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  • Pronto Cycle Share

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Earlier this month, I looked at bike share programs around the world and found that the only places where they weren't wildly successful were cities with helmet laws. Places like Mexico City and Dallas repealed and scaled back their helmet laws, respectively, before the launch of their bike share programs.

Here in Seattle, the people planning Pronto Cycle Share thought they had an elegant solution: helmet-dispensing machines at every bike kiosk.

How's that working out so far? Not well. HelmetHubs, the maker of these helmet vending machines—which have never been fully tested in a big-city bike share program—won't have them ready until next February at the earliest. That's five months after Pronto Cycle Share launches on October 13.

"We were really hoping that they could deliver in time," says Pronto executive director Holly Houser. "It's been our understanding that that was going to be the case until very, very recently. It came as a bit of a surprise to us."

Rather than delay bike share's launch, Houser says, they scrambled to come up with a fix. The result? The system will launch with boxes of helmets at bike share stations where you can just walk up and pull out a helmet—for free.

Looking on the bright side, this will add to the spontaneity of using bike share. Grabbing a helmet out of a box is easier and quicker than spending $2 and withdrawing one from an electronic machine. There will be a separate deposit box for used helmets.

But... Seattle already deals with a lot of theft of bikes and bike gear. Houser says she doubts there's a black market for Pronto-branded helmets, but I've tried out one of their helmets. They are great fucking helmets, made by the Massachusetts-based company Bern.

(UPDATE: Pronto rep Kristi Herriott e-mails: "So, I hate to say that we’re not actually going to be using Bern helmets for the system. Bern was generous enough to donate helmets for the pre-launch efforts, but when it goes live, Pronto will use another manufacturer that essentially produces a super similar, but genericly branded style. Certainly not as cool as Bern, we know.")

So what happens when people steal them?

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"We're not personally concerned about the financial ramifications of lost helmets," she says. Alta, the private contractor launching the system (and overseeing the HelmetHubs part of the project), is contractually on the hook. She says they're "under the gun" to make things work out. And they'll be looking out for abandoned Pronto helmets left littering the streets.

One incentive to hang on to the free helmets, rather than toss them to the curb: Local politicians (and bicycling advocates) have been treating our local helmet law like a sacred cow and Seattle police just announced they're going to more aggressively enforce it, despite the lessons from other cities that have struggled to incorporate both helmet laws and bike share programs.

Might this screw-up prompt a reevaluation of Seattle's helmet regulations? "I think it might spark other people to want to do that," Houser suggests. For now, she's focused on preparing for the launch and, this week, installing the first bike share stations.

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