As the Seattle City Council considers whether to spend $5 million upgrading the city’s failing bike share, the program faces one challenge that no other bike share in the world has so far overcome: a mandatory helmet law.

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There’s the rain. There are the hills. There’s the fact that the last, smaller system failed and the new contractor has never done a project anywhere near this size.

As the Seattle City Council ponders whether to spend $5 million upgrading the city’s foundering bike-share program, there are a lot of challenges to overcome. But bike shares have been hugely successful in cities both much larger and much smaller than Seattle. Why can’t it work here, in a city with a famously active and outdoorsy culture?

There is one challenge facing Seattle’s bike share that no other city in the world has so far overcome: a mandatory helmet law.

Somewhere around 1,000 cities worldwide have bike-share programs. Fewer than five of those cities also have a law requiring adults to wear a helmet when riding a bike. No American city with a bike-share program, save Seattle, has a helmet law for adults.

Bike-share experts are all but unanimous that helmet laws, while not necessarily a fatal factor for a bike share, add another layer of complication and make the system less likely to succeed.

Earlier this year, Seattle City Council bailed out, and then bought out, the nonprofit that had been running Pronto, the city’s underperforming bike share.

The helmet law is not on Andrew Glass Hastings’ list of concerns as he tries to remake the city’s bike share. Glass Hastings, the city’s director of transit and mobility, points to Seattle’s hills and Pronto’s limited area — its stations are largely limited to downtown, Capitol Hill and the University District — as his main concerns.

The plan is that electric bikes will address the hills and doubling the number of stations will address the system’s scope and density problems.

The Pronto cycle share station at King Street Station in Seattle on Thursday. The city says the helmet law “is not coming up as a limiting factor” to using the green cycles, although bike-share experts say such a law adds complications. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
The Pronto cycle share station at King Street Station in Seattle on Thursday. The city says the helmet law “is not coming up as a limiting factor” to using the green cycles, although bike-share experts say such a law adds complications. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

He said Pronto’s helmet-distribution system — they’re available in locked bins at every station and are cleaned and inspected after they’re returned — has been one of the program’s few bright spots.

“From the surveys that our operator does, helmets and the helmet law are not coming up as a limiting factor,” Glass Hastings said. “If we really thought of the helmets as being an impediment we’d be actively trying to address the issue.”

Seattle is in contract negotiations with Bewegen, a Quebec company, to provide 1,200 electric-assisted bikes and 100 docking stations to upgrade the system. That order represents more bikes than Bewegen has delivered to every other city it has ever served, combined. It would also be the largest electric bike-share system in the country.

Bewegen’s first American client was Birmingham, Ala., which last year bought 400 bikes, about 30 percent of them electric, for its bike-share system.

Scott Tillman, the director of planning for the commission that oversaw the city’s bike-share launch, said there were a few delays, but he had nothing but praise for Bewegen.

Toward the end of an interview about the city’s business with Bewegen, Tillman changed course.

“Wait, you guys have a helmet law, don’t you?” Tillman asked, unprompted.

Since 2003, Seattle has required all bikers to wear a helmet, or risk a $102 fine.

“That will kill your system regardless,” Tillman said. “You can still encourage it, but when you pass a law like that you have a lot more challenges. Once you make it a law, you just kill it.”

Nobody has seen success

Other than Seattle, bike-share experts point to only three cities in the world that have both a bike-share system and a helmet law: Vancouver, B.C., and Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia.

There are no helmet laws anywhere in Europe or China, home of most of the world’s most successful bike-share programs.

Mexico City scrapped its helmet law shortly before launching its bike share in 2010. So did Tel Aviv. Dallas scrapped its helmet law in 2014, in anticipation of launching a bike share.

Vancouver’s bike-share system comes with helmets, and disposable helmet liners are attached to the bikes. The system just launched in July, so it’s too soon to judge its success. But usage this fall slipped to less than one trip per bike, per day, a bad number on track with usage in Seattle. Vancouver officials attributed the dip to an especially rainy autumn.

New York City’s bike-share program, in contrast, averaged more than five trips per bike, per day in October.

There are, of course, excellent reasons to wear a helmet when you ride a bike. But even biking advocates are wary of mandating it by law. The Cascade Bicycle Club encourages helmet use but does not take a position on Seattle’s helmet law.

That’s because helmet laws discourage bike use in general, and research shows that one of the best ways to increase bike safety is to have more bikes on the road, so drivers are more aware of them.

“It’s yet another barrier to getting on a bike,” said Blake Trask, Cascade’s policy director. “And that has a real public health impact, in terms of less riders equals less safety.”

In Brisbane and Melbourne, the bike-share programs have struggled since launching in 2010. Melbourne’s system is shut down, temporarily, for unscheduled maintenance. Brisbane’s system has cost taxpayers more than $6 million (U.S.) since launching.

It’s like having to bring a seat belt with you to rent a car.” - Paul DeMaio, a bike-share consultant

A 2012 study out of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane found that helmets were the top reason people did not use Melbourne’s bike-share program. Melbourne did not provide helmets at bike-share stations at its launch, but began doing so at most stations soon after.

The researchers surveyed about 1,000 people who either visited the Melbourne bike-share website or walked by a bike-docking station. Of the survey respondents, 61 percent named helmets — either not wanting to wear one or difficulty finding one — as the major barrier to using the bike share.

“Bike share members in Melbourne and Brisbane say they use the system less because of the helmet requirement,” Elliot Fishman, one of the study’s authors and the director of Australia’s Institute for Sensible Transport, said in an email.

“Annual members used a bike on average about once a month, which is less than many places without mandatory helmet laws.”

‘Like bowling shoes’

There are a few clear ways a helmet law can dissuade use of a bike share. If potential bikers are forced to carry a helmet, on the chance of using a bike share, that can kill spontaneous trips.

“It’s like having to bring a seat belt with you to rent a car,” said Paul DeMaio, a bike-share consultant who designed the plan for the successful bike-share system in the Washington, D.C., region. “Bike sharing has been really successful at getting people who don’t consider themselves cyclists to ride a bike, and when there is an additional cost associated with that, it can add up.”

Even if clean helmets are provided at bike-share stations, as they are in Seattle (free for annual members, $2 a day for one-time riders), people can be loath to use them.

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“It’s kind of like bowling shoes,” said Jay Decker, the bike-share coordinator in Baltimore, which just launched its system with Bewegen. “You don’t really trust them because they’ve been on someone else. They’re technically clean, but it feels kind of weird.”

With 200 electric-assisted bikes, Baltimore currently has the largest electric bike-share fleet in the country. Seattle’s would be six times as large.

Could the appeal of electric bikes help overcome the hindrance of the helmet law?

Decker said that, anecdotally, the electric bikes are far more popular than the standard ones. Fishman, the Australian researcher, said electric bikes are used five times more often than conventional ones in cities where bike shares offer both options.

“The bike-share people are all of the opinion that the helmet law will kill the system,” said Randy Swart, the director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, a helmet advocacy nonprofit. “Everybody’s looking to Seattle to see what will happen.”