Melbourne Bike Share is one of the only three bike share programs in the world that requires users to wear bike helmets (the others being Brisbane, where the program is also failing, and Vancouver as of July 2016 – where it is still too soon to tell). Many people allege that the bike helmet law is causing the Melbourne Bike Share to fail. And there is no doubt that the helmet law is a problem. However, in our experience there is more to it than that – although the helmet law is definitely an important factor.
It’s quite easy to rent a bike from Melbourne Bike Share. All you need is a credit card and a willingness to wear a bike helmet (in compliance with the laws of the state of Victoria).
Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist and I spent several days exploring the Melbourne Bike Share system. We found it was just as simple to rent out a bike share bike in Melbourne as in Montreal: you swipe a credit card, get a code, check out a bike, and you’re good to go. (Read about the great bike share program in Montreal here.) We spent several days riding Melbourne’s Bike Share bikes , exploring the beautiful and impressive city from our saddles.We never once found a broken bike, so the system seems to be well maintained.
The Melbourne Bike Share also promotes itself well, as far as we could see.
The bikes are solid, reliable, comfortable, basic three-speed bikes. Pretty typical of bike share bikes, and quite adequate to bike around Melbourne, which is mainly flat.
Is Melbourne Bike Share a Failure?
Despite the positives mentioned above, we did not have a stellar experience using Melbourne Bike Share. In fact, based on our experiences, I was not surprised to read that Melbourne’s Bike Share program is widely viewed as a failure. It was founded almost five years ago with just 600 bikes, 51 stations, and limited geographical coverage – and many people expect it will not last much longer. It is now alleged by many that the only reason Melbourne’s Bike Share is not being scrapped is because then the locals would notice what a spectacular flop it has been – and someone would have to be blamed. Also, the system is symbolic of a commitment to sustainability, and the government that axes it will face serious political repercussions.
There are allegations that the implementation of Melbourne’s bike share program was more about appearances than anything else, and consequently it was underfunded – there are not enough bikes and stations. With its 600 bikes it lags far behind Brisbane’s CityCycle system, which has 2,000 bikes (which unfortunately are almost impossible for tourists to use, thanks to it spectacularly tourist-unfriendly system, which you can read about here).
Is Melbourne Bike Share Underfunded?
Well, I haven’t seen the budget, but we did see very clear evidence that the program was underfunded and not taken seriously. We went to the Visitor Centre at Federation Square and asked for a map of the Melbourne Bike Share. The staff member pulled out a file folder with a color map of the Bike Share system and made a black and white copy of it. So they don’t have piles of color (or even black and white) maps, even though they have brightly-colored piles of just about every other pamphlet you could possibly imagine lying around everywhere.
It seems that someone has decided that the best place to start saving trees is Melbourne Bike Share.
The photocopied map looked like someone had taken a map of Melbourne and used a Sharpie to make splodges in the approximate locations of the Bike Share stations. This is because it WAS a map of Melbourne on which someone has used a Sharpie to make splodges in the approximate locations of the Bike Share stations. Not very impressive – it looked more like an elementary school project than something that a city with the lofty stature of Melbourne would produce.
In fairness, Melbourne has now responded to complaints about the maps, and produced downloadable maps of the Melbourne Bike Share stations.
Click here to download a map of Melbourne Bike Share stations.
The map we were given was inadequate, so we got lost (very unusual for us, due to the fact that Maggie is a self-described human GPS system). On one occasion we got totally stressed out when we could not find a bike station to return our bikes, and had to just keep riding and riding. We became tired and thirsty. I am sorry to admit that there was some yelling (done by me), and some accusations of being grumpy (directed at me).
On a different day we were at St. Kilda’s beach, and glimpsed not one but two groups of Bike Share cyclists. We were really enthused and wanted to ride back to our B&B on Bike Share bikes. We walked about two miles without finding a station, and eventually resorted to a tram. (The transit system in Melbourne is outstanding, and the trams in the CBD are free.)
All in all, we came away with the distinct impression that the Bike Share program is Melbourne’s Cinderella.
Calls for Private Operator for Melbourne Bike Share Fail
In December 2014 the Napthine government tried to find a private operator to revamp the system. The operator would have gained naming and branding rights (as in London and New York, which have more successful bike share programs). Three proposals came in, but all were rejected. Probably because the government had an expectation of finding an operator who could make it “cost-neutral” and even somehow make it profitable. Well, that was just plain unreasonable – there has never yet been a bike share system that made money or was free. Just as public transit is not free. Elliot Fisher, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Transport, said:
“The fare box revenue is about 30 per cent of the running cost for public transport in Australia, so it would, on initial inspection, seem unfair to hold bike share to a tougher standard.”
