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 Montréal. 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.
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 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
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 helmetless on Montréal’s separated lanes than I feel when I am commuting home from work in Burnaby. Sure, I have the mandatory 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.