Bike sharing in North America has yet to come to a city with mandatory helmet laws. The two have so far seemed mutually exclusive. It’s hard to force casual, point-to-point bike renters to wear a helmet if you don’t give them one. But you can’t share a helmet like you can share a bike. Helmets are more like a personal article of clothing than an anonymous piece of equipment. There are cooties at stake.
In the next couple of years, though, someone will have to figure out how to make the two coexist, because mandatory-helmet-wearing Vancouver and Seattle want in on the bike-share trend. Seattle recently completed a feasibility study to bring bike sharing to town, and Vancouver began accepting proposals to design and operate a system there earlier this year. Both have simple laws on the books: If you’re on a bike, you better have a helmet on your head, too.
Other helmet-law cities, like Mexico City and Tel Aviv, dealt with this the easy way – they simply repealed the requirement before rolling out public bikes.
"I don’t think that’s going to happen in Seattle and Vancouver," says Alison Cohen, the president of Alta Bicycle Share, which operates the systems in Washington and Boston, with New York on the way. "The answer is either of the solutions that are out there, which are partnering with local retailers to sell helmets or helmet vending machines."
Ah, helmet vending machines. This second idea is both the most and least practical. An ideal system – and one that puts up the fewest obstacles for people who really need a bike right this second – would offer helmets alongside bikes at the docking station. Currently in Boston, the bike-sharing program requires helmets, although there’s no city law that does (you pledge to wear one when you sign the user agreement). The kiosk maps include directions to the nearest partnering drug store, where helmets are on sale for about 10 dollars. In Melbourne, Australia, Alta also offers the option of recycling the helmets for a small refund. Alta takes care of the cleaning and reuse.
But how exactly would you move all of these components – the bike, the helmet, the opportunity to return the, umm, used helmet – closer together, while ensuring that people aren't turned off by too much oversharing?
SandVault, a British Columbia-based company that’s part of a bid to win Vancouver’s business, this week unveiled a prototype for such a vending machine, the aptly named HelmetStation. It comes attached to the bike rack, and includes removable helmet canisters that could be emptied, cleaned and refilled whenever bike rebalancers come by. The helmets would be sanitized between every head – which sounds like a lot of work, but also the only way to make this idea workable.
"At the end of the day, no cities are actually implementing it, but there really hasn’t been the right technical solution, and I think it’s coming down the pipes," Cohen says. "It lowers barrier to entry, but it also raises barriers to entry."
In other words, more cities may be able to roll out bikes once the cootie conundrum has been resolved – and Cohen predicts the solution may also effect what existing bike-share cities are already doing – but those cities will have to work that much harder to keep such a system running.