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Helmet law could be bump in the road for Vancouver’s bike-share program

Vancouver’s proposed bike-share program will start with at least 125 stations and 1,500 bikes, according to a report going to city council next Tuesday.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Having sanitized bike helmets pop out of a vending machine would clear one potential hurdle – the ick factor. But getting riders to strap the helmets on and try out Vancouver's bike-share program could pose another challenge.

Vancouver city council will next week discuss a staff report on the proposed program. The public bike share would start by serving the downtown core and central Broadway, with stations every 300 to 400 metres. There would be about 125 stations and 1,500 bicycles.

Many jurisdictions with bike programs – such as Toronto – don't require adults to wear helmets. Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver's deputy city manager, said B.C.'s helmet law might well keep some people from hopping on.

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"We do need to recognize that the helmet requirement may deter some people from riding. In that case, we definitely will expect the vendor to take a potentially decreased ridership into account when they're developing their business plan that we will review and present before council before we sign a contract," he said in an interview on Thursday.

Nonetheless, Mr. Johnston said he's confident the program will succeed.

"We've got separated bike lanes, we've got a lot of seawall, and just great bike infrastructure. And we've got a really significant bike culture here, and our weather is moderate enough that you can ride year-round. … Overall, we're really enthusiastic about the opportunity the public bike share presents in helping us achieve our sustainable transportation plan," he said.

The city wants 50 per cent of all trips to be made on foot, bicycle or transit by 2020.

After requesting expressions of interest last year, the city last month signed a non-legally binding letter of intent with Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share Inc. The company must meet several conditions before it gets the contract, such as finding sponsorship money and a helmet distribution plan. The goal is for the program to begin in the spring.

Brodie Hylton, Alta's director of operations, said in an interview that the company is leaning toward a vending system for distributing helmets.

"The idea is it would be integrated into the bike station itself, so that you would be able to both rent a bike and a helmet at the same time, in a single transaction," he said. Mr. Hylton said the user would return the helmet and get back a deposit.

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He conceded the company can't ensure riders use the helmets.

"We obviously understand that there's a helmet law and we will make that law obvious to all that use the bike-share system and make helmets as available as we can," he said. "As the saying goes, 'You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.'"

This is not the first time the company has dealt with a helmet law – Mr. Hylton said the same is true of its Melbourne operation.

A U.S. study released last month found, anecdotally, that users of bike-share programs are less likely to wear a helmet than bicycle owners.

Mr. Johnston said details of where the stations would be must still be ironed out, as must questions about liability. Earlier reports have suggested the program would cost $1.9-million a year, although Mr. Johnston said the exact cost hasn't been determined.

Arno Schortinghuis, a director with HUB, a Vancouver-based non-profit that focuses on cycling issues, said he expects the bike-share program to succeed, although he agreed the helmet law could be a hindrance.

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When asked if he expected the bike lanes to be more crowded once the program is implemented, Mr. Schortinghuis said, "I'd love the bike lanes to be crowded."

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