One year ago (to the day), the streets of Vancouver were flooded with BIXI bikes for the Velo-City Global Conference. Over a thousand of these sturdy, utilitarian, three-speed bicycles were shipped in for delegates, instantly transforming the city’s streets into a pedal-powered heaven. They were the talk of the town on both traditional and social media, with sightings being reported from Commercial Drive to Stanley Park, and the backdrop of our burgeoning bicycle infrastructure on display for the entire world to see. And then, as the conference came to a close, the bikes were unceremoniously loaded onto a truck and shipped back to Montréal, leaving Vancouverites with nothing but fond memories and vague promises of a formal program launching within the year.
As you can probably guess, this elusive Vancouver scheme still hasn’t materialized, almost six years after the city began to study the concept. Since then, over 500 cities around the world have discovered its transformational properties, including Paris, London, and most recently (and loudly) New York City. Bike-sharing has been described as the gateway drug to citizen cycling, allowing people of all ages who wouldn’t normally identify themselves as “cyclists” access to a bike for pennies a day. In fact, the value of bike-share extends much farther than cyclist recruitment. Bike-share programs are a key complement to public transportation systems, cheaply solving the difficult “last mile” problem: four out of five trips on Paris’s Vélib’ system, for example, originate or end at a transit stop. Officials are also finding that bike-share systems boost their economy by increasing real estate values and attracting high-tech talent, giving their businesses a competitive edge.
At the core of Vancouver’s bike-sharing conundrum is the province of British Columbia’s mandatory adult bicycle helmet law, an internationally anomalous, misguided and counterproductive piece of legislation rushed through with little scrutiny and evidence before an election in the late 1990s. While numerous subsequent studies have found absolutely no effect on the head injury rates caused by bicycle accidents, to dare to question its necessity, efficacy and unintended consequences is a political non-starter.
As you can no doubt imagine, it is very difficult to operate a spontaneous, flexible and financially viable public program under a mandatory adult bicycle helmet law. The only three schemes in the world (Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland) to even attempt to do so have all been unmitigated disasters. Brisbane City Cycle, for example, experiences just 0.3 trips per bike per day, even after the city provided complimentary helmets for its users. By comparison, New York was already at 4.5 trips per bike per day after three weeks of operation, and Dublin – a similar size to Brisbane – boasts an average of 6 daily riders per bike. In these cities, bike-share has proven to be several times safer than riding your own bike. Simply put, mandating helmets for bike-share is akin to requiring seat belts on the bus: an overly complex solution to a problem that just doesn’t exist.
For a simple fix to this manufactured dilemma, Vancouver could follow the lead of three other jurisdictions. Mexico City, for example, had an adult helmet law, which was fully repealed before the launch of their EcoBici system in 2010. It has been an irrefutable triumph, now boasting 4,000 bikes, 275 stations, 73,000 annual subscribers and a stellar safety record, despite the city’s notorious motor traffic. Only three EcoBici riders experienced collisions in the first 1.6 million trips, and none were seriously injured.
If this precedent of a full repeal isn’t politically palatable, there are certainly revisions and exemptions that can be provided. In 2010, the Israeli government rescinded their helmet law for adults riding on designated bikeways within city limits, allowing the Tel Aviv scheme (cheekily named “Tel-O-Fun”) to flourish. As the docking stations will be along well-defined bike routes, this “safe zone” should be very easy to define in Vancouver.
A third option, currently being considered in Seattle, is the demotion of riding without a helmet to a secondary offense. As a result, police would not be able to stop a BIXI-riding cyclist unless a primary traffic offense (such as running a stop sign) has also been committed. This would focus attention on truly dangerous behaviour and put an end to the wasteful and counterproductive strategy of regular roadblocks on our safest streets.
Frustratingly, none of these are the City of Vancouver’s current proffered solution. Instead, if public bike-share ever does launch in the “World’s Greenest City™,” we can look forward to automated vending machines at every single docking station that distribute, collect, and wash shared helmets, making them available on a trip-by-trip basis (for an additional charge on your credit card). This laughable safety charade stands to double the start-up costs, double ongoing maintenance expenses, and directly oppose the helmet manufacturers’ own recommendation to never to use a helmet whose history is unknown. Requiring helmets is expected to reduce the potential ridership by at least one third, severely limiting the success of the program before it even begins.
With this helmet-swapping-and-washing farce, it has become crystal clear that there is no appetite at City Hall for a repeal or revision of our own bylaw – that makes even cruising the seawall helmet-free a ticketable offense – let alone calling on Attorney General Suzanne Anton to amend the province’s outdated Motor Vehicle Act.
So here we sit, almost six years after (then Councilor) Peter Ladner got the ball rolling, with a $50,000 helmet vending machine prototype, and sprawling cities such as Dayton, Houston, and Chattanooga passing us by. The latest doubtful promise from city staff is that “some part” of the system will be in place before the end of 2013, but a winter launch date for bike-share would be unprecedented, so further delays are inevitable.
As it stands, Vancouver is headed for an expensive exercise in futility and safety theatre, and about to miss a very real opportunity to get thousands of new people on bicycles, while providing much-needed relief to an overcrowded and underfunded regional transit system. All because Mayor Robertson is afraid to follow the lead of his counterparts Michael Bloomberg and Boris Johnson, and state categorically to the public that cycling – however you dress – is safe, easy, and fun. If bike-share is to ever stand a chance of succeeding in this city, he must show leadership and recognize that true bike safety comes from numbers, behaviour and infrastructure, not second-hand Styrofoam hats.
Words by | Chris Bruntlett