Thursday, November 3, 2011

How to discourage people from cycling?

There are days when we all feel sometimes discouraged and refuse to cycle. It can happened for numerous reasons: inclement weather like a heavy downpour or extreme cold, aggressive drivers who would like to see us rather using sidewalks than occupying a precious part of "their" road or even a poor quality equipment like a bicycle that is too uncomfortable to ride.
But what method would we use in order to effectively encourage masses of cyclists to leave their bikes at home? We would have to ask Australians:

What happened after 1991 that suddenly Australians decided to stop cycling? (Well, not completely stop, but being on a rise with the cycling-to-work trend, they essentially went back to the levels of 1970s). Whatever they did was very effective since in most states of Australia number of cyclists went down by over 30% within a single year!

It turned out that the introduction of mandatory bicycle helmet laws in 1991 was a real killer to number of cyclists on Australian roads. People started hating cycling, businesses started to lose customers and going bankrupt, and cycle-to-work scheme nearly ceased to exist when more cyclists chose leisure cycling instead.

You may think that at least it should be now safe to cycle in Australia since number of injuries should have gone down. And it did, but mostly due to a reduced number of cyclists. However, number of head injuries remained almost unchanged, despite of a strictly enforced helmet law. The costly legislation resulted in no savings and indirect promotion of a more sedentary lifestyle.

The government tried to encourage Australians to revisit cycling by, e.g. opening a bike sharing program in Melbourne in 2010. The city installed 50 stations with 600 bikes but after first 4 months of operation the system attracted less than 650 bikers. Interestingly, the city of Dublin, Ireland introduced a similar system a year earlier (40 station, 400 bikes) and it has became increasingly popular since, with over 47000 users within the first 12 months and plans to expand the system up to 5000 bikes by 2015.

On the contrary, the Melbourne program is on decline and may share the fate of New Zealand's Auckland bike sharing system that was closed in 2010 after reaching only 50 rental a day. As you may have guessed, Both Australia and New Zealand require all cyclists to wear helmets, while Ireland does not. In fact, 85% of surveyed people in Brisbane said that the helmet law was the main reason why they didn't use the system.

Knowing this, I wonder what sort of future our new Boston Hubway sharing program has, since it requires all users to wear a helmet as well.


  1. Yes the Hubway technically requires users to wear a helmet but that is due to liability unfortunately. That needs to change, it really should not be an issue and the city should not be responsible. However many people out there have bought into the blame the victim mentality of making cyclists wear helmets, and if you don't you are an idiot, unsafe, and do not belong on the roads.

    In practice I have seen 2 maybe 3 Hubway users with a helmet. The program has made them available cheaply and in many places so those that wish to use one may purchase and have one, however you will not get a ticket and you can not get one because it is not against the law (even if it is technically against the user agreement). I am not too concerned with the fact that the helmet bit is in there, other than to encourage that "fear" belief that cycling is dangerous. It does somewhat help to shut up the detractors though... I imagine that they will take that requirement away after a couple years very quietly, especially as the program expands and grows which it is doing.

    What we need to be asking is why people feel the need to wear one, what makes them want or need to use it. Is it "safety" is it fear of cars, is it the apoplectic head injury stats, have they bought into the helmet manufactures sell, or are they wearing it to just seem proper/professional to other road users while riding their bike (the real main reason i choose to wear mine).

    Interestingly enough, when I use the Hubway I refuse to wear a helmet even though I own one and could bring it along, I will also not wear it when leaving the office in Cambridge for lunch or going around the block...

  2. @John in NH
    I really hope that it will be as you wrote - the Hubway will remove the helmet requirement after some time.

    I was around the Public Garden last Sunday and most Hubway bikes were parked at stations and not in use. Made me worried a bit since weather was really nice. Those few bikers I saw riding Hubway bikes did not use helmets.

    Wouldn't it be nice if you could get a Hubway bike in Cambridge as well?