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Helmet law complicates Vancouver’s bike share plan

Canada’s greenest city is about to push forward on a new bike share system. The City of Vancouver already invests…

By Carrie Swiggum , in City Feature story , on November 25, 2010 Tags: , , ,

Jesse Emerson said he only wears a helmet while he is mountain biking

Canada’s greenest city is about to push forward on a new bike share system.

The City of Vancouver already invests millions of dollars in bike lanes and car-free transit initiatives.

Bike share has been an idea in Vancouver for almost 20 years, said Scott Edwards, who is part of the Greenways and Neighbourhood Transportation team. The city plans to make a public announcement on the venture early next year.

In B.C., making the program work within the existing provincial and municipal helmet law is posing a challenge.

“I think it’s a problem. I’m not certain that we can’t find a solution, staff are optimistic that we can,” city Councillor Geoff Meggs said.

The public bike share movement has been gaining ground all around the world. In Canada, Montreal installed the highly successful Bixi system in 2009 and Toronto will open “Bixi Toronto” in May 2011.

Neil Salmond, a cyclist who recently moved to Vancouver from the UK, said helmets are a deterrent to the bike share system because the scheme is meant for spontaneous trips.

He said that cycling in B.C. struck him mainly as a sport, whereas in most European cities it’s “walking with wheels.”

“The bike share means cycling is a part of transit,” Salmond said. “If you’ve got to carry a [helmet] everywhere that’s not going to work.”

Meggs suggested there may be a liability waiver to address the helmet issue and likened it to what a skier would sign at a ski resort.

“We need a financial plan that works and a legal framework and we have neither,” Meggs said.

At the minimum a public bike share would cost $5 million to implement, according to a 2008 TransLink report. The preferred bike share network would cost between $18.5 million and $34.5 million that includes 3,800 bikes and 250 docking stations in the network.

Helmet law debate

The movement to repeal mandatory helmet laws has been growing in response to bike share systems.

Helmet vending machines were installed last October

Melbourne is the only city to install a public bike share with mandatory helmet laws in place. So far, the system has suffered from lack of use.

An Australian newspaper reported that the $5.5 million dollar project has been sorely underused when compared to other cities with public bike share, blaming it on the helmet law.

The City of Melbourne recently installed helmet vending machines to address the issue.

Located next to 7-Eleven stores, they dispense helmets for $5 a piece. Users can get $3 back if they return the helmet to the convenience store.

Elsewhere, Mexico City repealed its compulsory helmet laws this past year to make room for its own bike share system called Ecobici.

In 1996, British Columbia passed legislation requiring cyclists to wear a helmet, known as the Motor Vehicle Amendment Act. Cyclists riding without helmets can be fined up to $100.

“I think a part of it is a lack of people understanding the education, there’s a lack of enforcement for sure,” said a parking enforcement officer whose badge is #245. A city representative said they do not give out parking officers’ names citing the threat of harassment.

“I don’t know anything about the helmet laws,” said Ericka Hunter, a college-age downtown vendor, “that’s not why I wear a helmet.”

She then explained a bad accident prompted her to pick one up a few years ago.

According to reports, police handed out more than 3000 tickets to cyclists not wearing their helmets in 2009.

“They [the police] invite all the media to come look so that it gets coverage and say ‘hey, we’re enforcing this stuff,’ and they do enforce it,” David Fleming said, a cyclist who was not wearing a helmet on Commercial Drive. “But I don’t think there’s a huge push on enforcement.”

Dominick Froom, a downtown bicycle courier since 1994, said he wears a bicycle helmet.

“I think it’s a sign of maturity when someone chooses to wear a helmet.”

Next steps

The Dunsmuir separated bike lane was installed this past year

The initiative to install a public bike system in Vancouver is part of the city’s “Greenest City Team” action plan and is listed as a high priority project.

About 80% of people said they would use a public bike share system in Vancouver, according to a survey done online and in-person by the city.

They work best when there is a good cycling infrastructure in place, but there is still more work to do.

Referring to the Dunsmuir separated bike lane, Parking Enforcement Officer, Badge #338, who was patrolling by bike said “we don’t feel like there’s enough people that actually use it.”

The city approved a $25 million, 10-year cycling master plan earlier this year to develop a comprehensive bicycle network and increase bike trips. Currently, about four per cent of daily commuters travel by bike.

