Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Melbourne bike hire scheme and helmets

Melbourne introduced a bicycle hire scheme around the city centre in 2010, without repealing the compulsory helmet laws that make the scheme unworkable. Arriving in Melbourne as a tourist or visitor, or just needing to get somewhere, you can't just jump on a bike - you have to get hold of a helmet, or risk a $146 fine for not wearing one. Australia's helmet laws are some of the most restrictive in the world. Many, myself included, think that compulsory helmet laws make any bike hire scheme unworkable. One of the world's top experts on risk, Prof John Adams, agrees. See  Article in the Age and listen to ABC radio broadcast on helmet laws on 21 Sept '10.

There was a Protest from Melbourne Uni, 18 July 2010 This protest was followed by an interesting presentation at the State of Design festival by
Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize Consulting, called "Four Goals for Promoting Urban Cycling". His four goals included 
  1. Get for A-B quickly - bikes down side roads don't work, provide facilities on well used main routes 
  2. Market the bicycle effectively, not as a niche product for sport or recreation 
  3. Don't avoid the elephant in the room - you can't plan for bikes without doing something about cars (through high vehicle tax and speed limits in Denmark). 
  4. "the re-democratisation of the bicycle, re-humanising urban cycling, making it something for everyone, making it mainstream again".
He is opposed to labels like "cyclist", or seeing bikes as part of an environmental activist crusade of some sort. But Mikael forgot to mention the huge crusades by orginary Copenhageners that began Copenhagen's unique network of cycle lanes - collective action and protest got things started as a time when people were turning more and more to cars. I used to live in Copenhagen, and heard about these movements first-hand.
In a subsequent panel discussion Daniel Paez, (Manager Active Transport Policy, Department of Transport) and Anita Curnow (Director of Network Improvements at VicRoads) took a fair amount of flak from the pro-cycling audience. Anita mentioning that she wasn't much of a cyclist, which probably didn't help audience confidence in what her unit is up to (her portfolio is too big, as well). Daniel, despite being from Colombia where freedom usually rules on the roads, is a supporter of the helmet law. Garry Brennan from Bicycle Victoria did not have much to say, but this large cycling organisation also supports the helmet law and refuses to support members who oppose it, or to poll their members. I refuse to join.

Only 15% of cyclists use helmets in Denmark, with relatively low accident rates (c.50 fatalities a year, 2008). In VIC, Vicroads crashstats reports about 11 bike accidents in the same year, with a smaller number of fatalities. VIC and Denmark are about the same size at 5.5m. However the effects of not cycling and driving instead, on health and wellbeing, favour cycling. Exercise reduces obesity and heart attacks. Bike helmets are partly responsible for its unpopularity, especially with women, so they reduce health while reducing your risk of head injury slightly. This is controversial stuff though.   

Mike Rubbo has a ramble about the helmet issues and the bike hire, here 

Update, Oct '10. In response to extremely low take up of the bike hire scheme, the organisers have installed a helmet dispenser at Melbourne Uni and at Southern Cross Station. You can also get one from 7-Eleven stores. The Uni one is particularly silly since there is a bike store on the other side of the Student Union from one of the hire racks. John the owner will not be pleased! At $5 they are a bargain - elsewhere $12 is the lowest you will pay (on special at KMart). And "People can also return the helmets to 7-Eleven stores for recycling and receive $3 cash back"says Roads Transport Minister Tim Pallas.   
All this is incredibly silly in my view. Somebody is subsidising all this, and somebody else will be profiting nicely. Nobody is going to saved from head injuries. User rates for the hires remain very low. All of this was predicted by seasoned cyclists like Mike Rubbo and myself, when the scheme was introduced.  The scheme is a laughing stock. A helmet waiver law should be a major priority for the new State government

Update, Dec '10. Still little takeup of the scheme. The Age 29 Nov '10. We now have a new Liberal party state government for the first time in over a decade. I wonder what they will do?

Update Oct '11. Riders now over 300 per day, which is still embarrassingly few. The Age Article of Oct 9 cites excuses. I am not buying any of them. It's the helmets. Dr Chris Rissell writing in The Conversation.

Update Feb '12. Riders now up to 500 a day, still well below all other city schemes reviewed across Europe. Helments seem to remain an issue, alongside cost and numbers of racks. Much less than 4 years to go before they decide whether to ditch the scheme or continue with it.  Age article, Feb 10 2012.


  1. "VIC and Denmark are about the same size at 5.5m."

    Comparing crash stats by total population isn't helpful becauase there are millions more kms cycled in Denmark than there are in Victoria.

    To make a proper comparison, you need a figure for crashes/km cycled.

  2. Don't have it, sorry. Anybody else?


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