A Public Bike System for Vancouver?

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bixiFor a number of years now, the City of Vancouver has been exploring options available to implement a “Public Bike System” (PBS), otherwise known as a bike share program. The issue has resurfaced in the news recently due to conversations about BC’s bike-helmet laws, how they might affect the success of a bike-share program, and different solutions that might be used to ensure compliance with those laws. It’s an issue that affects not only BC, but also other places that have similar helmet laws, like Seattle.

The City is currently evaluating Expressions of Interest from a number of different organizations (“more than 5, less than 10”), including Montreal’s Bixi and a local group, Bikeshare BC.

A bike share program has an uphill battle in Vancouver. Concerns extend beyond helmets to who would use the program, who would pay for the program, and what effects it would have on traffic in the city. Add to those concerns the rather loud voices of those who feel bike issues are being pushed too hard by City Hall.

One of the big things I don’t quite understand about a Vancouver bike share program is who the intended users are. Vancouver has many cyclists already; who would pay to ride someone else’s bike? Tourists? People who don’t have room to store bikes? In a recent interview with The Georgia Straight, Bikeshare BC’s executive director Keith Ippel indicated that their vision of Vancouver’s bike share program is a system that is the “last mile” extension of the transit system. Transit users would get off a bike or Skytrain and then use the bike-share system to travel the last few blocks to their final destination. This would not be a system intended to compete with existing bike-rental programs, but a system that would work better in areas such as the UBC campus and the downtown peninsula.

Helmets are a huge issue. As it stands, if you are riding a bicycle in BC without an approved helmet you are subject to as much as a $100 fine. Requiring users, particularly casual or spontaneous users of a bike-share program to wear helmets is clearly a huge barrier to the success of the program. The only other bike-share programs in the world that require cyclists to wear helmets are generally considered failures: Brisbane and Melbourne, Australia.

Some of the ideas to ensure that riders obey the law seem, well, they seem a bit strange. I don’t think I’d wear a helmet that I didn’t know the history of. I also don’t think I’d be too keen about how clean a used helmet is, even if it’s been sterilized somehow.

In terms of funding, almost all existing bike-share programs operate with some level of support from government. The City of Vancouver, however, has indicated that it’s not interested in underwriting a bike-share system and given the backlash against the cost of the bike lanes, I doubt the public would have much appetite putting significant money into a bike program that would only benefit a small subset of Vancouverites and tourists. Montreal’s system (Bixi) suffered cost issues related to problems with vandalism and theft, and continues to rely on millions of dollars in public money.

The details of the various proposals that the City has received have not been revealed. It will be interesting to see what the different organizations propose.

Do you think that a privately-funded bike share program can be successful in a jurisdiction that requires all riders to wear helmets?

Last modified: January 16, 2012

26 Responses to " A Public Bike System for Vancouver? "

  1. Nice article, and thanks for highlighting an issue very close to my heart! The Church of Sit-Up Cycling always welcomes new members!

    “One of the big things I don’t quite understand about a Vancouver bike share program is who the intended users are”

    The last-mile bit is key. Just as transit is “a walk, interrupted”, so non-sport/utility/transport/sit-up/chic/dutch/danish/normal cycling (call it what you will) is simply walking with wheels. UBC is such an obvious place for it, I can’t believe they don’t have a PBS set up already. So the answer to your question is: all current transit users are the market.

    “if you are riding a bicycle in BC without an approved helmet you are subject to as much as a $100 fine”

    Not quite true: only if you’re stopped will you be subject to a fine. This is the problem with a ubiquity law that requires omnipresent policing. Have you ever seen a tourist ticketed on the seawall? An unenforceable law is a bad law and bad laws demean the good laws. Better abolish the law than continue to waste police time.

    I hope your readers also know that riding without a bell or while wearing headphones is illegal. I wonder how many racers have a bell, and how many helmet+headphone-wearers get stopped by dutiful VPD officers. Again, arbitrary enforcement demeans all laws and undermines respect for the law and her officers.

