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Safety wowsers and health wowsers. Fight! Fight! Fight!

No libertarian purist is going to love London’s new public bike hire scheme but it is nearer to harmless than many other state schemes. Apparently it looks to be quite popular. The same cannot be said for Melbourne’s scheme, launched two months ago with high hopes and high rhetoric about the benefits of cycling for people’s health and the environment. The reason for these “ranks of unused blue bikes” is that another bunch of health-promoting statists had queered the pitch.

Andrew Bolt in the Australian Herald Sun writes:

Most cities around the world with such a scheme – a network of docking stations of hire bikes – have found it works a treat. Take Montreal, a city Melbourne’s size, which in its first five months logged a million rides.

But Melbourne? Two months after parking 600 bikes in 50 docking stations in the city, the Government has sold just 70 rides a day.

The reason is as simple as it was predictable, and Melbourne Bike Share’s own surveys picked it up as the most cited disincentive: it’s having to wear a helmet.

17 comments to Safety wowsers and health wowsers. Fight! Fight! Fight!

  • Kristopher


    If you own a bike helmet, ya probably already own a bike. And who would want to wear a rented helmet?

  • There are different ways to ride a bike, and they can be pretty much broken down into “fast” and “slow”. If you drive a race car, you have to wear a crash helmet. If you drive to work, you don’t.

    If you are riding a bike quickly (like me), a helmet is a good idea. If you are pottering around town in a suit at low speed, a helmet is a waste of space.

    These hire bikes are not going to be used in the Tour Down Under. The idiots writing the laws think of cyclists as a homogeneous mass, when they clearly aren’t.

  • Mike Lorrey

    A few years ago, the leftards at Dartmouth College implemented one of these bike-share schemes. The Dartmouth Review documented what a complete and utter failure it became. At the end of one school year, all but a few of the bikes (those used exclusively by the people running the program) were found around campus, in ditches, or missing entirely, in various states of disrepair or demolishment.
    A better proof of the tragedy of the commons I have never seen.

  • Richard Thomas

    I cycle. Helmet? No way. I also motorcycle. Full face helmet and full gear always even when it’s 100+ out.

    My point? Don’t know but that was a fairly decent bottle of red. Have a good weekend everyone.

  • Mike Lorrey, I think that state bike hire schemes (as opposed to free schemes ) can be tweaked to work, by sufficiently good physical money-collection machinery and well-calculated scales of deposits and payments. The deposits and/or payments have to be high enough for people to take returning the bike seriously and low enough that they want to hire at all.

    Some appear to function anyway. I think, on unashamedly ideological grounds that if someone can make a profit doing this then someone other than the government ought to be doing it, and if no one can make a profit it should not be done at all. But that’s another story.

  • Peter

    On helmets and speed. While clearly it is less of a risk to not wear a helmet when cycling at low speed, this is much less of a factor when something such as a car hits you at high speed. If this happens then a helmet would be beneficial at the margin. Of course, when you do travel at low speeds it is less likely that you will have an accident in the first place (since people have time to see you coming etc).

    Anyway, I have to say that cyclists strain my libertarian instincts to breaking point. The urge to shout ‘ban it!’ is strong when one of these cycling bastards ignore a read light to whiz one centimeter past my nose when I’m crossing the road. But the Daily Mail editor in side of me loses the battle thankfully. Daft scheme anyway, if fairly innocuous. Its a good example of how little damage politicians can do when they have little power, and also a good example of the lengths politicians will go to to demonstrate what good use they are to us even if they have to resort to silly schemes like this.

  • Peter, having been hit by a car, the interesting thing was that my head didn’t go anywhere near the car – but it certainly smacked into the road pretty hard. I’m bloody grateful I had the helmet on – but I wear it by choice, as if I have a blowout at speed (which has happened a few times), chances are you are going down hard.

    The one factor that seems to make cycling safer is having more cyclists on the road. The more bikes there are about, the more motorists start to look for them. Helmets stop people cycling – so the compulsion to wear a helmet has to go.

