The Flaw In Public Bike Sharing Programs

Public bicycle sharing programs are showing up in American cities.

Public bicycle sharing programs are showing up in American cities.

I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that public bike sharing programs are becoming popular, which could mean less air pollution and more Americans recieving physical activity. The bad news is that the majority of the people who participate in these programs  do not use helmets while biking.

Originally popular in European cities, like Paris and Barcelona, public bike sharing programs are now popping up in cities across the United States.  Currently there are 15 programs in the United States, including Boston (Hubway) and Washington D.C. (Capital Bikeshare), and another 30 are in development.  To use the bicycles you first need to pay an initial joining fee, then you are given a card that can unlock bikes from the bike hubs, the rider is then free to ride and  return the bike to the most convenient bike hub. The first 30 minutes of the bike rental are free but after that timely fees apply.  Public bike sharing programs are a great option for commuters who work and live near bike hubs or need a bike to run short errands.

When bike sharing programs are successful they not only provide health benefits for the individuals who use them bikes but also for the community, by reducing the air pollution from cars. Unfortunately research conducted by Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) found that only 1 in 5 bike riders using the shared bikes wear helmets, putting the riders at significant risk for head injury. For their study BIDMC trained observers in Boston and Washington D.C., which in total have over 1,800 bikes available for riding, to collect data on adult helmet use. The observation sites were located near bike hubs but the observers were instructed to observe all bikers. Observations took place over 43 periods lasting a total of over 50 hours and included over 3,000 bikes, 562 were using shared bicycles.

The study found that overall 54.5% of riders did not use helmets.  Bicyclist using shared bikes was significantly less likely to use helmets then bicyclists using personal bikes, with 80.8% of shared bicyclists unhelmeted versus 48.6% of personal bike owners.  Helmet use varied by sex, day of use, and type of city. Men and weekend riders were more likely to not be wearing a helmet.

According to a new study only 1 in 5 bicyclists who use shared bicycles wear a helmet

According to a new study only 1 in 5 bicyclists who use shared bicycles wear a helmet

According to Dr. Christopher Fischer of BIDMC “Head injury accounts for about a third of all bicycle injuries and about three-quarters of bicycle related deaths”, “helmet use is associated with decreased rates of head injury and mortality in riders of all ages, with bicycle helmets decreasing the risk of head and brain injury by 65 to 88 percent,”. Currently though they recommend helmet usage, Boston and Washintgton D.C’s bike share programs do not require users to use helmets, which put the riders at serious risk.

If bicycle programs are to continue expanding in the United States, the programs need to do more to increase bicycle helmet use. Having suggestions on where to buy or rent helmets on their website is not enough. Neither is a page on basic bicycle safety.  I know people worry about sanitization issues surrounding shared helmets but maybe the usage of a disposable sanitary liner could make it possible to have the bike rental include a helmet rental. If this is not an option, what about creating policies that encourage helmet usage while riding bicycles? Another idea would be using more prolific public health warnings on the helmet usage.  The non-usage of bicycle helmets is extremely dangerous and as the BIDMC study suggests should to be addressed before expansion continues.


The complete article can be found in the April 30 Edition of The Annals of Emergency Medicine.


bicycles via shutterstock

woman biking via shutterstock

by Maddie Perlman-Gabel

  • Erik Griswold
    May 2nd, 2012 at 05:34 | #1

    Why it is wrong to claim that cycle helmets prevent 85% of head injuries and 88% of brain injuries


  • Erik Griswold
    May 2nd, 2012 at 05:37 | #2

    And mandatory helmet laws have killed bike-share programs in Australia.

  • Mike rubbo
    May 2nd, 2012 at 06:44 | #3

    I think the first question to ask is; what is the safety record of the 140 or so public schemes around the world?

    I think you’ll find that even with low helmet usage, their safety record is very good and the scare being being conducted by this doctor, Christopher Fischer, is not justified.

    These re assuring safety stats are readily available since it’s in the nature of such schemes to keep track of all aspects of the activity. Why doesn’t the doctor tell this side of the story since all human activity must be judged on a cost/benefit basis?

    A doctor, a trauma expert in Montreal. Dr Tariq Aziz, issued similar warnings in 2009 at the time the BixiBike scheme was set up in that city.

    Fortunately he was not listened to since the organizers knew that there is no way to do more than recommend helmet usage.

    Now 9 million Bixi trips latter, I believe there have been almost no head injuries, and that with a similar rate of helmet usage.

    You can find this Dr Aziz making his alarmist predictions just like Dr. Fishcer, in a film on youtube called; Bixi Frenzy.

    Turning to Australia where we demand compulsory helmets for all, the two small public schemes, one in Melbourne and the other in Brisbane, are both languishing.

    The reason is clear as both the Irish and the Spanish experts of public bikes have pointed out, namely our comp. helmet laws.

    See The Bicing Story on youtube, and Message for Melbourne from Dublin, also on youtube.

    So there is a choice of another sort, the more you promote helmets, the more you suppress cycling, esp. of the public sort.

  • Primal tuna
    May 2nd, 2012 at 07:02 | #4

    Alarmist nonsense backed up by no credible science whatsoever…

    That Dr is quoting the already discredited (if used to support helmet use) Cochrane Review. Read & learn:

    If helmets are the ‘most important thing’ for cyclist safety and they magically ‘prevent head injuries’ can you please explain to me why the streets of The Netherlands and Denmark are not littered with piles of brain injured cyclists?

