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Fixing Australian bike share goes beyond helmet laws

Bike share programs in Melbourne and Brisbane were much heralded by the governments that installed them. But they’ve proved far less popular than schemes overseas. Is Australian bike share doomed? Since…

London bike share has proved more successful than schemes in Australia, but focusing on infrastructure could help improve sharing here. cat1788/Flickr

Bike share programs in Melbourne and Brisbane were much heralded by the governments that installed them. But they’ve proved far less popular than schemes overseas. Is Australian bike share doomed?

Since 2005, public bike share programs have sprung up in cities in Europe, Asia and North America. Paris is perhaps the best known of the 300+ cities currently operating a public bike program, with over 20,000 bicycles. In China, Wuhan and Hangzhou have systems comprising 70,000 and 60,000 bikes respectively. New York City is set to launch the largest system in North America next March, with 10,000 bicycles.

There is growing enthusiasm for bike share. Various tracking and payment technologies are now available and affordable, so people can use the system with the swipe of a credit card. Public bike share growth is part of a wider interest in urban bicycling. Although coming from a low base, a large number of cities are experiencing significant growth rates in commuter bicycling. When used as a car replacement, bicycles are able to lower emissions, congestion, parking pressure and increase rates of physical activity.

Another, less publicised but no less potent reason behind the growth in bike share is the marketing benefit it offers. To many, bike share symbolises a sustainable, liveable urban culture. It says “we are a city that embraces change and rises to the challenge of climate change, traffic congestion and the need for clean air and healthy citizens”.

Melbourne’s image as a liveable city is enhanced by having bike share, but its popularity has been lower than expected. avlxyz/Flickr

Implied in most of the benefits of bike share outlined above is an assumption that journeys taken on public bikes are substituting for motor vehicle travel. An examination of the evidence currently shows this is seldom the case. For instance, in Dublin, research¹ shows 66% of users previously walked. In London and Washington DC, only 1% of users 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.

Melbourne (Melbourne Bike Share) and Brisbane (CityCycle) have both had public bike programs since 2010, with approximately 600 and 1800 bicycles respectively. Usage has been lower than other cities and there has been widespread speculation about why this is the case.

Internationally, usage rates generally vary between three and eight trips per day per bike. In Brisbane and Melbourne usage has generally been within 0.3–0.4 and 0.4–0.8 trips per day per bike respectively. Washington DC in January, when it is snowy and wet, has substantially more usage on its bike share scheme than Melbourne or Brisbane have in December.

A number of reasons help explain lower levels of bike share popularity in Australia. Focus groups in Brisbane said accessibility problems (the sign up process, helmets and docking station location) and safety issues reduced use². The lengthy sign up process doesn’t use instant access, credit card swipe procedures common elsewhere (including Melbourne). This might stifle the spontaneity typically thought to attract people to public bikes. The 10pm closing time (most are open 24/7) frustrated current members, who reported having to leave engagements early to check out a bike before the system closes for the night.

Mandatory helmet laws make running a bike share scheme much more difficult in Brisbane than in Paris. Sharat Ganapati

Having to wear a helmet is often seen as a barrier to bike share use; focus groups support that. As one participant said:

I think it’s safer to use them [helmets] riding around town. If there was some sort of special bicycle lane that was safer and we did not need to wear helmets, I think that would be okay.

Many focus group participants just don’t think to take a helmet with them, in case they’d like to bike share later. Brisbane City Council saw a significant increase in casual use once they began providing helmets with some of their bicycles.

There is little doubt rescinding helmet laws would boost bike share usage in Australia. However until the full population health/safety impacts have been carefully assessed, such a move may have unintended consequences.

In order to bring Australian bike share usage closer to international norms (short of removing helmet legislation) the following measures should be considered:

  • substantial improvements to the bicycle lane/path network
  • lower speed limits
  • integration with public transport smartcard ticketing
  • significant increase in docking stations and bicycles (particularly Melbourne)
  • improved helmet availability.

Adopting these measures would improve not just the performance of Melbourne and Brisbane’s bike share programs, it would also provide a significant benefit to the sustainability of the transport system generally.

References

  1. Murphy, H. (2010). Dublin Bikes: An Investigation in the Context of Multimodal Transport. MSc Sustainable Development, Dublin Institute of Technology, Dublin.