If you want to make money, you sell pizzas (or open a Walmart or a Starbucks). If you want to provide sustainable transportation to augment your transit system, promote health, and to create cleaner air and less congestion in your streets, then you open a Bike Share and have realistic expectations of paying for it.
On that topic, the government also appears to be muddled about why they started the Melbourne Bike Share in the first place. Harry Barber, former head of Bicycle Network Victoria, said:
“They can’t work out whether it’s a clever tourist bike hire scheme or part of day-to-day transport.”
To which I say, why on earth can’t it be both? But either way, it’s ridiculous to expect it to make a profit. Not when hiring a bike costs less than half the price of a cappuccino.
What about the Bike Helmet Issue with Melbourne Bike Share?
Melbourne has tried a number of creative ways to get around the bike helmet law, including hygienic helmet dispensers, and free complimentary helmets attached to many bikes. There are also a whole range of 7-11 stores where you can buy them for just $5.
However, we had bought along our own helmets, and we used these as we explored Melbourne on our saddles. But I have no doubt that many casual users are put off. Most people (tourists or locals) do not carry helmets wherever they go, and are unlikely to tramp off to the nearest 7-11 to buy one – no matter how cheap it is.
Boris Johnson on Bike Helmets
When London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, visited Melbourne, he famously tried out a bike without a helmet (you can do things like that when you are the mayor of London). He pointed out that helmets were not required for London’s bike share system (the so-called “Boris Bikes”), and said:
“Obviously, it’s up to Melbourne to decide what they want to do, but we took a very clear decision that it (requiring helmets) would be counterproductive.”
However, Melbourne stuck with helmets, and this insistence on helmets may have crippled a system that was hamstrung by under-resourcing in the first place.
Related: Are Mandatory Bike Helmet Laws a Good Thing?
Should Melbourne Make an Exception to the Bike Helmet Laws for Bike Share Users?
Some critics are calling for Melbourne to make an exception to the helmet law for Bike Share users, pointing out that five years of stats recorded in many cities since bike shares were introduced indicate that bike share is by far the safest form of cycling. This is thought to be related to the kinds of cyclists who use them – they tend to be occasional cyclists, and are a lot more cautious than seasoned cyclists. (Much as learner drivers have far fewer accidents than seasoned drivers.) Most cyclist causalities in Australia are highly experienced cyclists, not people on rented bikes. In addition, many of the roads within the geographical area of the bike share system now have 40 km/per hour speed restrictions. Also, it costs Melbourne taxpayers $5,000 per month to provide free or cheap helmets.
Plus, Melbourne has built a lot of good-quality cycling infrastructure, with bike lanes on pretty much every street, very well marked, and lots of bike parking.
Proof of Melbourne’s positive attitude towards bikes is that bikes are locked up everywhere and no one seems to care.
But here’s the thing: bike lanes are all very well, but there are all kinds of cyclists, and only the most seasoned and the fittest feel comfortable on busy roads. Look at the photo below: the cyclists on the left have muscles of steel, bodies like greyhounds, and kick-ass bikes – they can brave any road. The woman on the right is nervous just getting her grocery-laden bike across the street on a pedestrian crossing.
Maggie and I are somewhere in the middle of the cyclist spectrum – experienced, but not fearless (and regrettably having nothing in common with greyhounds). We found that we definitely could not travel wherever we wanted on separated bikeways in Melbourne. On the contrary, it took just five seconds on a bike for Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist to be aggressively honked at by a motorist – apparently because she crossed the road on a pedestrian crossing too slowly, delaying him for about three seconds.
Related: Who ELSE is SICK of Road Rage?
Once again, it seems that getting behind the wheel of a car can turn anyone into a raging jerk – even in Australia, where almost everyone was friendly (with the one notable exception of the staff member at Brisbane Info center).
We realized that the protected bike lanes in Melbourne look good, but do not guarantee safety. They do not make cycling AAA – suitable for All Ages and Abilities. As I have written elsewhere, in order for cycling to be truly safe for all cyclists, we need separated bike lanes. Bikes and cars just do NOT play well together. Most drivers are careful and considerate because they do NOT want to kill cyclists or pedestrians. But a tiny percentage will be stupid, drunk, rude, careless, texting, raging, sleeping, eating, putting on makeup, grieving, angry, distracted, etc. – all the things that are part of being human, but which can lead to some very bad driving – and to the death of cyclists and pedestrians.
Related: Three Reasons Why We NEED SEPARATED BIKE LANES
Related: Separated Bike Lanes Keep Cyclists Safe in More Ways than One
Melbourne is NOT Amsterdam – not by a long way! You can see that in this excellent video made by a Melbourne commuter cyclist. Despite being a skilled, law-abiding cyclist, and despite the great cycling infrastructure of Melbourne, this video shows a series of frightening things that happened to Stephen Williams in just two months.
