Hard-Headed: 4 Out of 5 Bike Share Riders Don't Wear Helmets

Urban bike sharing programs hope to make road cycling more accessible to casual riders. The challenge is getting them to bike like pros.

Urban bike sharing programs, which are popular in Europe and gaining steam across the United States, hope to make road cycling more accessible to casual riders. The challenge is getting those casual cyclists to bike more like pros.

Consider this: Half of all urban cyclists strap on a helmet before getting on a bike. But a new study of bike share programs in Boston and Washington, D.C. found that only one in five bike share users does the same.

Programs like D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare dutifully instruct riders to always wear a helmet, and point users to local shops where they can invest in their noggins. But these bike sharing programs cater to people who want to spontaneously hop on a bike when they happen to need a ride, or tool around on two wheels just for the day. These cyclists are far less likely than regular riders to have a bulky helmet on hand for their impromptu trip.

Boston hopes to bridge the bike share helmet gap by installing some sidewalk helmet kiosks, which would pop out a new Bell helmet for just $8. But the problem goes beyond getting helmets on heads—the scientific literature is actually split on the ultimate efficacy of helmet use. The broader challenge of programs that democratize urban riding is ensuring that when they open the city's bike lanes to more casual cyclists, they also provide them with all the tools necessary to do it safely—that means bike lights and helmets, but also strategies for navigating drivers' blind spots and just-opened car doors.

Getting more urban dwellers on bikes is good for the environment, traffic patterns, public health, and personal finance. It's good for existing bikers, too—the more cyclists we see on the road, the more drivers get used to sharing it. But an an influx of new cyclists on our roads presents a safety concern that bike share programs have so far failed to fully address—Capital Bikeshare attempts to resolve the whole thing in a couple of bullet points. Biking in a city requires experience, skill, and some degree of risk acceptance. So far, there's no kiosk for that.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user James D. Schwartz

Julian Meehan

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