Edwards said the number of bike trips are increasing every year. Cycling is the fastest growing mode of transportation in the city.

Vancouver is determined to find a way to make the bike share exist within the law.

Edwards said changing the helmet law in Vancouver to accommodate the expensive venture is not on the table.“We’re not actively pursuing changes, not asking for relaxation of the law.”


More on Vancouver’s bike laws

  • No cyclist  should ride on any sidewalk except where posted with signs
  • If you’re riding a bike on the street, it must have a bell
  • Must not ride other than on or astride a bicycle saddle, meaning legs on both sides of the seat
  • Must signal by using arm motions when turning left, right or stopping

The sit-up and cycle movement

Section 184.3 of the British Columbia Motor Vehicle Act states persons are exempt from wearing a helmet when: “a person for whom the wearing of a helmet would interfere with an essential religious practice.”

This loophole has prompted a Vancouver pro-choice helmet activist to create the Church of Sit-Up Cycling headed by Reverend Two-wheeler. According to their Facebook page they advocate: “the freedom to choose headwear – which may or may not include plastic – is an essential religious practice.”

Before Melbourne incorporated their Bixi-style bike share, Mike Rubbo had offered his own solution to work with the existing helmet law.


  • I really hope that this gets discussed more in Vancouver at the word of mouth and council level….for such a green city, I am shocked to find that there is no public bike share system yet! Even Montreal, which is frozen over for half the year has its Bixi system already!

  • Thanks for the mention Carrie! I’d like to welcome all lambs into our flock, via our Facebook page where we have discussions on bike-share schemes, BC’s recognised religions and the availability of sit-up bikes in Vancouver.

  • Golden, British Columbia is going to be the first to have a 3rd generation in Western Canada. The bike share up and running next year in Spring. We have 15 bikes and 2 stations. The company we are using is from British Columbia too. Its an exciting time for Bike Shares around the world, and in Golden too. We are a town of 4000 people. If people in Vancouver get into bike share , then that could spell great things for the rest of British Columbia.

  • I think a sign of maturity is not calling people not doing what you’re doing not mature, especially today where to pretend that there isn’t a good argument against your own position makes you look like either a fundamentalist or just an ignoramus. Happy fails with the bixi Vancouver. You will join Melbourne and Brisbane as the laughing stock of bikeshare schemes.

  • Went home to the UK at Christmas and got to use the Boris Bikes in London. They are a dream: 24h bike rental for a toonie! If Vancouver really wants to be Greenest in the World (greener than Curitiba and Copenhagen, not to mention NYC and London?) it had better do some of the really obvious stuff a bit better.

  • Seems like a lot of money to put bikes downtown. Couldn’t we spend tens of millions developing the cycling infrastructure which has made these systems such a success in Europe instead? I think Vancouver has a different cycling culture. I don’t know many people who would rather ride some government issued 3-speed around than their own bikes which they love riding. It’s just more green washing.

  • Nice run-down of Translink’s consultant report here: That translink document is worth a read, especially the business model chapter regarding helmets.

    Raymond, regarding cost, Barclays’ sponsorship of London’s scheme might offer one model. And I believe billboard-multinational JCDeceaux pays for Paris’ scheme, because they love all the extra advertising space created by the bike docks. I completely agree a bit more downtown traffic calming (separated bus & bike lanes a la Paris?) would work wonders.

  • Quick clarification (Carrie, don’t know whether you can add one word to the article now) because this is my top google hit. I have nothing against people wearing helmets if they want to, whatever they’re doing. I just think *MANDATORY* helmet *LAWS* discourage cycling.

    “Neil Salmond, a cyclist who recently moved to Vancouver from the UK, said [MANDATORY] helmets are a deterrent to the bike share system because the scheme is meant for spontaneous trips.”


  • Providing public rental bikes in countries w mandatory helmet laws without helmets is silly. The bike use needs to allow for spontaneous trips, so make sure the helmets are available with the bike… To make them available from a separate vending machine or 7/11 is like not including the seat or handlebar grips. have a proven system in Auckland, NZ that makes a helmet available with every bike
    These helmets are disinfected every day by the mechanic and off-course the constant UV rays. I would suggest that the handlebar grips should be more of a hygiene concern than the helmets.
    The key is for the city officers to choose a provider with technology that is a good fit for the local conditions / laws.
    Trying to repeal helmet laws will take forever… it’d be easier to make a case that car users should wear helmets too!