  2. Fishman, E., Washington, S., & Haworth, N. (2012). Barriers and Facilitators to Public Bicycle Scheme Use: A Qualitative Approach. Awaiting publication in Transportation Research Part F-Traffic Psychology and Behaviour

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43 Comments sorted by

  1. Steve Davis

    Brian Surgeon

    I heartily concur with e "too hard to sign up" for brisbane's city cycle. As visitors we were keen to hire cycles but the sign up process couldn't be done on a phone, was a pain and it was only after a librarian gave us a hand we got it done.

    Having said that, once we had our bikes, we had a ball and look forward to doing it again

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  2. Richard Ure

    logged in via Facebook

    Does the design of Australian cities have anything to do with the lack of popularity? Sydney CBD for one is very compact and easily walkable Except for the interminable traffic lights at intersections. But that affects bikes too. With our sprawl, the non CBD destinations in our cities are too far apart.

    As a rubber-necking tourist couple in Paris, we would walk or catch the Metro using their easy ticketing system. Using bikes is inappropriate if you don’t know where you are going. In Sydney, we would walk even if we knew where we were going. If pick up points are not numerous, surely any system is bound to fail.

    The best way to reduce car use is to limit parking at the destination.

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    1. Robert Moore

      Street Sweeper

      In reply to Richard Ure

      After a day to two in Paris my wife and I took the plunge and used the Velibs. We rode east west and north south to all the major attractions within about 5 km of Notre Dame, using the maps of bike routes and following the locals, emulating their insoussiance through large roundabouts and busy roads, although some areas such as the Place de la Concorde were too complex to attempt. The cycleways and marked streets were far from perfect but everyone seemed to want it to work nevertheless, (motorists not noticeably antagonistic) unlike Sydney where everything is done to hinder bicycle use, and maybe we are not as brave or independent as we think we are. Same in Berlin, the locals just get out and ride, and be damned to the cars, on, again,less than perfect infrastructure.

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  3. nik dow

    logged in via Twitter

    It's very disappointing that the same author published a paper showing that a majority of reasons given for not riding Melbourne's bikes are due to helmet law can then ignore this and write that the main problems are elsewhere. Why would anyone in their right mind consider an increase in the number of stations in Melbourne when the existing ones are rarely used?

    How can the author write that removing the law "may have unintended consequences" and ignore the "unintended consequences" of introducing…

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  4. Richard Bean

    logged in via LinkedIn

    This article is a summary of the longer Fishman et al paper mentioned in the references.

    I have been an avid user of CityCycle for the last year and have also investigated the usage patterns of it and other schemes quite closely, although I don't have access to subscriber or trip data. Though I haven't yet done regression analysis, I believe the low usage rates can be almost entirely explained by the helmet law, lack of bike infrastructure / 30 km/h speed limits, and to a lesser extent, density…

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  5. Murray Henman

    transport planner

    I can't but agree with this article. While the helmet laws are no doubt a hindrance (along with the sign up process), the large majority of people are not going to cycle along inner city streets as long as they feel unsafe doing so. Brisbane has only one serious on road cycle facility in the CBD, which is kind of like providing half a runway for a plane; next to useless.

    Those who are committed to riding bikes will do so, but if we are serious about our hire schemes and making "normal" people feel comfortable about riding bikes, we need to address their real concerns - of which I'm sure helmet laws are not their #1 priority.

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    1. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Murray Henman

      You may be sure Mr Henman, based on your own preconceptions, but data published by Mr Fishman shows that a large majority of potential users are put off by helmet compulsion and only a minority cite safety. But evidence was always in short supply in relation to helmet laws.

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    2. Murray Henman

      transport planner

      In reply to Murray Henman

      It's not just my preconceptions Nik as I am a transport planner, specialising in active transport. Admittedly, I was expanding the point beyond hire schemes, in which case I believe safety is of far greater significance.

      I haven't read Mr Fishman's specific research that you refer to, so I'll have to take your word on it. My reading of this article is that Mr Fishman is arguing we should be looking beyond the helmet laws.

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    3. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Murray Henman

      Thanks Mr Henman for the clarification. You are correct the majority of people cite safety (perceptions) in relation to general cycling, and in that context only about 20% cite helmet law as the main factor deterring them from cycling. For the bike share the helmet issue is much more important for obvious reasons, and the corresponding deficit in overall health outcomes is correspondingly greater.