    “The City of Vancouver, however, has indicated that it’s not interested in underwriting a bike-share system”

    The city will end up on the hook for this, just like the olympic village. No sane business would take on the risk of the PBS in hat-law land, and run the risk of Melbourne-style failure, without the city backing them. It would be like the city contracting for buses and then not giving them priority or bus stops.

    Sit-up proudly Vancouver, you’ll be greenest one day.

  2. AndrewRH says:

    A lovely article. Following up on one point as I wasn’t aware of the restriction against headphones stated in previous comment.
    I wonder if a deaf person wearing them has ever been prosecuted? What about car drivers wearing hands-free devices whilst listening to radio?
    A bit funny of questions but trying to also make point that perhaps law is misdirected like point about tourists on the sea wall.

  3. Anthony says:

    @James Thanks for the response. The UBC AMS/Bike Kitchen used to have a “Purple Bike” bike share program in the late 90s or early 00s, but I’m not sure what happened to it. It involved taking old bikes, fixing them up, painting them purple and yellow, and then distributing them throughout campus. I suspect they had significant vandalism/theft issues. Also, I agree with your skepticism about the city not being on the hook for financially supporting the program.

    @AndrewRH The headphone prohibition is actually a bit strange in Vancouver. You can ride wearing headphones as long as you don’t have *both* ears covered. I don’t know of other jurisdictions that allow this, usually it’s a pure prohibition. See 60A here: http://vancouver.ca/engsvcs/transport/cycling/safety/regulations.htm#bylawBikes

  4. Alex P says:

    @Anthony FWIW, the purple bike program is still on. My friend at work volunteers at the bike kitchen and they still build them and put them out. I don’t know what the current policy is on getting the key to them though.

  5. runDRD says:

    the reason headphones are prohibited for cyclist is the same as why they are for car drivers… it blocks your ability to hear noise around you – horns, sirens, other cyclists bells.

  6. runDRD says:

    …didn’t mean to send that yet…

    anyway, before you say that “its the same as a radio in a car”, it’s not – headphones go direct to the ear. take this from someone who drives a vehicle with a siren for a living.

  7. Feeling wind in my hair says:

    Any person who is truly interested in bringing a Public Bicycle System to Vancouver should be working the phones, emailing, writing and strongly lobbying the Provincial Government to either abolish the mandatory helmet law or exempt bike share use from it. The idea is to make it easy to use yet another form of public transit. It makes no difference whether it is point to point transportation or solving the last kilometer conundrum, it should be easy and convenient. Imagine having to always have a special security strap which would attach to any TransLink vehicle before you could get on one of them! That sure might curtail some bus and SkyTrain use! It is time to be head strong for bike share in Vancouver.

  8. Phil says:

    I am against helmet laws.
    I am also against, to an equal degree, the bike share program.
    Essentially what it comes down to is – I do not not want to pay, through my tax dollars, for the ability for casual users, who cycle so seldom that they won’t invest their own money into buying their own, to use a bicycle at whim. I would rather than money go into something else, like upkeep on the current bike lanes.
    If people are interested in cycling in Vancouver – let THEM pay for it individually. This is more anecdotal, and speaks to my personal preferences – but why populate the bike lanes further with PBS users who might be riding a bike for the first time in years! Stanley Park is bad enough and I’ve largely surrendered that path to swerving tourists.
    No to PBS. Thumbs down.

  9. runDRD says:

    I’m against helmet laws and seatbelt laws. I am for natural selection. Those too foolish to wear either safety device shouldn’t have to; Eventually they’ll weed themselves from the gene pool, and their efforts at choice will encourage others to buckle up.

  10. El-T says:

    While the merits of public bike hire schemes can be debated (personally I am in favour) there should be no confusion about whether bike hire can work with helmet laws – it cannot.

    The only 2 failing schemes in the world are in Brisbane and Melbourne, which are the only 2 that are in cities with compulsory helmet laws.

    The bike hire operators in Australia have tried all sorts of different ways of “solving” the helmet problem, from free communal helmets, to providing cheap new helmets in corner stores – nothing has worked. Would you wear a dirty old hat that you found sitting on the road? No, so neither would you wear a helmet in a similar state.