    The 50% of riders that don’t wear helmets, if you made it compulsory, would simply stop riding and drive their cars instead… making the world a little more dangerous for the remaining cyclists.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  • Kelly
    May 2nd, 2012 at 07:22 | #5

    It’s interesting that a study had to be commissioned to figure out that bike share users don’t typically tote their helmets with them pre- and post-ride. That said, I suppose what’s really surprising is how many riders DID wear one. What would be a more interesting study would be to compare the accident rate for cyclists in the area served by bike share before and after the introduction of the program. The accepted wisdom is that cycling becomes safer as more cyclists take the road. Scaring riders away with warnings about riding helmetless is not going to help increase ridership.

  • May 2nd, 2012 at 09:07 | #6

    insurance may be the way to go. A helmet would lower that cost. The registration fee may need to test for skill, substance abuse issues, any number of things that would have positive or negative effects on the premium risk dynamic. I think lights at night should be required. I think helmets should be. If you use macro thinking and gauge just what a few head injuries do to the overall health statistics and societal costs, the political work may be hard headed still, due to us libertarian types, but the actuarial facts are just no brainers.

  • May 2nd, 2012 at 13:54 | #7

    The problems of using statistics is without something to ground them in the raw numbers are meaningless. Assume the 85% reduction of head injury rate is accurate. It isn’t but for the moment let’s assume it is. That doesn’t say what a head injury actually is, it could be everything from a slight scrape with some bleeding to partial decapitation. How many bike rides end with no incidents at all? The vast majority. How many rides end with some kind of wreck? A small percetage. Now of that small percentage, how many result in head injury? Less than a third. So now we have a very tiny number of bike rides that end with some kind of head injury. If helmets reduce that number by 85% how many people are going to avoid getting a slight scrape, and how many are going to avoid getting TBI? Well since the CPSC test doesn’t test for reducing TBI, just skull fracture, and that test is at an impact speed of 12.5 MPH, there won’t be mant TBI prevented in that 85% it will be mostly simple scrapes and minor skull fractures (and yes ther is such a thing as a minor skull fracture). So after all that hullabaloo, how many serious head injuries would universal helmet wearing prevent? I leave the solution to the student but I will leave a hint: not very many.

  • May 2nd, 2012 at 21:22 | #8

    Yikes! Where does the assertion “helmet use is associated with decreased rates of head injury and mortality in riders of all ages, with bicycle helmets decreasing the risk of head and brain injury by 65 to 88 percent,” come from? Certainly not Europe, where helmets are rarely worn. There’s a serious logical flaw in this article – namely that the cause (and thus the cure) of crashes is what’s inside your head, not what’s outside. And if you prevent crashes (by education, as is done in Europe) then you’ll prevent head injuries.

    It should also be noted that head injury rates are higher for pedestrians and motorists than for cyclists. I wear a helmet at all times on the bike, but it’s with the full knowledge that it’s only designed to protect me in a fall at walking speed and then only for a single impact. Helmets are not a magic shield, they only reduce head injuries in a crash (most of the time, they have also been the cause of injury and death – eg, getting caught in a fall and injuring the neck). Education IS the best protection.

    All children should have a full day of traffic-cycling education before leaving grade school. All drivers should be trained and tested on bike/ped law for their license test. All adults should be made aware that cyclists and motorists share the same rights and responsibilities when operating together on public roads.
    Nick Hein
    League Cycling Instructor #1705

  • Aïda
    May 10th, 2012 at 10:27 | #9

    I think the real problem with bike sharing programs is that it doesn’t take into account theft of the bikes. If I took one of the bikes to run a short errand, what would happen if someone stole the bike from me? At what point am I no longer liable for the rental fee?Cities with high crime tend to not do well with these programs.

    Please understand, I ride a bike as often as possible, but I also do so with the understanding that I need to protect the bike from being stolen should I stop somewhere.

  • Scott Kruse
    May 17th, 2012 at 13:33 | #10

    When a car or the pavement hits your head – you lose. Where a helmet! They are not perfect, but it is better than blunt trauma to your skull.

  • Jun 27th, 2012 at 05:36 | #11

    @Scott Kruse
    100% agree. Being “brave’ not to wear a helmet is stupid and that’s it. It’s in the minds. People think nothing can happen to them if they’re careful. Statistics says “better use it, or you’ll be injured this day or another”.

  • George
    Aug 10th, 2012 at 16:07 | #12

    I read a study a couple years ago. The author noticed that cars in the US give helmet-less riders more clearance. He used some ranging device which proved out his hypothesis. I find a white hat more comfortable and just as successful at denoting the top of my head. It also does a better job reflecting the sun. Over the span of forty years I have had accidents with and without a helmet with no difference. The helmet just doesn’t play into the fall.

    Actually I would much rather see all auto drivers forced to wear helmets and double strap seat belts like auto racers use. Make driving much less convenient and you will see a drop in global greenhouse gas consumption.

    Any US drop in bicycle accidents when helmets are required is directly proportional to the drop in the number of riders. Make bicycling drudgery and inconvenient and you are sure to reduce any accidents.

    Might I suggest setting auto speed limits to 12 mph in all cities. That would allow bicycles to travel at least as fast as cars.

  • Pierre Bigras
    Jan 19th, 2013 at 12:40 | #13

    How about comparons your Stats concerning helmet use and injuries/death with a country like the Netherlands where very few people wear a helmet and where bikes outnumber cars…
    Canadian reader

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