The Flaw In Public Bike Sharing Programs
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 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