Vancouver’s Bixi Program is Doomed if it Doesn’t Drop the Bike Helmet Law

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As part of its ambition to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city, Vision Vancouver may introduce a bike share program, along the lines of the successful Bixi (bike taxi) program adopted in Montreal. Surveys indicate a high level of acceptance, with 80% of respondents stating they would use a Bixi in summer, and 70% being enthusiastic enough to use it in winter. Visitors were even keener than locals; showing that Bixi’s are a great tourist attraction, as tourists can literally use them as self-powered, cheap bike taxis.

Bixi Station on Rue de la Commune Est, Montréal

Related: Review of 7 of the Best Cycling Balaclavas – includes Table Comparing the 7 Best Balaclavas
Related: Should Bike Helmets be Mandatory?

I say bring it on! Bixi programs are a wonderful form of alternative, environmentally friendly transport. In Vancouver’s congested city centre Bixi’s would be ideal, especially given that roads are flat, and that we will soon have a basic network of separated bike lanes, thanks to Vision Vancouver.

There is however one huge problem: the Province of BC’s insistence on cyclists wearing helmets (augmented by Vancouver’s bylaw that cyclists wear helmets on city paths).

The provincial minister does have the power to exempt a group of people from the helmet requirement (as was done for the operators and the passengers of pedicabs) – but there is no sign of this power being invoked to exempt Bixi riders.

Melbourne Bixi System Failing due to Helmet Law

Melbourne Bixi
Bixis in Melbourne – we were not very impressed by this program

Melbourne proves the point that compulsory helmets can destroy a Bixi program. This site provides a live update of usage figures in cities that have adopted Bixi type programs. Melbourne lags dismally behind.

Melbourne is searching for solutions for its Bixi problem: it is providing self-service helmet dispensing machines; also, it has arranged for 7-Elevens in Melbourne to sell helmets to Bixi users for $5. These helmets can be recycled back to the stores for $3.

I admire Melbourne’s inventiveness, but I worry about hygiene, especially head lice. I don’t believe most people would feel comfortable sharing helmets.

Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist and I tried out the Melbourne Bixi system, and found it had a lot of problems. Stations were far apart, and we got pretty frazzled trying to find them (we even had one of our rare fights, when we couldn’t find a station for so long that we got tired, stressed and hungry). So it might not be ALL about the helmets, to be honest. But it definitely plays a part.

Helmet Laws are a Cop Out for the Authorities

A Bixi in Montreal
A Bixi in Montreal – you don’t have to wear a bike helmet to ride these

Insisting on cyclists wearing helmets is just a way for authorities to cop out of providing safe cycling infrastructure. I felt a lot safer cycling without a bike helmet on Montreal’s separated lanes than I feel when I am commuting home from work in Burnaby. Sure, I have the mandatory bike helmet on my head – but how is that going to help if I get hit by one of the buses sharing the lane with me, or by an SUV whose driver is preoccupied with an “important” phone call?

I’d be just as dead, with or without a helmet. (Research indicates that helmets are pretty useless at speeds over 23 kph.)

Helmets as a CYA Tactic (rather than Cover Your Head)

Vancouver’s cycling helmet law is akin to not providing any sidewalks, thereby forcing vulnerable pedestrians to mix it up with fast-moving, 2-ton vehicular traffic – and then trying to CYA by passing a law that says pedestrians have to wear helmets to protect their brains when they (inevitably) get mown down by cars.

The helmet law enables authorities to point a finger at cyclists, saying they are responsible for their own injuries because they failed to wear adequate protection – while avoiding the responsibility of providing the safe infrastructure that would enable cyclists to be just fine without helmets!

Bottom line: for a bike share program to succeed in Vancouver, we will need to rapidly expand the network of safe, separated bike lanes, so as to be able to safely do away with the helmet law. Luckily, we do seem to be moving in that direction.

My thanks: to Richard Campbell, Director of the British Columbia Cycling Coalition, for updating me on the relevant legislation regarding helmets in Vancouver.

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  1. Richard says

    Good post.

    A small clarification. The helmet requirement on roads is a provincial law. So it is the “Province of BC’s insistence” not “Vancouver’s insistence”. The provincial law does not require helmets on paths though. The City of Vancouver enacted a bylaw to require helmets on the paths in the city.

    The provincial minister in charge (not sure which minister) has the power to exempt any group of people from the helmet requirement. This was done for the operators and the passengers of pedicabs.

  2. Graeme says

    You may be right about helmets being a deterrent to a successful bike sharing program. Do you have a reference for Vancouver’s insistence on a helmet law? It is a provincial law, but has anyone in Vancouver said they wouldn’t/couldn’t by-law around it?

    Helmets are clearly good for individual riders. Even those travelling over 23 km/h can have an accident where their head hits the pavement vertically at less than 23 km/h. (Besides, how much of our ride in the city takes place over this speed?) I encourage everyone to wear a helmet, and I won’t ride without one myself. In my everyday commute those that I see without helmets are those who will not travel over about 20 km/h anyway. Because they’re travelling slower, I guess they feel safe without a helmet.

    However, I can see how lack of a mandatory helmet is better for cyclists in general. It gets more people out on the road, and there is safety in numbers, right? I could support at least a partial lifting of the helmet law (for “safe environments” like separated bike paths, perhaps) if that lifting came along with some education to the benefits of helmets.

    • says

      We are very much on the same page, Graeme. I always wear a helmet for safety, plus to model safety for my kids. It’s the compulsory and everywhere parts I have a problem with – especially if it torpedoes a really healthy initiative like Bixi.

  3. says

    I’ll be trialling the new Brisbane scheme soon, and it too has mandatory helmets. I am taking my helmet in my luggage on the plane, even though that is kind of ridiculous. Brisbane’s hire locations are a bit more useful than Melbourne’s and with the off-road paths along the river banks more pleasant to use. I also think that Melbourne’s scheme is failing for the sheer uselessness of the locations it rolled out with.

    http://wellingtoncycleways.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/the-imminent-failure-of-the-melbourne-bike-share-scheme-it-aint-just-dumb-helmet-laws/

    Some in the comments don’t agree with the uselessness cause, but in the post mortem there’ll probably be more than one cause.

    • says

      I think your research will have a lot to teach us here in Canada, as we begin our journey to BIXI. I will be following your discoveries on your blog. I have learned a lot in just a couple of days by tuning into Australia. Live and learn :)

    • says

      What IS that? Looks like some kind of air bag wrapped around a head?

      I cannot watch too many of these videos – I would get too scared to cycle! Even researching the fatality rates tends to start to haunt me when I’m cycling in heavy traffic … keep thinking about coming home to my kids in a box. Not pretty.

      • Graeme says

        Yup, it is an airbag for your head. Wind in your hair with no worries during a collision.

        Mind you, I wouldn’t forgo the seat belt in my car just because it has airbags. A sleek, lightweight helmet with built-in airbags for additional protection would be better, I think.

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