Australian bike hire schemes fail because of helmet laws

The cities of Melbourne and Brisbane were the first in Australia to introduce bicycle hire schemes in mid-2010, despite advice that they would fail if customers are forced by law to wear helmets.

This page chronicles the introduction of bike hire schemes since 2007 in different cities around the world where authorities have acted to counter high fuel prices, traffic congestion, road casualties and carbon pollution while at the same time promoting healthy exercise among citizens.

September 2014: Australian statistician and researcher Dorothy Robinson discusses published research on participation and injury trends in five American cities that implemented bike share schemes (none of which have helmet laws for adults) compared to five other cities. The great news is that the cities that implemented bike share schemes saw a 14% reduction in numbers of head injuries to cyclists, but there was no reduction in the other five cities. Coupled with the increase in cycling because of bike share (research in one of the cities showed that people exposed to the bike share scheme were more than twice as likely to cycle) this represents a significant improvement in safety.

Bike hire schemes in the two Australian cities have been a flop since their introduction, with mandatory helmet laws the clear reason.

See the magnitude of the Brisbane failure in bike hire numbers recorded by the international JCDecaux bicycle hire scheme conglomerate in each of the cities where the company operates, surveyed from January 2011 to October 2011.

In June 2011, the British Medical Journal published The health risks and benefits of cycling in urban environments compared with car use: health impact assessment study, a study of the Bicing bike share scheme in Barcelona to estimate the risks and benefits to health of travel by bicycle, using a bicycle sharing scheme, compared with travel by car in an urban environment:

Results: Compared with car users the estimated annual change in mortality of the Barcelona residents using Bicing (n=181,982) was 0.03 deaths from road traffic incidents and 0.13 deaths from air pollution. As a result of physical activity, 12.46 deaths were avoided (benefit:risk ratio 77). The annual number of deaths avoided was 12.28. As a result of journeys by Bicing, annual carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by an estimated 9,062,344 kg.

Conclusions: Public bicycle sharing initiatives such as Bicing in Barcelona have greater benefits than risks to health and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The Bicing share scheme has increased public cycling participation by 30% and 11% of the population subscribes to the Bicing scheme in Barcelona, where bicycle helmets are not mandatory. Listen to one of the authors, Professor Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, explain the excellent cycling benefits despite nobody wearing a helmet, or read the observations of the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation.

In 2007, the French Government introduced a Velib system in Paris whereby commuters can hire a cheap bicycle from almost 1,500 spots around the city and return it after use - an initiative aimed at improving public health and reducing greenhouse gases (check YouTube to see what happens in a community where cycling is encouraged instead of discouraged). There are reports that 80 million Velib bikes were hired in the first three years of operation.

Israel introduced a national all-age mandatory bicycle helmet law in 2007, although reports indicate it has largely been ignored. As reported by Haaretz newspaper in November 2008, the city of Tel Aviv was trying to introduce a bike hire scheme but the helmet law was an obstacle:

In addition, sources at city hall said that the mandatory helmet law recently passed by the Knesset dealt a "serious blow" to the project and will hinder its success. According to Tiomkin, residents will be reluctant to rent a helmet previously worn by dozens of others. The law, which was passed over the objections of public transportation advocacy groups, will go into effect at the end of the month. It requires all cyclists to wear a helmet or face a fine.

However, Haaretz reported in October 2008 that the municipality was pushing for a solution:

"The municipality is also hoping for an amendment to the helmets law in the near future, which will require the use of helmets only when using sports bicycles off urban roads."

In other words, the solution is to effectively repeal the bicycle helmet law so that Israel can encourage healthy public recreation and reduce greenhouse pollution.

In December 2009, The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel's Ministerial Committee for Legislation had thrown its support behind a bill which would remove the requirement for adults to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle in the city.

In February 2010 and as reported by Arutz Sheva: "The Knesset has passed on its first reading a bill that would exempt individuals over 18 years of age from having to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle in urban areas."

August 4 2011: The Israeli Knesset (parliament) has passed an amendment to that country's mandatory helmet legislation that exempts adults in urban areas. Israel and Mexico City have now effectively conceded the failure of adult bicycle helmet laws and their decisions were largely influenced be the discouragement of cycling that jeopardised their bike hire schemes.

April 2012: The green bike hire scheme in Tel Aviv has taken off since mid-2011 with more than a million bicycles hired since the project was launched. Read how Israel's compulsory bike helmet law was repealed to prevent ongoing harm to public health, safety and justice in that country. You can also see how Israel has won the 2012 Green Globus award for its TeloFun bike share project.

In 2008, American cities such as Washington DC introduced free bicycle sharing schemes to cut traffic and reduce pollution. As reported by Time magazine in June 2008:

One way Washington is trying to encourage widespread use of SmartBikes is by not requiring helmets, let alone providing them. "It's not a good idea to share helmets because you have sanitary issues and sweat issues," says Paul DeMaio, founder of MetroBike, a consulting firm that advises cities on implementing bike-sharing. "byoh, for sure."

