Bikes, business and helmet hair

26 November 2010

Written by: Sarah Green

It seems that bike sharing is now a worldwide trend.

Government-initiated bike sharing programs have sprung up in cities all over the globe, with many urban commuters adjusting their travel methods to use bikes on short journeys. For many people, public bike schemes have replaced trains, trams and buses as the preferred transport for trips less than 30 minutes long.

Vélo’v in Lyon, France, is currently sitting on around 22,000 bicycle rentals per day, and the number of people cycling in this east-central city has increased by 500 per cent since the program was introduced in 2005.

London’s brand new scheme was launched at the end of July this year, with 400 bike stations and 6,000 bikes while Bixi in Montreal recorded over one million rides within the first five months of its existence.

The concept of bike sharing seems flawless. It helps to decrease congestion on other modes of public transport. It is eco-friendly, cheap and relatively convenient. It is more enjoyable than standing on a smelly tram in peak-hour and, even better, it encourages regular exercise.

But in Melbourne’s eagerness to launch its own ‘flawless’ program, the brains behind the bikes have failed to address all of the potential problems that have slowly appeared. On average only 140 rides per day are being made on Melbourne’s bikes, in comparison to most European schemes where thousands of shared bikes are being used daily. At the end of May 2010 after the scheme was first implemented, bike specialists and cyclists had many reservations about certain issues including compulsory bicycle helmets, not having enough bicycle stations, and the cost of using the program in comparison to buying a tram ticket.

After all, would people really be willing to spend extra money on hiring a bike to take them down a street that already has a frequent tram service? And would they be happy to carry a helmet around with them all day, just in case they decide to take a ride on one of these blue bikes?

Wade Wallace, regular cyclist and blogger on all things bike-related, believes Melbourne’s bike share scheme cannot be compared to those launched overseas, especially in Europe where over 40 cities are now involved.

‘The reality is we’re not Europe,’ he said. ‘Everybody just says they don’t wear helmets in Europe and they’re fine. But our drivers don’t drive like they do in Europe. We don’t have the cycling infrastructure that Europe has…it’s just not safe’.

Melbourne’s helmet law is a particular problem faced by the bike share system . The law states that helmets must be worn at all times when riding a bicycle and failure to comply results in an immediate fine of $146. Potential solutions to the helmet issue have included helmet vending machines, retractable helmets that fit into users’ bags, or doing away with the law altogether.

Since the scheme was introduced, potential users of the system have protested, rallied, and written to the Department of Transport, urging them to allow Melbourne Bike Share to be exempt from the law that has been imposed since 1990. They argue that Mexico City abolished their compulsory helmet law when their bike share system was introduced, so why can’t Melbourne do the same?

‘The whole premise behind the bike share scheme is just being able to spontaneously use a bike when you see them,’ Wallace said. ‘But who spontaneously has a helmet?’

Garry Brennan, from Bicycle Victoria, disagrees.

‘In Paris it has been observed that the use of the bike scheme is planned and regular,’ he said. ‘If people are taking a regular trip, they are taking the same things with them. So the experts are saying that having compulsory helmets may not be making a difference.’

‘In the long run, we think bike share schemes are going to be very successful here in Melbourne.’

The Melbourne Bike Share website states that helmets cannot be provided with the bikes because that would mean the operator would be required to ‘check every helmet after each ride to ensure they are not damaged and are clean.’

Murray Johnson, owner of Rentabike, a bicycle hire and tour company at Federation Square, believes it is irresponsible of the program to not have helmets available for use along with the bikes. ‘It’s just a matter of time before someone gets seriously hurt or killed as a result of their negligence in not providing helmets,’ he said.

Johnson has been running Rentabike for a couple of years, and said the introduction of the bike scheme has decreased the amount of business he has been getting. He said he was concerned about his company, so he spoke to the Department of Transport.

‘They promised me that they weren’t trying to trash the existing tourism business,’ Johnson said. ‘There was only going to be an annual membership, which would mean it would really just be for locals who wanted to make it a part of their commuting.’

But when the scheme was launched, it included daily and weekly passes for the public to purchase. ‘They’ve really damaged my business, and a lot of other bike shops and tour operators around town,’ Johnson said.

Wade Wallace, however, does not think the bike share program is at fault. ‘The first thing I thought when I checked out the scheme was that the people who aren’t going to be using this are the tourists,’ he said. ‘The pricing structure isn’t geared towards them. It’s a short term thing.’

Johnson said he thinks the scheme itself is a good idea, but he is disappointed with how it was introduced. ‘I don’t think they’ve thought it through very well,’ he said. ‘The Government brings in a plan that can hurt local business people and they didn’t consult anyone like me who was going to be affected.’

Garry Brennan from Bicycle Victoria said that as much as pricing and helmet issues are important to consider, the constraints that are affecting the scheme the most involve the stations the bikes are located in. He explained that most worldwide bike share programs have placed these stations conveniently on the street or in car parking spaces.

But in Melbourne, road safety authorities are preventing this from happening. ‘They say it’s too dangerous to put bike stations on the road,’ Brennan said. ‘In any other city they are able to out them on the road because there appears to be no risk associated..this is a major impediment to the system.’

Although it seems like there have been more problems than benefits with Melbourne Bike Share, road and traffic companies including VicRoads and RACV believe when summer arrives and the weather is consistently warmer, more Melbournians will embrace the program. As it was launched in the middle of winter, not many people have been keen to cycle in the cold or pouring rain.

Melbourne Bike Share will provide an opportunity for people to travel outside in the sunshine, rather than being squashed inside a sweltering train, tram or bus with a broken air-conditioner.

Only time will tell just how successful Melbourne Bike Share will be and whether the $5.5 million program is a worthwhile investment by the State Government.

Sofia Monkiewicz is a third year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. This is her first piece on upstart.