Missing link ... lots of bikes to rent, but what to put on your head? Photo: Adam Curley
Bike share systems are flourishing around the world. There are more than a quarter of a million bicycles out there, right now, ready for someone to hop on and use for a short trip, at a low or even no cost to them.
From businesspeople late for a cross-town meeting and commuters bridging gaps in public transport to visitors finding a fun way to spread their tourist dollars around, shared bikes bring convenience to any metropolitan centre.
It's not just a European thing. It's true that countries such as France and Italy are well represented, but schemes can also be found in North and Central America, Asia, the Middle East … and Australia.
Here today ... 70 per cent of share bike helmets in Brisbane have gone missing.
Which is where the term “flourishing” starts to fall a bit flat. Australia's two main share bike schemes are in Melbourne and Brisbane. Brisbane's CityCycle scheme recently announced its 200,000th ride, which sounds fantastic – until you read that the 2000 bikes in the scheme are used about 600 times a day. That means the average bike is only ridden once every four days.
Melbourne's more established scheme has some 600 bikes available. The best day of use recorded was during the Australian Open in January – 733 rides, or just over one trip per bike. At other times, average daily use often falls to a third of that number.
In Ireland, Dublinbikes started with 500 bikes that proved so popular they were soon planning a tenfold increase to 5000. In Paris, there are more than 100,000 daily trips on its 20,000 bicycles – at least five hires per bike.
Various reasons have been cited for Australia's struggling programs, but most believe it comes down to one thing – Australia's near-unique mandatory helmet laws.
Brisbane and Melbourne have tried all manner of ways to get around the issue. Helmet vending machines have been set up, massively subsidised helmets are sold for $5, free helmets are left on bikes. It's a costly and seemingly endless process that's having little benefit – (except for people seeking a cheap helmet for private use).
Community schemes need to be convenient to succeed. Swipe a card, hop on and go. Not, “first find a 7/Eleven that hasn't sold out of helmets”, or “carry a helmet with you all day in case of a spontaneous trip”.
So how about a simple exemption law for people when they are riding the share bikes?
The key concern, of course, is safety. Helmet laws have been around for a generation, making it hard for many Australians to contemplate that riding without a lid might be anything less than reckless insanity.
We can look overseas for answers. London's much-publicised “Boris Bikes” scheme has been in operation for two years, and now boasts 8000 bicycles that have been used for some 14 million journeys. Helmets aren't supplied, and most journeys are conducted bare-headed.
Nevertheless, the rate of serious injury has been vanishingly small. Of course, minor spills and scrapes will go unreported, but figures show that there is one serious injury for every 1 million journeys. In fact, it's statistically safer to ride a Boris bike than a private bike.
So what makes share bikes safer? Firstly, they tend to be slow and heavy, with an upright seating position – not built for hooning.
Secondly, motorists are more likely to give unhelmeted cyclists a wider berth, as suggested in an interesting experiment by Dr Ian Walker – they appear to subconsciously adjust for the cyclist's perceived vulnerability and lack of expertise. Especially if the cyclist is in “regular” clothing.
Granting a helmet exemption for share bike schemes would be a bold step in a country addicted to legislation, but it might be the only way that such schemes can survive. And of course, users can always choose to wear a helmet if they wish.
There are fears in the cycling community that the Melbourne scheme might slide into neglect and eventually be abandoned, wrecking the chances that any other city might implement a similar project (Sydney is still adopting a “wait and see” approach).
If so, it would be a disaster for our urban spaces. Around the world, share bike schemes have brought convenience and calm to city streets, while introducing millions of people to the joys and health benefits of utility cycling. We deserve to reap such rewards in Australia.
Have helmet laws prevented you from using a share bike? Should an exemption law be passed?