Diseases spread by unsanitary helmets include Staphylococcus Aureus and lice.

The Irish capital of Dublin introduced the public hire of 450 bikes from 40 stations around the city in September 2009. The councillor who first mooted the scheme explained why helmets are not mandatory:

Asked whether helmets should be made available to those hiring the bikes, he said there was little evidence available on their benefits. "In Brisbane they made helmet-wearing compulsory and although the rate of accidents dropped and they thought it was a success, they realised it was because the rate of cycling had dropped by 50 per cent," he said. "Helmets put people off."



In January 2010, Auckland Cycle Chic considered how mandatory helmet laws are hampering bike share schemes in New Zealand, and The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation further explains the difficulties in introducing bike sharing schemes in mandatory helmet jurisdictions.

In February 2010, Mexico City repealed its mandatory bicycle helmet law because of public opposition and the looming introduction of the city's Ecobici bike share system.

The Bixi bike sharing scheme was introduced in Montreal in late 2009 and hired more than one million bikes in the first four months. Within 12 months, more than 3.5 million kilometres were cycled on the Montreal hire bikes, which don't require mandatory helmets, with just five minor injuries to riders.

Vancouver in Canada introduced a public bike sharing system in 2013 and bike helmet laws have thrown a wrench into the plans.

As reported by The Age newspaper on November 26, 2007, a scheme for free bicycle use could not be introduced in the city of Melbourne because mandatory helmet laws, which are applicable to all ages, would make it unworkable. Read more about Australia's conflict between public health/safety and bike helmet laws at Situp-cycle.com.

As reported by News Corporation in November 2008, mandatory helmet laws also jeopardise a bike hire scheme planned for the Gold Coast in the Australian state of Queensland. At the time of the article's publication and because of the helmet law, no municipality had introduced a bike hire scheme in Australia, which is the fattest nation on earth and is planning a carbon emissions trading scheme possibly from 2013.

In May 2009, the Victorian Government in Australia budgeted $5.5 million for the creation of a bicycle hire system in Melbourne by 2010. As noted by Bicycle Victoria: "Helmet provision for public bikes could prove a significant problem in Melbourne where helmets are compulsory." Read the public commentary on mandatory helmets and bike hire at Sydney Cyclist.

In June 2010, Melbourne Bike Share was introduced, whereby users must either bring their own helmets or buy one from nearby shops. Melbourne Bike Share explains its dilemma:

"Helmets are not supplied with the bikes. The main reason for this is due to safety. We cannot compromise on the safety of our users; if we were to provide helmets with the bikes we would need to check every helmet after each ride to ensure they are not damaged - and are clean."

It may be advisable for tourists coming to Australia to store a bicycle helmet in their luggage if they wish to cycle around Melbourne (or any other part of the country except the Northern Territory).

By July 2010, Melbourne's Bike Share scheme is a failure because of bicycle helmets! Read in the Melbourne Age newspaper why the scheme isn't attracting many users - bicycle helmets. A newspaper opinion poll asking if public-bike scheme users should be excused from wearing helmets resulted in a vote of Yes 71% / No 29%. See Situp-cycle.com for full details or read the opinion of columnist Andrew Bolt.

On August 29, 2010, The Sunday Age reported on a collapsible helmet solution offered by the Victorian Government. In relation to the bike hire scheme which "has been crippled by Melbourne's compulsory helmet laws", the newspaper reports: "Figures obtained by The Sunday Age show annual subscriptions - which cost $50 - dropped in August, from 135 in July to 108 as of Friday. New casual users of the bikes dropped from 1461 in July to 1070 and the number of rides fell from 4116 to 3775. According to the figures, Melburnians are taking 140 rides a day on the bikes." Melbourne has a population just over 4 million.

By October 11, 2010, Melbourne Bike Share had less than 650 subscribers and just 20,700 bikes had been hired in four months. By the end of May 2011, almost 100,000 bike trips had been taken on the scheme, January 2011 the busiest month with almost 13,000 trips, and annual subscriptions totalled just over 1300. Melbourne Bike Share was budgeted $5.5 million and if the current usage rate is maintained (i.e. 100,000 rides in a year), each bike trip will have cost Victorian taxpayers $55. If all 100,000 riders in the first year choose the expensive hire option of $2.50 per day plus $5 for up to 90 minutes, the scheme will make $750,000 for the year and that will cut the taxpayer cost to $47.50 per ride. If all riders were to pay the hire fee of $7.50 per ride, the scheme would cover its costs after 733,000 trips. If the current hiring rate of 100,000 per year is maintained, Bike Share will take six or seven years to break even.

