BikeNerd: Seattle's Bike-Sharing Hurdles

By Danielle Zorn October 5, 2012

The Puget Sound Bike Share program is still in its early stages, with a kickoff planned for fall 2013, but Seattle's helmet law won’t help to speed up the process.

Currently, Washington State does not have a bike helmet law, but several cities and counties, including Seattle, do. This, along with Seattle’s rainy weather and steep hills, pose challenges for the bike share program.[pullquote]We live in a helmet-wearing culture and the Puget Sound bike-sharing program plans to own it.[/pullquote]

Ref Lindmark, King County Metro’s transportation planner and president of the bike-share program's board, says multi-speed bikes can get riders up hills (some ride-share programs only feature one-speeders) and that even rainy weather is typically only an issue for 15 to 20 minutes, the average trip time advocates estimate people will use shared bikes. Just be thankful we don’t have those Midwestern winters.

But the helmets are a little trickier. The ick factor of sharing helmets has prevented bike share programs in cities where helmets are mandatory.

There’s no way around the fact that some people just may not use the program because they don’t want to wear helmets. A recent New York Times article discusses this dilemma, noting that the most successful bike share programs are in Europe and  US cities (including Washington, DC) that don’t require helmets. I can see where they’re coming from. I don’t ever consider riding a bike without one, but am a bit grossed out by the thought of communal helmets. That’s why I plan to bring my own.

You may ask how a bike share program can work with the helmet law---an excellent question.

Lindmark explained the canister option, where riders would pay a deposit and get a helmet from a vending machine, or "canister." When they return the bike, they get a partial refund on their deposit, and bike share program employees take the helmets away for cleaning and keep the helmet canisters refilled. Lindmarks notes, however, that an actual canister helmet-dispensing system "does not exist yet," although "there are groups working hard to develop and deploy" one.

We live in a helmet-wearing culture and the PSBS plans to own it. “We are proud to start the [bike share program] in Seattle and be a model for other cities,” Lindmark says.

Stay tuned for more updates from PSBS, as they are in the process of looking for an executive director, raising money for the pilot program, and looking for a bike vendor. Also, check out the progress. of Vancouver, BC's bike share program.

My previous BikeNerd columns here.

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