    The only solution is repeal or exemption from the helmet law. If Vancouver attempts bike hire without an exemption, there will be 3 failing schemes.

    There is a comparison of usage rates of a number of hire schemes here:
    http://helmetfreedom.org/943/citycycle-denial/

  11. Brett says:

    The city will study this for a couple years, at a huge cost. And then likely implement a bad plan at a huge expense to the taxpayers. I blame the majority that voted these morons into power.

  12. Phil says:

    @Brett: don’t hate the playa, hate the game 🙂

  13. Wow, lots of engaged citizens here! And I’m so glad people are coming in with an open mind, ready to compare statistics and visions of a liveable city.

    runDRD falls for the old canard of comparing helmet laws with seatbelt laws in cars, when the correct comparison is of course with helmet laws in cars. Seatbelt laws *can* be correlated with reduced deaths and no reduction in number of drivers, because they stop you moving around. Bike helmets don’t do either. Please have a look at the stats.

    Here’s another way to think about it how many people would drive (or, more likely, flaunt the law) if driving helmets were mandatory (but, say, bus-riding helmets were not).

    Phil says swerving tourists slow him down in Stanley park. Since speed-cyclists are the minority and speeding in the city is dangerous, I’m afraid I have difficulty sympathising. There are race-courses available for sports. Bike share (like the provision of transit and sidewalks) is about moving people efficient about their daily lives. Swerving tourists, like mapreading pedestrians, are just something you’ll have to learn to live with.

    Finally, regarding headphones, I raised the issue more to point out the bias in policing. Rather than focus on *preventative* measures (a leisurely pace, full awareness, sit-up stance, lights, bell etc.) the police charge safe cyclists $100 for not wearing *protective* equipment.

    It’s also illegal to skateboard in Vancouver without elbow pads. Again: are all equal before the law? Or does VPD just hate the Church of Sit-Up Cycling.

  14. runDRD says:

    I fall for no old canard. I really don’t think people should have to wear bike helmets, and I really don’t think people should have to wear seatbelts. Free will includes free will to not take reasonable steps to protect your safety (an argument could be made, however, as to where your free will ends and my right not to pay your medical bill begins. But I digress.)

    That said, if you would like some statistics, here you go:
    —————————————————————
    Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
    Fatality Facts: Bicycles – 2009

    Less than two percent of motor vehicle crash deaths are bicyclists. The most serious injuries among a majority of those killed are to the head, highlighting the importance of wearing a bicycle helmet. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce head injury risk by 85 percent.

    Ninety-one percent of bicyclists killed in 2009 reportedly weren’t wearing helmets, the same percentage as 2008.

    The IIHS is consistently the best source of bicycle fatality statistics on the Web. Their picture of a “typical” bicyclist killed on our roads would be a sober male over 16 not wearing a helmet riding on a major road between intersections in an urban area on a summer evening when hit by a car.

    This section was updated in August of 2011. For tables, graphs and much more detail see the IIHS site. To check for new info since our last update, see their research page and click on Fatality Facts.
    ——————————————————–

  15. runDRD says:

    Also, Mr twowheeler, this is another red herring
    :
    ———————-
    “if you are riding a bicycle in BC without an approved helmet you are subject to as much as a $100 fine”

    Not quite true: only if you’re stopped will you be subject to a fine. This is the problem with a ubiquity law that requires omnipresent policing. Have you ever seen a tourist ticketed on the seawall? An unenforceable law is a bad law and bad laws demean the good laws. Better abolish the law than continue to waste police time.
    ———————-

    What you’ve described is true for any infraction or crime. You’re only subject to a speeding fine if you get pulled over. You’re only subject to a “fail to obey stop sign” fine if you are actually caught not stopping at a stop sign. you’re only subject to an assault charge if you actually get caught and convicted of assault… see where I’m going with this? No law is 100% enforceable all the time, but does that mean we should eliminate all laws?

  16. GregEh says:

    Brisbane, Melbourne. That’s all you really have to say. The evidence says a bike share will fail in jurisdictions where helmets are required. It will fail here, and our whole community of bike advocates will be able to sigh and say “told you so”.

