An Answer to the Bike Share Helmet Problem?

Boston to add helmet dispensers to bike share

On Memorial Day New York launched the nation’s biggest bike share program, Citi Bike, and it wasn’t alone. Chicago announced it will debut its own program, called Divvy, in the next couple weeks, and Los Angeles is working on unveiling a test-version of its own 4,000-bike system sometime soon. These join successful programs in Washington, D.C., Boston and the Twin Cities and will have more company around the country in coming years.

But all these bike shares have a big problem: helmets. Simply put, the programs don’t provide them, nor are most riders required to wear them.

According to a 2011 study published last year in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, only 19 percent of the bike share riders in Boston and D.C. were observed to wear helmets, compared to 51 percent of people riding their own bikes—and it’s easy to understand why.  The point of bike shares is convenience, and, for many, carrying around a helmet can be anathema to that. Most trips on bike shares are short enough for people to pooh-pooh the risk of getting into an accident, and—not to be dismissed lightly—a significant number don’t want to mess up their hair or find helmets unfashionable.

And then there’s the issue of the law. Both Boston and D.C. only require helmets for children and some teens. Last year New York’s city council proposed a mandatory helmet law for all riders—helmets are currently only required for children under 14 and commercial cyclists—but Mayor Bloomberg scuttled the bill over fears that it would discourage cycling ahead of Citi Bike’s launch.

And yet cities are aware that helmet use is an important public health issue. Helmet use has been shown in a number of case-controlled studies to reduce the risk of serious head injury and death (1,2,3). New York City’s own analysis of fatal cycling accidents from 1996 to 2005 found that 74 percent of fatal crashes involved a head injury and 97 percent of cyclists who died were not wearing a helmet.

So far the solution among cities operating bike shares has been to put in a good word for helmet use and, in some cases, to make it easier to get one. New York offers free helmet fittings and even gives away a limited number. Boston’s Hubway bike share lets you bundle a helmet purchase with your membership and the city sponsors a network of subsidized helmet vendors.

The missing piece of the puzzle, though, is a helmet share to go with the bikes.

While the barriers to such a program seem obvious—size issues, cleanliness and “cooties”–one Boston startup may have figured out how to overcome them. HelmetHub, which will launch in July as a pilot program, promises to make Boston’s bike share program the first in the nation to offer helmets. The company was founded by MIT students who designed the first vending machine prototype in 2011 as an engineering project, and have since refined the design for street-readiness.

Each machine, placed next to a bike share kiosk, will hold up to 36 helmets in three sizes. A rental costs around $2, reports Boston Magazine, and when a helmet is returned, it’s sent off to the company’s headquarters to be cleaned and sanitized.

Stations are solar powered and will send real-time supply data to HQ so they can be re-filled as needed.

If this pilot program works, other cities are likely to take notice, and we may very well come to see helmet dispensers as a normal adjunct to bike kiosks.

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