Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Is Melbourne Bike Share doomed?

The problem

Mandatory helmet laws are crippling Melbourne's bike share scheme.

I love bike share (and car share) schemes. They are an elegant and efficient application of technology, and epitomise the promise of the "internet of things".

My tag loses its place on my keyring
As soon as I moved back to Melbourne from Sydney, I signed up for an annual membership, which cost me around $50. This provided me with a little tag that I could use to unlock a bike at any docking station.

Because helmets are mandatory in Melbourne, I decided keep a spare one in my locker in the city centre. The law is enforced, and I've even seen a cyclist being ticketed - by bicycle cops - on a shared footpath. (The fine is considerable at $146.)

I found, however, that my intended usage of the bikes was invariably stymied by the fact that I, or those accompanying me, did not have helmets at the time of intended usage.

The journeys on which I would have used the share bikes could be described as opportunistic. For example, going between client meetings during the week, or between shopping or entertainment areas on weekends. On several occasions, I was with friends or family, and we would have used the bikes were it not for the helmet requirement.

I've also observed and spoken to several prospective users of the system, many of whom were visitors, and who ended up not hiring bikes. One Norwegian gentleman who asked me for advice did the Krone/Dollar conversion, figured he could afford the fine if caught, and rode off happy and bareheaded. I hope he survived his journey along the gentle banks of the Yarra River.

The workaround

The people who run Melbourne Bike Share are, of course, well aware of the problem. Indeed it was flagged by many commentators as a significant risk when the scheme was proposed. In an effort to address the problem, helmets are available at very low cost form convenience stores, and two of the bike hire stations have dispensers allowing users to puchase helmets.

In design parlance, this is a "workaround".

Workarounds are always indicative of a design problem, and tend to be inefficient. They can however be effective. In the case of the Melbourne Bike Share scheme, the ability to get helmets has probably resulted in a small increase in usage. However, many stations are not adjacent to convenience stores, and do not have dispensers. On one occasion the nearest "convenient" source of helmets for me was was 10 minutes' walk away. The need to walk for 20 minutes in order to hire a bike for a 10-minute trip is an unattractive proposition.

The usage rates of both the Melbourne and Brisbane schemes remain pitifully low when compared with usage rates throughout the rest of the world (utilisation rates are around 10% of London's "Boris bikes", for example).

The solution

If we accept that the helmet requirement is a major disincentive, and that the current method for providing access to helmets is an inadequate workaround, I see three alternatives:
  1. Provide very inexpensive or free helmets at every bike share station at all times. This is still a workaround, but may result in improved usage rates. The people who run the bike share scheme presumably have data on whether installing dispensers at docking stations (at Southern Cross and Melbourne University) has resulted in increased usage from those stations. Speaking from my personal experience, immediate access to helmets would have resulted in some increased usage, although I would be reluctant to purchase multiple helmets (which is what I would need to do to meet the opportunistic nature of my requirements). Dispensers might need to support a "return for re-use" system.
  2. Exempt users of the bike hire scheme from mandatory helmet requirements. This has been suggested by Chris Rissell, Professor of Public Health at University of Sydney, who wrote: "Given there is clear evidence from around the world of substantial health benefits and minimal risk from public bicycle share schemes, Australia should allow an exemption of the mandatory helmet legislation for such schemes."
  3. Shut down the scheme. While I personally feel it would be a great shame to do so, it's an option that should be given careful consideration.
I've specifically avoided discussing the advantages and disadvantages of mandatory helmet laws - this is a contentious issue and generates much heat and both sides. However, it's important to be clear: The only significant difference between the unsuccessful Melbourne (and Brisbane) schemes and the very successful schemes elsewhere is the existence of the helmet laws. The difference in usage rates cannot be explained by hardware, climate, topography, traffic conditions or any other identifiable factor.

As for me, with regret, I have allowed my membership to lapse, and taken the little blue tag off my keyring.

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