In an attempt to rescue the Melbourne Bike Share scheme, the Victorian Government announced on October 13, 2010, the provision of $5 disposable helmets from vending machines which can be returned for a $3 refund. Returned helmets are disinfected and rented out again.

Australian documentary-maker and researcher Mike Rubbo exposes the Melbourne Bike Share disaster in the video below released in October 2010:




How does Melbourne's Bike Share popularity compare with other cities around the world that have introduced similar bicycle hire schemes?

No cities outside Australia with a bike hire scheme have all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws.

Despite having a bigger population than most cities, Melbourne has the worst bicycle hire rate in the world numerically and/or as a percentage of available bikes. This again demonstrates how mandatory bicycle helmets discourage public cycling participation, and is a reflection of the ongoing damage caused to Australian public health and safety since mandatory bicycle helmet laws were introduced in 1990.



Cycling thrives in Melbourne, Does Bike Share contribute? by Mike Rubbo is an updated version of the film which was invited as a presentation to the Velo City Conference in Seville, Spain, March 2011.


London launched its bike hire scheme on July 30, 2010, and within 10 weeks had almost 95,000 subscribers with more than one million bicycles hired. Just seven minor injuries were recorded during these million trips by mostly unhelmeted cyclists. London has a population of 7.6 million. As reported by the Guardian newspaper on July 10, 2011, there were about six million bike hire trips in the first year with about 100 injuries, none serious, and the only problem with the scheme is that there are not enough bikes and docking stations to satisfy demand. London's bike scheme was opened to tourists and causal users in December 2010.

On October 8, 2010, The Brisbane Times reported on the progress of Brisbane's introduction of a bike hire scheme on October 1 - costing ratepayers approximately $8 million. About 1500 subscribers signed up to CityCycle in the first week and the organisers expect about 12,000 subscribers in the first year of operation. On the first day, about 260 bikes were hired. Brisbane has a population of 2.1 million.

As reported on November 22, 2010, by The Brisbane Institute, CityCycle had just over 2000 subscribers in its first seven weeks with an average 225 bikes hired each day.

Reported on March 16, 2011, Brisbane residents are making just 250 trips a day on the CityCycle scheme and there were 1975 annual subscribers - most commentators blaming mandatory helmet laws for the weak demand.

Reported in January, 2012: Council's bike scheme pedalling city into cycle of debt reveals the $38,000 loss per week to ratepayers from the failed CityCycle scheme, with annual subscribers dropping from 1,950 to 1,845 since September 2011.

It should be noted that in the Irish city of Dublin (population 1.7 million, no helmet law) referenced above, more than 40,000 people signed up in the first year of a bike hire scheme launched in 2009. Operators report that well over a million bicycles were hired in the first 12 months.

On December 3, 2010, ABC Radio National interviewed Bicycle Queensland Manager Ben Wilson and Melbourne Institute for Sensible Transport Director Elliot Fishman to try to understand why the bike share schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane have been a failure. Click here to listen.

On December 7, 2010, ABC Science reported on a study into rider behaviour in bike share schemes, quoting Elliot Fishman, Director of Melbourne's Institute for Sensible Transport: Fishman says being required to wear a helmet is like "opening up a pub and then asking everybody to bring their own glasses".

After 20 years, media in the eastern half of Australia have finally begun reporting some of the results of the country's disastrous mandatory bicycle helmet laws and their 20 year failure, as reflected in the abysmal public demand for hire bikes:



On November 10, 2010, the Nextbike hire scheme in the New Zealand city of Auckland (population 1.4 million, helmets mandatory), suspended its operations because it could no longer sustain its business model. Nextbike was the first bike hire scheme in the southern hemisphere and the company claims that on busy days it would hire up to 50 bikes a day during its three years of operation. Compare that hire rate with schemes in other cities with a similar population, and it's clear that helmet laws have discouraged an adequate turnover of customers in Auckland.

In December 2010, it was announced that the port city of Fremantle in Western Australia is planning to have a bike hire scheme managed by Cycle Freo with a trial run scheduled in mid 2011. Interviewed below by documentary maker and resesearch Mike Rubbo, Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettit calls for bravery from WA politicians who are willing to stand up and consider public health in the bicycle helmet debate.



It's worth noting that a bike hire scheme has not been established in Australia's largest city but the City of Sydney recommends that current legislation relating to mandatory use of bicycle helmets should be reviewed (p30). In March 2012, the city has decided not to proceed with a bike hire scheme unless it is granted an exemption from bicycle helmet laws. However and despite a carbon dioxide tax to be introduced in Australia from July 1, 2012, the government has no intention of encouraging bicycle use to reduce greenhouse pollution.


And for a final laugh, have a look at what Adolph Hitler might have thought about mandatory bicycle helmet laws. (Warning - four letter words are used in this parody and some viewers may be offended).





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