  • Andrew Weitzman

    As a Montrealer, I’ve had some experience with the Bixi public bike scheme. It’s pretty well-organized, the bikes themselves are functional (with a touch of futuristic) European style “city bicycles”, and the network does fulfill a need for people who want a quick half hour jaunt (casual commuters and tourists).

    The key for its success is that Montreal has a fairly compact downtown core, where the Bixi network is concentrated. The city also heavily improved the downtown bike network by creating a seperate bicycle path with a hard concrete curb between it and car traffic. Reduced parking space, but also segregates bikes from motor traffic.

    Having once or twice cycled that route before the improved bike path, I’d say its a thousand times safer. You were taking your life in your hands if trying to commute during afternoon rush hour alone De Maisonneuve before it.

    It’s workable given local conditions and proper design. There’s a reason the Bixi system has become something of a standard for other bikehire systems and being sold to other cities. I would say that better integration into our public transit system–say, free half-hour bike hire for monthly/weekly pass holders–would do a lot more.

    Yes, I like public transit. Used it all my life. Considering what municipal government can do to waste money, cheap and workable transport is a lesser evil.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    The idiots writing the laws think of cyclists as a homogeneous mass, when they clearly aren’t.

    Posted by boy on a bike at August 6, 2010 10:54 PM

    A common failing among social planners, trenchantly described by Koestler in Darkness at Noon: “Their concept of the individual is a million men divided by a million.”

  • The one key point regarding these modern electronically operated cycle hire schemes (compared to older, smaller scale, honesty based ones that seldom worked) is that the system keeps track of who has rented the bike, and has their credit card number on file. If the bike is not returned, the person who rented it is billed the replacement cost and then some. Thus there is an incentive to return the bike, and even if the bike is not returned it can then be replaced with a new one, at no cost to the operator. Thus there is no tragedy of the commons and these things can work.

    The question then is how you charge for use. Do you run it at a loss with a subsidy overall. Do you attempt to have one class of user subsidise another etc etc. Obviously, “run it as to maximise profit” is the sensible way, but getting politicians to figure this out is hard.

    Once you have paid a registration fee (varying from £1 a day to about £40 a year, depending on how long you pay for at once), cycle hire on the London system is free as long as you hire for no more than 30 minutes at a time. Charges per additional period increase the longer you have it, presumably to discourage people from holding onto the bicycles when they are not actually riding them. Presumably there is also an intended subsidy from people who are less concerned about cost to those who are more concerned about cost.

    The trouble with running such a thing purely privately is that the government controls all the sidewalks and roadside spaces where you would want to situate the cycle hire points. The government can do it, but nobody else can. If they get this to work, and they run it at no worse than break even, I will give them some credit, in the way I will give the government some credit when a new tube line gets built. The regulatory environment makes the private solution impossible. This is obscene and what we actually want to do is change the regulatory environment. However, I would rather a government that improves the transport than one that doesn’t.

  • Presumably, any private company attempting to run such a scheme at a profit would find themselves having to pay the council some huge sum for the use of “their” pavements. I would imagine the only people able to run it are the people who imagine they own the streets (as opposed to being paid to keep them swept and maintained).

  • Richard Thomas

    But surely there is no reason why such a scheme would have to be pavement based. Though utilizing shops would cut down on viable endpoints so I guess I see your point.

  • mdc

    Why don’t people just buy their own bikes? It’s not like they’re the most expensive good ever. Most people I know already have at least one.

  • john

    I can totally see a place without helmet laws making a bikeshare program dependent on helmets. Think of it this way, bikeshare bikes are no more than tools. If I loan you a tool, I can make the loan dependent on you wearing eye protection, and that wouldn’t be considered onerous. Whilst I typically see helmet laws as lame, I can’t see the helmet laws being the actual reason the bikeshare isn’t working, because any sane bikeshare system would encourage helmets anyways

  • john – the point of the bikeshare as opposed to owning your own bike is that it’s ad hoc. You don’t need to plan in advance and you don’t need to haul your bike from wherever you live to wherever you want to cycle. Now do you see why having to bring along a helmet breaks the idea?

  • Richard Thomas: the main reason to wear a helmet on a motorcycle is that bugs *hurt* when they hit you in the face at 60mph.