Why not requiring helmets for Philly Bike Share may be a good thing

Nutter's Awesome HelmetSet to “boost the city’s transportation network and further advance Philadelphia’s position as a city of choice,” it was announced earlier this year that Philadelphia would be getting our own bike-sharing program in 2014. The five-year plan is a system of 150-200 bike share stations and 1,000 to 2,000 bikes in an area from West Philly to the Delaware, North Philly to the Navy Yard.

In so doing, we’re joining cities like Chicago, Salt Lake, Washington and New York City, who’ve all already got successful programs in place. And, like them, Philadelphians will likely utilize the program without a helmet.

A 2010 study by the Bicycle Coalition found that about 50 to 60 percent of Philadelphians wear helmets on the road. That’s likely a lot more than will be wearing one when Philly’s 500,000-2.5 million bike trip per year generating Bike Share system gets under way. That is, if we’re to believe Philly’s will be similar to those aforementioned programs (and others) already in place. Currently, no American bike share programs have helmet requirements.

To read the 65-page Philadelphia Bike Share Strategic Business Plan is to see the word “helmet” mentioned only twice. Both are under the “Health and Safety” title on Page 16—explaining that bike share users use of helmets will be observed during yearly bike counts; and users will be surveyed about whether or not they wear helmets.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for skull security.

But in the long run, so say studies, that’s probably OK. In many European cities, where bicycling is more commonplace than it is here, almost no one wears a helmet. And yet the injury rate is much lower than it is in the United States. Some believe helmet safety is “actually counterproductive to making cycling safer.”

As I wrote in a PW cover story this summer, more bikes means safer streets. Case in point: Bicycling is up in Philly, and reported crashes are down. When bikes are on the road, everyone goes a little slower. You get into an accident at low speeds, you’re probably going to be alright.

A 1997 Injury Prevention study which measured bicycle safety in numerous instances, including accidents with cars, shows that crashes at higher speeds (over 15 miles per hour) increase the risk of injury by 20 percent on the road.

Yet: “Helmets had no apparent effect on the risk of severe injury, probably because head injuries accounted for fewer than one in six of all injuries and the majority of head injuries were not severe.”

Then there’s cash. Cities and vendors need it. And bike sharing is supposed to be a way to get it. If no one checks out a bike, money doesn’t come in.

As reported in the New York Times, where helmets are mandatory, bike sharing is lame. Like in Sydney, Australia, where it was reported their two-year old program garners about 150 trips per day. Compare that to the sans-helmet program in Dublin, Ireland, which facilitates more than 5,000 daily rolls. Not to mention: “Mexico City recently repealed a mandatory helmet law to get a bike-sharing scheme off the ground,” reads the Times.

Why’s that? Because people often associate helmets with a high-risk activity and, as such, could decide against using a bicycle if they see the headgear. Not to mention people who use a sharing program are not likely to carry around a helmet “just in case.”

If you sell the bike program without the helmet attached, people are less likely to believe a helmet will help them. Which is probably cool for most future customers, because according to a study by John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra of Rutgers University, bicycling is safer than walking in U.S. cities. Which sort of says something fit for another article.

Randy LoBasso on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso

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