    No one will use a rental helmet sterilizing machine.

    Unenforceable laws hurt the legitimacy of the whole legal system. How’s that park smoking ban working out?

  17. Matthew says:

    My building on campus @ UBC runs a bike share program for faculty & staff.

    $20 buys you into the program and gets you a helmet. Keep the helmet in your office, sign out a bike whenever you want.

    Not sure how well it works, as I ride in almost every day, but I intend to sign up just for those rare days I don’t have a bike on campus. Plus, seems like a good thing to support.

    Here is a link about it: http://spph.ubc.ca/sites/healthcare/files/SPPH_Bike_Share.pdf

  18. hoopz says:

    Why don’t pedestrians wear helmets? Or car drivers? Surely that would reduce accidents?

    I know i don’t let my kids play outside without wrapping them in 4 inches of protective foam, head to toe. Look how much fun they’re having!

  19. Phil says:

    “Phil says swerving tourists slow him down in Stanley park. Since speed-cyclists are the minority and speeding in the city is dangerous, I’m afraid I have difficulty sympathising. There are race-courses available for sports.”

    Listen carefully Mr.Twowheeler 🙂
    First of all, more power to the tourists. Cycling is a great time and far be it from my intentions to strip anyone from the glorious pleasure of engaging in it.
    I’m rather confused – when did I say I was a “speed-cyclist” or that tourists were “slowing” me down in Stanley Park? Confused I say!

    “Bike share (like the provision of transit and sidewalks) is about moving people efficient about their daily lives.”

    No. That is incorrect. Bike share, like anything implemented by the city, is about taking money from everyone to provide for a private interest – namely people who want access to bicycles but don’t want to pay for it themselves.

    ” Swerving tourists, like mapreading pedestrians, are just something you’ll have to learn to live with.”

    That’s a very passive-aggressive statement James Two-Wheeler. I did not appreciate it.

  20. S. Morris Rose says:

    I hate the bike helmet law in part because of the barrier it presents to casual cycling, but can you really defend the assertion that the statistics prove that they don’t prevent some injuries? My picture of things is that the preponderance of the many studies show they do, to some extent, prevent injury. That’s a separate question from whether the trade-off justifies the prohibition, but if you base your argument against it on that assertion, it’s easy to defeat the argument.

    Legislation should either be enforced or it should be off the books lest it be used by authorities to harass citizens.

  21. S. Morris Rose says:

    Ah, Phil. I guess we could each implement our own sewer systems and build our own roads and sidewalks, but none of us could afford it. Look around and you’ll see that every community chooses to have a government to provide services- it’s not just a parasite of vested interests.

    There is general agreement– worldwide, not just in the lower mainland– to provide public support for a public transit, this because it serves a common goal, and the logic of public support for a bike share system is just the same. We all benefit when people don’t need to bring their automobiles downtown, and a public bike system is an element in making that practical.

    It’s just something you’ll have to learn to live with.

  22. Phil says:

    Grade ‘A’ condescension S. Morris.
    I’m impressed. Show me more 🙂

  23. […] In Vancouver, helmet use varies by the type of cyclist. In my experience most commuter cyclists wear a lid. Almost all the hard-core roadies do too. The helmet use rate drops considerably when you look at the casual cyclists: those on the seawall, or just out cruising the neighbourhood. The helmet-law has been cited as an obstacle to implementing a bike-share program in Vancouver. […]

  24. clancy says:

    I have read a lot of your comments about vancouver cycling.lots of good stuff. I am 80 years old and more positive these days.This may be the answer to your bicycle problens and fatal accidents. Go to google. Google’s patents look for bicycle transportation systems,Inc.TransGlide 2000.Mr.Senior has given me the sales franchise for canada.Some comments as your standings on this system.I believe a fatality on a bicycle-vehicle accident should never happen.Keep bicycles away from vehicle and people.

  25. clancy says:

    ask your friends-send me a reply!!

  26. Byron Braithwaite says:

    Works really well in London. Tourist use them, business men late for work use them, just about everyone loves them!