Bike Share, Check. Helmet? Not Always

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Bike shares are becoming a popular way to lessen the burden on public transportation and get cities to shrink their carbon footprint. But as most cyclists are noticing, you’ll have to bring your own helmet.

When I first gave New York City‘s Citi Bike a ride, I was surprised that helmets weren’t part of the program (free helmets were offered on opening weekend), considering how dangerous riding bare-headed can be. In most cities, helmets are required for children, while people ages 16 and up can legally ride without one. But the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows how vulnerable even adults are to serious bicycle injuries; in 2010, 800 bicyclists were killed and about 515,000 suffered injuries that required emergency department care. Bikers who die of head injuries are three times as likely to not be wearing a helmet.

As sobering as those statistics are, nearly all bike share programs, both in the U.S. and abroad, do not require riders to strap on helmets. And most bike share riders do not bring their own. A Georgetown University study of Washington, D.C.’s program, Capital Bikeshare, found that bike share riders are actually less likely to wear a helmet than other riders. Seven out of 10 Capital Bikeshare users opted out of protective headgear, whereas only three out of 10 bikers who rode their own bikes don’t wear one.

(MORE: We Tried This: Citi Bike, NYC’s New Bike-Sharing Program)

Providing bikes for sharing is one thing, but helmets are quite another, since people don’t like the idea of sharing someone else’s headgear. But some cities are coming up with some innovative solutions to the problem. The Tampa Bay Bike Share program, which will launch in November, plans to provide people who buy bike-share memberships with a $10 voucher for a new helmet. D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare users prompted with the opportunity to purchase a helmet when they buy a membership, with some stores offering a 10% discount on helmets for members. Minneapolis’ Nice Ride bike share members get 20% off helmets at a local bike shop.

Vending Helmet Machine 3 [1]


Discounts are nice, but not always enough to convince riders to wear the extra gear. So by the end of August, Boston plans to install helmet vending machines at select bike share locations to encourage greater helmet use among its Hubway bike sharing users. After the initial pilot with four machines, city officials plan to add to 11 more.

The vending machines were designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology students and are offered by the Boston-based start-up HelmetHub. Hubway users will be able to rent helmets for $2, or purchase them for $20 to $30 from the solar-powered kiosks that house 36 helmets each. All the helmets are sanitized before they re-circulate. “We think that bike sharing is slightly inhibited by the lack of helmets. By making this machine available to all cities we see it as a way to improve bike-sharing worldwide,” says Breanna Berry, co-founder and director of operations for HelmetHub.

In addition to the vending machines, Boston also offers members discounts on helmets, including some for as low as $7.99 at some participating retailers. Members with subsidized memberships earn free helmets with their subscriptions.

“When we launched the bike share, we wanted to encourage people to wear helmets,” says Nicole Freedman, the director of bicycle programs for the city of Boston. “People sign a waiver that says they will wear helmets when they sign up.” So far in 2013 the program has sold over 1,000 helmets through their participating retailers, and since April, 500 members bought helmets when they signed up to join Hubway.


Thomas Gottelier

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And what if you like riding but simply can’t be bothered lugging around a bulky helmet, or finding a vending machine where you can return one? Designers in London are working on the ultimate green solution to this problem — disposable helmets made from discarded newspapers collected from London’s subways. “The helmets can be produced on a large scale using little energy and can be dispensed in conjunction with the Barclays bicycle hire scheme to help encourage safety among cycle hire users,” Thomas Gottelier, who designed the helmet with two friends at the Royal College of Art in London writes on his website. The helmets remain sturdy and waterproof for over six hours, and while they haven’t been crash-tested for durability, Gottelier says they can withstand a considerable amount of force.

He is currently working with an industrial manufacturer to produce a thicker version of the helmet, so it’s not available yet for use. And while the disposable helmets could be a convenient and environmentally-friendly solution to getting helmets on riders’ heads, they may take some getting used to; instead of the smooth dome-like shape of traditional helmets, these have an egg-carton-like texture and look more like an overturned bowl.

Still, having something to protect your head in case of a fall is worth a shot to your vanity, and if bike sharing is going to catch on, making sure users wear helmets could make it a lot safer.