On Friday, a cyclist was killed in a downtown Seattle collision. As Dominic Holden explains in this week's paper, local politicians should have fully funded the city's plan for bike safety years ago to help prevent tragedies like this one.
Here's another thing the city can do: create a successful bicycle share program. Bike share programs are staggeringly safe. According to a recent analysis by Reuters, not a single person has ever died using bike share in the United States, out of about 23 million total rides across 36 different programs, in places like New York and Denver and Boston. Experts say that's because the bikes are sturdy, slow, and reliable. More importantly, bike sharing programs put many more cyclists on the road, and as study after study has shown, there's safety in numbers.
Seattle is finally going to get bike share this fall. Pronto Cycle Share, after months of delays, is set to launch on October 13. During its first year, there will be 500 bikes available across 50 stations throughout downtown, South Lake Union, the U-District, and Capitol Hill, placed strategically to encourage quick trips under 30 minutes.
So far, so good! But there's a huge question mark looming over the program, and some people are even betting that Seattle's bike share program will fail. To take one example, Flavia Krause-Jackson, who covers cities and urban trends for Bloomberg News, wrote about Pronto in an August article surveying the success and failure of bicycle share programs across the globe. Our program, she writes, "faces a built-in hurdle. The home to Microsoft Corp. has a helmet law that history shows will sink its bike-sharing dream."
That's right. King County has a mandatory helmet law that dates back to 2003. Which means that in Seattle, you can get ticketed ($81!) for not wearing a helmet. In the history of bike share, there's only one program that's notorious for having struggled: Melbourne, Australia, which has a helmet law. The vast majority of cities do not have helmet laws, and some of those that do have begun ditching them. In 2010, Mexico City repealed its helmet law ahead of the launch of its bike share program. The Dallas City Council, in June, changed that city's helmet law so that it only applies to kids 17 years old and younger, ahead of the launch of its bike share program this fall. "In order to do bike share, we absolutely have to get rid of the helmet requirement," said Dallas city council member Philip Kingston.
There is a raging debate, in fact, over just how much helmets protect your head. Some studies even say wearing a helmet can increase the likelihood of a neck injury in an accident. King County's helmet law cites as evidence a 1989 study by local researchers who said helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent. But researchers who sought to reproduce that finding found that they could not. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration removed the 85 percent claim from its website and said it would stop including the figure in its public safety recommendations.
As for helmet laws—as opposed to voluntary individual use of helmets—the data is overwhelming: They discourage cycling and reduce the number of cyclists on the road, even though increasing the number of cyclists yields the greatest safety benefits. The UW feasibility study that paved the way for bike share's development in Seattle warned back in 2010, "Unless a way around the helmet law in King County is discovered, the helmet requirement may dramatically reduce the number of bike-share riders by eliminating the spontaneity of bike-share use."
What's Pronto's solution to the helmet dilemma? It's something that's never been tried before, except for a short-lived pilot in Boston: the inclusion of helmet-dispensing kiosks at every bike share station in Seattle. Pronto members can rent a helmet for 24 hours for $1.50; it's $2 for the general public. They'll be sanitized after every use. "We want you to have a blast and be safe, still," said Kyle McMahon, Pronto's marketing manager, while he showed off the helmet kiosk designs to me. And they're partnering with local bicycle shops to offer customers 20 percent discounts on helmets with the purchase of an $85 annual bike share membership. Seattle Children's Hospital is underwriting the half-million dollars it costs to build the helmet vending system.
That's money, however, that could have been spent setting up bike share stations in underserved areas like the Central District or Beacon Hill, which won't have access to bike share until Pronto's second phase expansion. How soon that expansion happens depends on its success this year.
Local officials seem blasé about whether King County's helmet law could hurt Seattle's bike share program. "We've heard that helmet laws discourage bicycling, but that's not something we've necessarily seen in King County," said Annie Kirk, a program manager at the county's injury prevention unit. "I'm really excited to start using [bike share] myself," she said. "I think that they have come up with a good solution. And we'll see. It's a little too early to tell." Right now, she said, there's no movement toward changing the county's ordinance.
"I wouldn't say they're doomed to failure," said Brent Toderian, the former chief urban planner of Vancouver, BC, where a helmet law has delayed and complicated attempts to launch a bike share program. "But I know for a fact that it won't be as successful as it would be if the helmet-law problem was addressed."