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  • Vancouver’s Bike-Sharing Conundrum (And Three Simple Solutions)

    Photographed by | Dmitry Gudkov

    Photographed by | Dmitry Gudkov

    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

    27 thoughts on “Vancouver’s Bike-Sharing Conundrum (And Three Simple Solutions)

    1. Voony

      Excellent piece summing it all. If the council is not even prepared to repeal its own helmet bylaw, Why it wants stubbornly waste tax $ on this very costly “exercise in futility”?

      Reply
    2. benry

      Why not keep the law, but allow those who use these bikes to ignore it at their own peril, or bring their own helmet?

      Reply
      1. tim

        benry, that’s how it works now. You don’t *have* to use their helmets.

        funny that someone would mod down your comment. The delicate sensitivity of people who oppose helmets don’t even want discussion. I have first hand accounts of two friends who have had their helmets cracked during accidents. It’s proof enough for me that helmet laws have some reason.

        Reply
    3. Todd Smith

      Snore… this passive-aggressive, guarded, identifiably Canadian attachment to helmets. The inanity of ticketing riders who don’t wear them! As well, the sophistication of these shared bikes! AND helmet vending machines? How about useful vending machines with tires, patch-kits, waterbottles, rainwear, and reflectors? You know, things that SUPPORT cycling culture.

      I lived in Copenhagen seven years ago and enjoyed a successful bike share programme. Not once did I see an adult wearing a helmet. Not once did a stranger yell, “WHERE’S YOUR HELMET?!??!” Not once did the police stop a cyclist without a helmet. Sure, there were children wearing helmets but these tikes were also rattling around in the bucket of a Christiania bike. The shared Danish “citybikes” were heavy, steel frames that worked like shopping carts. Difficult to steal and bulletproof. These bikes had solid rubber tires, the wheels were locked on, and they were available everywhere… completely free.

      Scandinavia has nearly 30 years of statistics that support this model, why do we insist on reinventing it in such a cumbersome, litigated way?

      Reply
    4. Chrism

      Your bike share scheme will be ruined if there is a mandatory helmet law. You need to get the phones of lawmakers ringing off the hook demanding a repeal.

      Reply
    5. Laurent Munier

      Excellent article thank you. The mandatory helmet law is a joke. I want to ride my bike around more but it is not always convenient to wear a helmet.

      I am an adult and I have my own insurance. I am 100% able to take responsibility for my own actions. I am pretty sure I am a big boy and can make the educated choice to wear a helmet or not.

      I have been riding a bike for more than 30 years and I think I’ve got the hang of it.

      Please please please City of Vancouver please stop trying to save me from myself.

      Reply
      1. Jeff

        the Helmet law is not a city by-law. It is a provincial law to which the city has no control over it.

        For Vancouver city council, its about pick their battles and they have to work within the legal structure of the country.

        Helmet law is stupid though.

        Reply
        1. Matthew

          I was under the presumption that the provincial law excluded some areas, like the Seawall, but that the city bylaws include them. This would suggest that the city does want adult helmet laws, even when not forced by the province.

          Reply
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    9. 4theisland

      Anybody who rides a bicycle on a city street without a helmet, or thinks it is a good idea, is a M-O-R-O-N, and a brain injury in waiting. Violators should be fined into compliance with all the force the law can muster. Do not ever assume that you are immune.

      Reply
      1. Chris Bruntlett

        Anybody who drives a car on a city street without a helmet, or thinks it is a good idea, is a M-O-R-O-N, and a brain injury in waiting (700,000 annually in the United States alone). Violators should be fined into compliance with all the force the law can muster. Do not ever assume that you are immune.

        Reply
    10. Chris Bruntlett

      Bicycle helmets cannot be compared to seatbelts. Bicycle helmets could be compared to driving helmets, which are not mandatory in BC. Seatbelt laws are common throughout the world: adult bicycle helmet laws are not. The science on seatbelt laws is clearly in their favour: the same cannot be said of bicycle helmet laws.

      Reply
      1. Chris Bruntlett

        The City of Vancouver does in fact have a bylaw (Street and Traffic By-Law No. 2849 60D.) which they passed in the 1990s to “complement” the provincial law. They were, by my understanding, the only municipality in B.C. to write such a law, which makes bareheaded cycling on pathways, parks, and seawalls illegal. Councillors Deal and Meggs have repeatedly defended this absurd and pointless bylaw to the media, despite the vast majority of seawall cyclists feeling safe and comfortable enough to ride without head protection. Repealing this bylaw would be the first step in admitting that we have a problem, rather than stubbornly moving forward with an unproven and questionable bike-share model that appears doomed to fail.

        Reply
    11. cancouver

      This article is incoherent. Vancouver can’t repeal the helmet law….it’s a provincial law over which they have no control.

      Reply
      1. Chris Bruntlett

        Wowzers. Did you read the comment directly above yours regarding the city’s helmet bylaw? Nevertheless, council and staff could use its influence to push for a provincial exemption or revision, if they so desired. They have weighed in on many provincial and federal issues in the past, including liquor licensing and the use of our ports to export coal. Sit-Up Vancouver (www.helmetchoice.ca) got a (failed) motion onto the floor of the Liberal convention last Autumn, with two volunteers, some postcards, a website and Twitter feed. Imagine what could get accomplished with some ACTUAL political clout and resources!

        Reply
        1. cancouver

          I did read it. The provincial law completely supersedes the bylaw. Vancouver is basically powerless to change it. Council members have said they know they can’t get the law changed. Provincial politicians have said they won’t change it.
          Vancouver council loves to pass silly motions regarding things they can’t control… but be realistic. With the libs back in and a council that are deeply involved in the NDP they really have zero traction. It’s too bad really.
          The article is silly because it’s trying to blame council. They might as well repeal their bylaw before the NPA gets in again someday… But the author should really be addressing the provincial government.

          Reply
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