Which means that this father has to be brave to transport his toddler on a bike.
Whereas riders in the Netherlands transport their children on bikes without a second thought, looking noticeably relaxed and happy.
No wonder cyclists in Amsterdam look so relaxed: less than 1% of cyclists in the Netherlands wear bike helmets – yet the country has the lowest rate of cyclist head injuries in the world. That is the result of extraordinarily good, separated cycling infrastructure – which the Netherlands has been building since the 1970s, when citizens got tired of having their children slaughtered by cars.
Melbourne has good cycling infrastructure, but until it can offer the kind of safety that the separated bike lanes of the Netherlands offer, it will be a brave government that will grant an exemption from the bike helmet law for Bike Share users.
Opposition to Mandatory Bike Helmet Laws in Australia
Perhaps the government of the state of Victoria will listen to what is being said a Senate inquiry? Australia is having a Senate inquiry into “nanny state” laws. The inquiry has been told that the requirement to wear a helmet is “bordering on ridiculousness.” It has been told that helmet laws should be abolished because they stop people from cycling and end up having an overall negative impact on the nation’s health.
This is exactly the same argument as was made by New Zealand researchers recently, who found that cycling in New Zealand has decreased by 51% since mandatory helmet laws were introduced, causing an increased number of people to die from lack of exercise. The Australian inquiry has also been told that motorists drive more dangerously around helmeted cyclists, and helmeted cyclists are more reckless around cars than non-helmeted cyclists. This is all the more disturbing because helmets provide very little – if any – protection from cars.
Here are some key statements made at the Australian inquiry:
Lisa Parker, a Sydney doctor: “There is evidence of wider harm to population health resulting from the reduction in cycling. It does seem odd that we, as a community, should have a law about something that reduces population health.”
John Trueman, an Australian National University academic: “Helmets are utterly useless in collisions with motor vehicles. Worse, they give both the cyclist and the motorist a false sense of security. It is well established, for example, that motorists give a helmeted cyclist less passing room.”
Chris Rissel, professor of public health at the University of Sydney: “In safety terms there is a phenomenon called safety in numbers. As more people cycle, our roads become safer for these cyclists. Drivers become used to seeing cyclists and adjust their behaviour, and infrastructure tends to be improved to better cater for cycling. Even if cyclists wear helmets they are less safe with fewer cyclists on the road than they would be with more cyclists about. Helmets are a barrier to new riders, particularly for occasional and non-regular riders. The need to wear a helmet reinforces the message that cycling is dangerous – with perceptions of danger a major reason people give for not cycling.”
Regardless, some Australian cycling advocates believe that the top priority is improved cycling infrastructure.
Chris Carpenter, spokesman for Bicycle Network, says: “Bicycle Network’s community and member surveys consistently show the biggest barrier to riding a bike is the lack of bike infrastructure, not helmets. This is why Bicycle Network has spent years lobbying the Australian parliament for bike infrastructure funding. We are determined to see bike rider trauma reduced and recommend all bike riders in Australia wear a helmet and comply with helmet rules.”
All in all, the prescription for saving Melbourne’s Bike Share is complex. It includes aggressively improving bike lanes, especially SEPARATED bike lanes (just as The Netherlands successfully did in the 1970s); investing a lot more money into the Bike Share to expand its geographical reach and station density; and possibly EXEMPTING Bike Share users from the helmet law.
On the other hand, clinging to helmet laws while failing to invest meaningful funds seems to me like a one-two knockout combination that will ensure the continuing demise of Melbourne Bike Share. It’s a great pity.
Update: Mobi Bike Share System in Vancouver
Vancouver’s Mobi Bike Share system opened in July 2016. Ignoring all evidence from around the world, Vancouver Bike Share also requires bike helmets. This is provincial legislation, but it is possible to make exceptions. This has not happened. Vancouver’s Mobi Bike Share bikes are supplied with helmets attached.
Interestingly, less and less people are wearing bike helmets in Vancouver, based on my observations (I work in downtown Vancouver, and monitor the bike situation constantly). I believe that is because cyclists feel safer on the newly built separate bike lanes. When I took the photo below, three cyclists without helmets went by in succession before I saw my first cyclist with a helmet.
Sadly, this was the same day that the Vancouver City Police decided to stake out the Vancouver Art Gallery (a popular tourist attraction) to catch people without helmets. I guess that is one way to get foreign income into the city, but personally I think there are much better ways to get tourist income. Renting bikes to Vancouver tourists, for example, so they can get hungry and spend money in restaurants!
It is still too soon to tell if the helmet law will cause the Vancouver Bike Share program to fail. I certainly hope not. So far I have observed that about a third of the users don’t wear helmets. Although that might change if the Police continue to focus on bike helmets.
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