  • Toronto’s public bikeshare, “Bixi Toronto”, is launching on 3 May, 2011. THAT’S RIGHT!! In less than 7 weeks!
    Ottawa’s public bikeshare, “Capital BIXI”, is also launching in May 2011, exact date not yet announced.
    Both are being established by Bixi, Public Bike System Company, the same company that runs the successful Bixi Montreal. For more info, google any of the foregoing names.

    Ontario’s Helmet Law only requires helmets to be worn by cyclists under 18 years of age. Quebec does not have a bicycle helmet law at all. As you have written in your article, Melbourne’s PBS is failing, probably due to Australia’s fedreal helmet law.

    So, on May 3 of this year, Toronto, the domain of Mayor Rob Ford F150, will have an operating public bikeshare system and Vancouver will not. By the end of that month, the National Capital Region (Ottawa/Gatineau) will also have a system.
    But Vancouver WILL NOT. The BC Helmet Law is a major challenge in establishing one and, probably the main roadblock.

    Vancouver is hosting the “Velo-city Global” cycling conference, June 26-29, 2012 (google that too!) – WITHOUT AN ALREADY ESTABLISHED PUBLIC BIKESHARE SYSTEM ?????
    Will our ciivic and provincial politicians have Red Faces on May 3rd? How about on June 26, 2012?
    I hope so! They should have!

    The City of Vancouver needs to take immediate action on the BC Helmet Law with the provincial government (now that we have one again . . . for a while).

    For another discussion on the helmet issue, see:

  • I don’t support a repeal of the helmet law , it took too long to get it in place in the first place.
    Head injuries are life changeing , not only for the victim but for their family as well.

    Take aside the tragic impact of head injuries , the impact on the healthcare system is large with head injuries being one of the most expensive and longest term injuries and rehabilitation to manage.

    Helmets save lives .
    I am from Vancouver but live in London , about two blocks from Hyde Park adn there are the bike racks all over the place in this part of London , locals don’t use them , tourists do . the bikes are too heavy and poorly geared for commuting use ,.
    and at lest 4 times a week there is an ambulance carting some crashed bike rider out of the park.

  • “it took too long to get it in place in the first place” because it took from about 1880 to 1990 – in other words, we were JUST FINE FOR 110 YEARS until the Liberal granny-state, higher-purpose persons shoved this law down our throats.

    Non-Compliance with the Helmet Law is extremely high here. This law is periodically being used as a Harassment Measure here and disputed tickets are taking 18 months to get to court!

    In London, it could be that beer swilling YOBs from Hyde Park are bangin’ their heads on Marble Arch on the way out. Or they’re falling off their soapboxes at Speakers’ Corner.

    Zac, don’t bother with anecdote; please send some real statistics from Ol’ Blighty!

  • Who are all these people getting into accidents on bicycles that have forced the rest of us to wear helmets?

    I can understand wearing a helmet if you plan on racing, or going exceedingly fast. However, forcing people to wear helmets has been shown in many cases to decrease the number of people that cycle. For skateboarders, it’s even worse, they need knee & elbow pads, a helmet and wrist guards. If the government wants to protect people’s wrists, they should enact a law requiring ergonomic keyboards to protect against carpal tunnel. At what point are we free to use our own judgment to determine what level of safety equipment is required?

    I think I have a higher chance of getting hit at a cross walk than getting into an accident while cycling.

  • By all means wear a helmet if you want to – if it seems necessary (on busy streets, in bad weather, at night) but the mandatory law MUST be repealed. Why don’t pedestrians and vehicle drivers have to wear helmets? This helmet law paints cycling as more dangerous than walking or driving. Accidents affect them even more than cyclists, I understand. Why should someone riding slowly up a bike route on a hot August afternoon be forced to wear a helmet, when it can cause over-heating and be harmful to health? As long as police use this law as a “weapon”, as they currently do, it is a dangerous law. They wait to catch riders on bike routes, during Bike Month – what a waste of my tax dollars! It is also used by those who don’t want to support more bike infrastructure in Vancouver “why should cyclists have bike lanes when half of them don’t wear helmets”. Yes, wear a helmet if you want to – but this law does far more harm than good.

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