Vision Vancouver first announced that it was considering a bike share program back in 2010. Back then it was widely hailed, with 80% of surveyed residents stating they would use it, and 70% claiming they would even use it in the winter. Tourists were even more enthusiastic in their responses. However, various factors stalled the implementation of a Vancouver Bike Share. But finally, in the summer of 2016, bike share arrived in Vancouver! Here’s a video that tells all about it:
If you are wondering about the experience of using Mobi, there is an honest and interesting account from a local here.
Below is one of the first stations, on the wonderful separated bike lanes on Hornby Street.
How to Use Mobi Bike Share in Vancouver
The system is really simple to use, made all the easier by the fact that Vancouver is quite a small city and had many separated bike lanes. This video explains how to use the system.
The Bike Helmet Problem
The question is, can the Mobi Bike Share program in Vancouver survive the whole mandatory bike helmet issue? The Province of BC insists that cyclists wear helmets, and the City of Vancouver has a bylaw requiring that cyclists wear helmets on city paths.
The Problem with Bike Helmets and Bike Shares
It’s one thing to rent a bike that’s been used by others, and quite another thing to put on a helmet that has previously been worn by sweaty strangers. Sharing bike helmets can spread diseases such as Staphylococcus Aureus and lice.
On the other hand, bike shares are ideal for tourists and casual, spur-of-the-moment cyclists – and most tourists and casual cyclists don’t wonder around clutching their own personal bike helmets, in a just-in-case-I-should-suddenly-feel-the-urge-to-cycle kind of spirit. So an important part of the potential market doesn’t have helmets, and won’t be likely to wear used ones – with the result that this important segment of the market has been excluded before the program even kicks off.
Beyond that, it is clear that bike share programs cannot thrive with mandatory bike helmet laws. I’m not just idly speculating here – there are only four cities in the world that have tried to have bike share programs governed by mandatory bike helmet laws (with Vancouver being the most recent – talk about not learning from history). One of them, Auckland, New Zealand, failed abysmally and cancelled the program. The other two, Brisbane and Melbourne, have failing programs that they continue to subsidize.
I have written in this post about the epically tourist-unfriendly CityCycle bike share system in Brisbane (where they make it almost impossible for tourists to use the system, and completely impossible to use it on the spur of the moment). With 2,000 bikes and a really nice ferry system, the Brisbane bike share should be a success – but it’s not. With the Brisbane bike share system, it’s hard to say whether it’s helmet laws or the unfriendly system that’s the problem – but most likely it is a combination of both. Locals are probably put off by the helmet law, and tourists are simply excluded by the system.
What is quite clear is that Auckland, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Vancouver have one thing in common: mandatory helmet laws. In this depressing scenario, the parody below about Adolf Hitler’s stance on mandatory bike helmet laws and the Fall of Bike Share in Australia provides a bit of light relief (language warning – do not watch if you are offended by bad language in subtitles).
How Can Vancouver Get Around the Helmet Requirements?
Vancouver does have a way waive the helmet requirements for the bike share program. It is legally possible: the provincial minister has the power to exempt a group of users from wearing helmets, as was done with the operators and users of pedicabs.
What about Safety?
Helmets are most necessary when there is no cycling infrastructure to keep cyclists safe from cars (which essentially requires keeping cyclists separated from cars). After all, the only reason pedestrians don’t need helmets is because sidewalks exist. If they were sharing the roads with cars, they would need helmets! This is proven by The Netherlands, where less than 1% of its millions of cyclists wear bike helmets – yet they have the lowest rate of cyclist head injuries in the world. They don’t need helmets because they are not cycling six inches away from vehicles that can crush their heads.
We spent several days trying out the Bixi bike share system in Montreal, and it was wonderful. Montreal’s cycling infrastructure is stellar. No helmets were required, and it never felt like one was needed. I felt far safer cycling without a helmet in Montreal than I often feel cycling with a helmet in Vancouver (when I am on Main Street, for example). Basically the Montreal cycling infrastructure is advanced and intelligent, and provides ample separated bike lanes, as well as elegant, cyclist-friendly solutions at intersections.
Would Cyclists in Vancouver be Safe?
On that front, there is good news. Over the last decade, Vancouver has made massive strides towards improving the cycling infrastructure. There is now a kind of skeletal network of separated bikes lanes (Hornby Street and Dunsmuir), plus of course endless off-road opportunities, such as the outstanding Stanley Park seawall bike trail (read all about the Stanley Park Seawall and watch a video about it here). It’s still not as good as Montreal, but Vancouver now has a solid foundation, so that with a map and careful planning, you can figure out a more-or-less safe way to cycle around the city.
This photo shows Hornby Street in Vancouver before and after the separated bike lane went in. As you can see, the separated bike lane provides a safe environment where most people would feel safe cycling without a helmet (and those who did not could of course CHOOSE to wear a helmet).
