more confident riding than city streets but may need more than half an hour? Ballard? I appreciate wanting stations in the south end as a social justice thing, but does the data really support that being an actual benefit?

    Here’s some anecdotes based on my experience that may also be impediments.

    The front carriers are hazardous and flat-out suck. You have to have the right bag size to use them. You can’t put a purse in there. If I were interested and saw I couldn’t carry my stuff I’d move right on. My backpack was as secure as possible in the carrier and still fell out under the bungee cord while I was riding on 1st. I’m extremely lucky I caught it before it hit the ground and became a hazard causing me to crash, especially if the straps caught on the way down. If you think I used it wrong, I literally will be willing to meet someone at a station for a demonstration. Choosing that style non-rack was a mistake. If the city doesn’t have baskets on the new bikes I will be disappointed.

    The bikes are heavy as hell and awkward if you’re not used to riding an upright. It does make a difference when you ride, especially when getting on and starting. I had an upright until 2012 when I switched to a hybrid and getting on a Pronto bike was an adjustment for me.

    I don’t mind riding in light rain but I do mind having a wet butt, so if there’s nothing to dry off the seat and handlebars I’m not riding that bike. This is a hard one to solve, since towels or seat covers would just be stolen.

  17. RainyTown

    On helmets: I have no confidence that they’ll do much for me in a car collision. But for low speed crashes that don’t involve cars they’re worth it. The hard visor once saved my face when I took a spill face-first on some sand (my old town filled in some erosion on packed gravel trails with sand for some reason) and also likely prevented a concussion.

    It’s a personal risk decision, but for me that’s enough to wear a helmet.

    The helmet setup on Pronto is designed well, but still a hassle.

  18. […] mandatory helmet law would hinder its success. In light of its current struggles, Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog raises the same […]

  19. Ballard Bike

    I wish we could get rid of the helmet law only so bike share can fail on it’s own merits, and we can stop putting this up as an excuse.

  20. Chris

    “From the surveys that our operator does, helmets and the helmet law are not coming up as a limiting factor.”

    I’d love to see these surveys. Do they only survey current customers? How do they sample non-customers? I doubt they surveyed regular visitors to Seattle like me, who on six visits this year didn’t use Pronto precisely because I didn’t have room to pack a helmet and didn’t want shell out the extra money and hassle to rent one every 24 hours. I certainly can’t be the only one.

  21. Virchow

    Helmets prevent a proportion of traumatic brain injuries. I agree with those that point out this seems like a poor target for our limited political resources. Better lanes and better placement of the bike share stations seems like a more direct approach to our common goal.

  22. Erik

    I see almost all cyclists wearing a helmet. They are wearing them because of the law but because they know they help immensely in protecting the skull and brain from damage in a crash or collision. Even in areas without bike helmet laws most cyclists wear helmets because they know they are safer. I can’t in my right conscience support a repeal of a helmet law to support bike share programs.

  23. RossB

    I think it would make sense to simply change the law with regards to bike sharing. As mentioned, bike share isn’t designed for long distance or fast travel. The idea is that you bike a mile or so and then park it. The bikes are typically clunky things, that can’t go that fast (or are very agile). I wouldn’t want to take them on major street and try and keep up with traffic. They are designed so that you hop on and off.

    In contrast, if you own a bike, it is reasonable that you also own a helmet. Chances are, you also own a bike lock. It is just part of the package.

  24. […] it’s still illegal to ride a bike in King County without a helmet, the city won’t require Spin or other companies to provide the helmet. They […]

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