by Jake Kennon 22 Aug 2011
Imagine for a moment that cities around the world are rolling out fleets of magic carpets, and that those carpets are having truly wizardly effects: improved public health and safety, reduced traffic congestion and carbon emissions, and reduced dependence on foreign oil. City dwellers can check them out or drop them off at stations everywhere, and they are free to use for up to 30 minutes. After that, they cost something, but not much. Picture literally millions of citizens using these carpets for short, speedy trips all over town. Now imagine being in the Northwest and watching this opportunity fly by because fanatical carpet helmet laws discourage would-be riders.
This is exactly what's happening. The magic's not in carpets, though: It's in the humble bicycle.
Cities everywhere are climbing aboard. Check out these videos from London, D.C., and especially Hangzhou, China (watch it below). Hangzhou's enormous bike-sharing program of 50,000 bikes and 2,050 stations has already become an integral component of the city's transit network. The program is so popular the city plans to expand its fleet to 175,000 bikes by 2020.
Public bikes in places like Hangzhou are a normal, safe part of the urban scene, and people don't think twice about swiping a card or inserting a membership key to get a quick ride any time of the day. Dozens, even hundreds, of bike-share programs have popped up across the world, as the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy has documented [PDF]. Almost every one of them launched in the last decade. To see just how many there are, look at this map of bike-share programs.
Click the map for a larger view.
If bike sharing has been successful in so many places, why isn't the Pacific Northwest already in on this? Why are there only two operational bike-sharing programs in all of Cascadia -- a small one in Pullman, Washington, on the campus of Washington State University, and a tiny one in Golden, British Columbia? Golden has 15 bikes, which mostly go back and forth between the town center and a nearby campground. It turns out there's something the Northwest has that other places do not, and it makes all the difference: mandatory helmet laws. British Columbia's helmet law is provincewide. Numerous cities and counties in Washington, including King County and Spokane, have helmet laws. In Oregon, only riders under 16 are required to wear helmets, but until now, cities such as Portland have been slow to set aside money for bike sharing because the competition for scarce funding is fierce.
There is nothing more contentious in the cycling community than the debate over helmets, and though the safety research is mixed, the political lines are sharply drawn. When it comes to bike sharing, however, there are a few things on which the evidence is clear:
Forcing casual riders to don helmets is a high barrier to bike sharing. It depresses ridership, getting in the way of the overwhelming health and safety benefit of having more bikes on the roads. Providing headwear at kiosks or local businesses raises concerns about sanitation (lice!) and safety (cracked helmets). Casual, would-be riders weigh those concerns and decide to keep walking.
Besides, no bike-sharing program tells people not to wear helmets. They just leave wearing one as a personal choice.
The crux of the matter is this: The Pacific Northwest can reap the huge benefits of bike sharing without compromising safety. It just needs to tweak its helmet laws. Here are two ways to do it:
Though our helmet fiats are the greatest legal obstacle to a bike share rollout, there are a couple other barriers worth mentioning. A recent University of Washington study [PDF] examined the feasibility of bike-sharing in Seattle and discovered a slew of hurdles over curb-space usage and the city's sign rules. Bike-share programs sell advertising space on their bike stations to help cover their costs, so the design of the bike stations must reflect the needs of advertisers. At a minimum, that means that having consistent and easily understood sign rules is a must. In Seattle, though, almost every district from Pioneer Square to Ballard has its own sign guidelines. This patchwork of regulations makes it hard to design a single, modular bike-share station that will be legal citywide. And custom bike stations would be prohibitively expensive.
Fortunately, Seattle’s municipal code allows the director of the Department of Planning and Development to issue signage exemptions in downtown areas. No doubt other Northwest cities have their own particular hoops to jump through, but once the helmet barrier is addressed, nothing should truly stand in the way of a concerted push to bring this transportation revolution to Cascadia.
Bike sharing is too good an opportunity to let pass. It's sustainable, healthy, and doesn't require extra parking garages or oil imports. Fortunately, Vancouver has solicited contractor bids to design a system in spite of BC's helmet law, and Seattle and Portland are exploring the idea. Let's treat bike-share riders like pedicab passengers, exempt them from helmet rules, and join the global wave of magic carpet rides.
Jake Kennon is a Sightline research intern.
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