In fact, I am noticing an increasing number of cyclists in Vancouver are not wearing bike helmets. I am certain that is because there are now so many separate bike lanes, and so many cyclists, that people now feel safe without helmets. I have been part of the transformation over the last 18 years. My observations are not scientific, but they are real and human.
Eighteen years ago it was downright scary to cycle through downtown Vancouver, and we all wore helmets. Now, it is NOT scary to cycle through Vancouver, and increasing numbers of us are NOT wearing bike helmets.
The video below shows a new vision of Vancouver cycling, where it is a safe, everyday means of transport for anyone who feels like just jumping on a bike. Not all of Vancouver is like this, but parts of it are, and we are heading in the right direction.
In the photo below, you can see a mother cycling through the center of Vancouver with her toddler, using the separated bike lanes. This is becoming an increasingly common sight. Prior to the separated bike lanes, I don’t recall EVER seeing toddlers on bikes in central Vancouver.
Of course, Vancouver also has a lot of off-road cycling lanes, many of them very scenic, such as the Seaside Bike Trail (read all about the Seaside Bike Trail and watch a video about it here). The photo below shows cyclists using the Seaside Bike Trail. Note that two out of the three cyclists are choosing not to wear helmets, despite the law. As the number of Vancouver cyclists skyrockets, I am noticing more and more cyclists not wearing helmets. I think that has to do with the (accurate) perception of safety in numbers.
As cyclists become more visible, more motorists notice that we exist, and drive accordingly. And it seems to be just human nature to be less likely to aggressively pull out in front of 50 oncoming cyclists than in front of just one cyclist. I am not sure why that is. It must have a lot to do with cyclists becoming more visible. It might also be based on a couple of quick mental calculations: how much damage would 50 bikes do to my paintwork? How would that impact my insurance deductible? Do I have enough liability coverage to deal with 50 lawsuits? Mmmm … maybe I WILL stop at this stop sign, just this once …
Bike Share Cyclists Have Fewer Accidents
Apart from the fact that cycling in general in Vancouver is becoming safer, statistics clearly show that bike share riders are safer than seasoned cyclists. They tend to be more cautious and have less accidents, just as learner drivers are more attentive and cautious, and have far fewer accidents than highly experienced drivers.
The Stats from Bike Share in London
Take London – often cited as a very dangerous city for cycling. It sure looked dangerous to me when I was there, with heavy congestion, stressed-out drivers, heavy vehicles, and separated bike lanes apparently non-existent (this is changing now, with cyclists making up 24% of all rush-hour London traffic, and massive progress being made towards crisscrossing London with impressive bike superhighways).
But London is still a dangerous place to cycle. I have written in this post about how some seasoned London commuter cyclists contemplate giving up cycling because the stress generated by motorist hostility is so intense that it doesn’t seem worth it anymore.
So when London introduced its bike share program (the Barclays Bikes, aka “Boris Bikes”), critics warned of a tourist bloodbath. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that Mayor Boris Johnson waived helmet laws for users. Yet, after a year and six million rides (most of them unhelmeted), there were only one hundred minor injuries. The prophets of doom have now shut up. And London’s Barclays Bike program is a raging success.
Similarly, Montreal Bike Share has no helmet requirements. It does have wonderful cycling infrastructure, though. In its first year, people using the Montreal Bike Share rode 3.5 million km, yet had only five accidents – none serious.
By contrast, Melbourne Bike Share insists on helmets, and largely as a result, has the most unsuccessful bike share program in the world. This is even though they provide (via 7-11 stores) sterilized helmets for $5 (and you get $3 back when you return them). Read all about Melbourne Bike Share here.
Elliot Fishman, Director of the Melbourne Institute for Sensible Transport, has said:
“Requiring bike share users to wear a helmet is like opening a pub and then asking everybody to bring their own glasses.”
Learning from Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia’s biggest city, Sydney, has decided not to go ahead with a bike share program unless it was granted an exemption from helmet laws.
I hope that Vancouver’s Bike Share will not go the way of Auckland, Melbourne and Brisbane, clinging to bike helmet laws despite all the research that shows unequivocally that it is a guarantee of certain failure – and not necessary for safety anyway. A successful bike share program would make Vancouver an even greater city. This year Vancouver was again voted third most livable city in the world. A bike share program that saw millions of unhelmeted cyclists enjoying the city, cycling along safe infrastructure with the wind in their hair and a smile on their face, could finally catapult us to number one.
So far, I have observed a whole lot of people using the Mobi Bike Share in Vancouver. Roughly half of them are not wearing bike helmets. The bikes are provided with black helmets dangling from the handlebars, and for those who choose not to wear them simply leave them dangling there. Also, reflecting Vancouver’s booming homeless problem, one of the helmets was stolen on the very first day!
It remains to be seen if the Mobi Bike Share in Vancouver can survive with the helmet laws in place. I don’t think so. But I very sincerely hope I am wrong. It is just so wonderful to see bike share in place and being used in downtown Vancouver!
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