Let’s Get Serious About Bikeshare Safety

Helmets are Great, Period

On the question of whether bike helmets protect riders and save lives, there should be no debate.

About 50% of private bike riders wear helmets in American cities[1] (in our own fine city of Boston, that number is about 74%[2]).

The Washington Post helpfully accumulated bicycling deaths in the US over 17 years, showing that we’ve seen about 13x more fatalities among those not wearing helmets than those wearing them.

Both camps are about equal in size. Assuming each group is about equally likely to get in an accident of some sort, we’re looking at the fatality rate for those without helmets being thirteen times higher than those with helmets.

In New York, ¾ of fatal crashes involve major head injury, and a whopping 97% of fatal crashes involve bicyclists without helmets[3].

In non-fatal accidents, brain injuries are a major problem: in the state of New York, for example, almost 40% of hospitalizations from bike crashes are brain injuries[4]. And oh boy, brain injuries don’t recover the way that broken bones do.

If you ride a bike, wear a helmet.

The Unexpected Bikeshare Safety Record

We know that with very few exceptions[5], bikeshare programs don’t provide helmets to riders. We also know that bikeshare riders wear helmets between 10–20% of the time — much lower than the private use rate. Many folks assumed that head injuries would go through the roof.

Despite much fear to the contrary when bikeshare programs started, injury rates (per person) in these cities have dropped; and after 7 years of growth, there has still yet to be a bikeshare fatality[6] (though there have been a few very bad accidents with serious long-term injuries, particularly brain injuries[7]).

It’s astounding and something to be very grateful for.

It’s not entirely clear why bikeshare’s safety record is so darn good, although a possible explanation is the well-documented “Safety in Numbers” effect[8]. It’s a good thing.

The risk is that this data will make us believe helmets for bikeshare aren’t necessary or an integral part of any modern bikeshare program.

Besides the obvious “not if but when” way of thinking about bikeshare fatalities, adding safey systems to bikeshare has major benefits to both riders and the program that make it an obvious need for any urban bikeshare program.

Liability Mitigation

For better or worse, public utilities are held to a uniquely high safety standard: the public expects and assumes the utility provided will be safe.

This exposes both bikeshare operators and their host cities to liability beyond what would exist without a bikeshare program. We’re seeing this play out in a $15MM lawsuit against the City of New York and CitiBike by a man that hit his head and alleges he suffered brain damage while on a CitiBike[9] (he was not wearing a helmet). Even if there is no settlement or award, the lawsuit will be expensive and distracting for a program that’s already facing a swath of financial and operational challenges.

Low-likelihood high-cost risks are always very hard to evaluate from the perspective of financial mitigation (that is, how much does one pay to cover the risk of a similar lawsuit in their city?). Without doubt, the presence of an adequate helmet rental and sale system for bikeshare would mitigate the risk of a lawsuit related to head injury.

Bikeshare remains in a relative infancy, and many programs struggle to break even year-over-year, with contractual stipulations that prevent city bailouts. Speaking frankly, lawsuits like these are the exact kind of preventable incidents that could fell a great public service before it has its due chance to become established.

Increased Utilization and Revenue

The good news is that providing smart helmet rental systems doesn’t have to be a net loss, written off as a form of insurance. Indeed, at the end of the day, the most important factors to consider when creating safety systems for bikeshare are the desires of current and potential users.

Strong leading indicators suggest that in a well-designed helmet rental system:

1. Helmet kiosks would see significant use

2. Potential casual users (especially visitors/tourists), deterred by the fear of riding helmet-less in a new city, would convert and use bikeshare in much higher numbers

3. Potential local members will be more likely to spontaneously try bikeshare for the first time — and we all know the best way to create new members is to get them on a bike

All this means bikeshare programs should see expansions in both casual and member rental rates, bringing in greater revenue to fuel expansion and sustainably operate.

What evidence do we see that suggests such a strong desire for helmets by potential users?

1. In a recent City of Boston survey, 68% of respondents that did not ride bikeshare said they would be more likely to do so if helmets were available. What portion of this untapped market would ride casually if helmets were easily available? What portion of those new riders would become members?

2. With 10–20% of bikeshare riders wearing helmets and 50%+ of private riders wearing helmets, we can reasonably infer that some 30%-40% of bikeshare riders may be riding without a helmet despite wanting one. These riders would likely rent helmets — making them safer and generating revenue for the system — and likely rent bikes more often than they currently do.

Safety Systems Mean More Bikeshare Success

The decision to invest in bikeshare safety systems is governed by much more than injury counting, but injury counting has been at the center of the conversation to date.

Bikeshare systems are young and unproven, and often struggle to break even year over year. They are highly sensitive to press, vulnerable to expensive tort action, and hungry for additional riders and revenue.

Safety systems mitigate the most important downside risks for bikeshare, dramatically lowering the likelihood of lawsuit or damaging press.

But further, bikeshare safety systems provide an upside by addressing a clear and large market need. Increased helmet availability will lead not only to helmet rental and sale revenue, but increased casual and member usage.

For early adopters of bikeshare safety systems, a novel and unique wave of positive press (beyond the more mundane launch and station expansion press releases) will bring secondary but tangible benefit to both the bikeshare system and the city as a whole.

By understanding the larger picture of the impact of safety systems on bikeshare, we will be able to move beyond injury counts and get serious about bikeshare safety.

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