Some of Melbourne bikeshare's idle Bixis

Up until Melbourne Bikeshare launched in 2010, the idea that Australia’s mandatory helmet laws might have a net negative effect was a non-issue. Anyone who opposed the law was presumed to be a crank or a mad libertarian.

The abject failure of Melbourne Bikeshare and Brisbane CityCycle changed that. While the overwhelming majority of Australians simply aren’t interested, there’s now a small but vocal movement seeking to repeal the law.

In my view, there’s no doubt the helmet law is a serious hindrance to bikeshare. It’s not that most potential users aren’t prepared to wear a helmet, it’s rather that getting immediate access to a clean one is too hard.

But to repeal the helmet law in order to save ailing bikeshare schemes, as some argue should be done, would be to abandon any pretence of rational and inclusive debate.

Repeal is a much bigger and wider decision affecting the 90% or more of the population who aren’t likely to ever use a bikeshare scheme.

Perhaps there is a valid argument to repeal the law, but it would be out of all proportion to do it if the primary reason is to save bikeshare.

As I’ve argued before, it’s doubtful the potential benefits of bikeshare in the Australian context could justify such a far-reaching course of action.

Now I’ve come across some research that gives more substance to those doubts. It indicates that whatever other positives it might have, bikeshare doesn’t offer much in the way of environmental and health benefits, despite the many claims to the contrary.

The research is by Elliot Fishman, a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety in Qld. He’s also the co-author of a new paper evaluating Brisbane CityCycle.

Here’s an extract from a letter written by Mr Fishman and published last year in the British Medical Journal. He’s responding to an article that evaluated the Barcelona Bicing (bikeshare) scheme.

Data published by Anaya & Bea (and) collected by the City of Barcelona show users of the Bicing scheme to be substituting from other modes of transport in the following proportions: Public transit 55.1%, motor vehicle 9.6%, walking 26.1%, private bike 6.3% and new trip 2.8%.

Only the 9.6% of trips that would otherwise have been taken by car could be regarded as offering a significant environmental improvement.

The shift from car to bikeshare is modest in other cities too.

In a paper published by the US Transport Review Board, Evaluation framework for assessing public-bicycle share schemes, Mr Fishman and his co-authors provide data on the mode shift for bikeshare schemes in Dublin and Minnesota:

A recent study of the Dublin scheme found that 15% of users would not have made the trip had it not been for the (public bikeshare scheme). Of those changing modes, 66% had previously walked, 7% shifted from private car, 14% previously rode public transit and 11% migrated from private bicycles…..In Minnesota, 57.8% of users would have walked or taken public transit if the scheme had not been available. Almost 20% indicated they would have driven a car and 8.3% would have used their own bicycle.

He provides more evidence in an article published earlier this week in The Conversation, Fixing Australian bikeshare goes beyond helmet laws. In it, Mr Fishman says only 1% of users of the London and Washington bikeshare schemes “report leaving the car at home.”

It appears the vast majority of public bike users replace walking and/or public transport. While bike share programs in Europe, North America and China are heavily used, their success is limited by the degree to which they can attract people out of their cars.

These findings also bear on the exercise/health benefits which are often cited to justify support for bikeshare schemes. Mr Fishman argues that only new trips and those that substitute for car trips could be regarded as offering an exercise (health) benefit. In the case of Barcelona, for example, that’s 9.6% plus 2.8% i.e. 12.4%.

Moreover, he says any proper assessment of bikeshare schemes must take account of the lower exercise benefit associated with cycling compared to walking. In his British Medical Journal letter, Mr Fishman writes:

One should also factor the health benefit lost from the pedestrians opting for Bicing, given that the literature widely regard walking to have twice the physical activity benefit of cycling on a per kilometre basis.

I don’t think it would be correct to conclude Mr Fishman is opposed to bikeshare – he’s doing his doctorate on the topic. As I read it his concern, quite properly, is that the evidence base should be accurate.

Particular bikeshare schemes (there are 165 currently operational worldwide) might offer other benefits but caution should be exercised in assuming they necessarily provide substantial environmental and health benefits.

Those benefits are far too small to justify general repeal of the helmet law or even a specific exemption for bikeshare. Any public debate over the law needs to have a much wider ambit that takes account of the interests of the entire population.

So far as the outlook for bikeshare is concerned, compulsory helmets aren’t the only or arguably even the main obstacle to greater use in the Australian context. Fear of riding on roads with unfriendly drivers and poor system design are other serious constraints.