      FWIW I do spend a considerable amount of my energy advocating for better (safer) conditions on roads here in Melbourne and only some of my time advocating for repeal of helmet laws. But getting those safer conditions depends on persuading governments to act, which in turn depends on the size of the constituency pushing for this. Fixing the MHL debacle is a free kick in that process by increasing the constituency and can be done at the stroke of a pen, unlike building infrastructure.

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  6. Markie Linhart

    Rouleur

    "…1. substantial improvements to the bicycle lane/path network
    2. lower speed limits
    3. integration with public transport smartcard ticketing
    4. significant increase in docking stations and bicycles (particularly Melbourne)
    5. improved helmet availability…"

    I agree your points 1 through 4 are valid, particularly 1 and 2.
    But sorry, point 5 is the elephant in the road.
    It should read; improved helmet availability IF REQUIRED

    Change these MHLs and you'll see an immediate increase in usage. For instance Dublin has far less hire bikes available than Melbourne, yet has an enviable amount of usage per day.

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  7. Joe Gartner

    Tilter

    I wondered how long it would be before the anti- Mandatory Helmet Law fanatics hijacked the topic....

    yes of course MHLs could be repealed for adults (using the libertarian argument) and of course they could be repealed for innercity use of hire bikes but none of this makes the evidence for their protective effect less compelling.

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    1. Murray Henman

      transport planner

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Joe, Please don't think that what I (or others) wrote necessarily means I'm for MHLs, which I'm not.

      However, I do think that providing safe infrastructure will do more to attract people onto hire (and private) bikes than repealing MHLs will.

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    2. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Just how are we hijacking an article whose title includes the term "helmet laws"?

      Protective effect of mandatory helmet laws? Given that the overall health effect of the laws is negative, you have some explaining to do.

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  8. Marcus Wigan

    Hon. Prof Fellow MSSI, Emeritus Professor of Transport (Edinburgh Napier), Adjunct Professor Insititute of Social Inquiry ICT (Swinburne), Visiting Professor of Civil Engineering(Imperial) at University of Melbourne

    The bikes available in Melbourne do not reflect the lessons leaned in Lyon etc etc. The luggage carrier is unusable, there is no GPS built in to ease the routing barrier to use, especially for tourists, (and to enable recovery of the bikes of course). These are just two of the more obvious opportunities lost to explore when the old style bikes were brought in by RACV/MoTVic.

    One of the significant developments overseas is the sue of electric bikes, which widens the pool of prospective users substantially…

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    1. Markie Linhart

      Rouleur

      In reply to Marcus Wigan

      Marcus Wigan, how are you?

      I wouldn't dare argue the physics of falls from bikes or motor cycles with you…

      The point about MHLs that is wrong is the M and the H, OK? If there was a real benefit don't you think MHLs would be global?

      I'm not against the wearing of helmets and I'm not a fanatic. I am, however, for informed choices for informed adults.

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    2. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Marcus Wigan

      The issue is not whether helmets provide any benefit in the event of a collision.

      The issue is whether helmet laws have a net negative (or positive) effect on measures of public health. Prof de Jong has shown that only a 2% loss of cycling trips (for Australian data) makes helmet laws counter-productive, i.e. higher health costs. See http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01785.x/abstract
      "The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws"

      Anyone care to defend the hypothesis that helmet laws don't discourage at least 2% of potential trips on the bike share schemes?

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  9. Andrea Shoebridge

    logged in via Facebook

    I agree that compulsory helmets and lack of proper infrastructure are disincentives for cycling. Not only those, here in Perth there are a lot of painted cycle lanes that vanish at traffic lights or when the verge has curves in it. I have one such outside my house and because of the case of the vanishing cycle lane choose to break the law and ride on the footpath until I can turn down a side street. We just don't have a cycle culture in Australia, unlike cities overseas where cycling is an unremarkable mode of transport and accommodated accordingly.

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  10. Citizen SG

    Citizen

    Bicycle commuting is the same or lower in the UK despite no MHLs:

    http://www.infrastructureaustralia.gov.au/publications/files/Cycling_Infrastructure_Background_Paper_16Mar09_WEB.pdf

    The biggest obstruction to cycling as a commuting and transport activity is infrastructure not helmet wearing:

    '). A recent survey of 1150 Sydney residents living within 10 km of the CBD suggests that perceived traffic danger is the primary reason why non-regular cyclists do not cycle more often (City of Sydney…

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    1. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Comparing Australia with one other Country which you have cherry picked to suit your argument is a very weak argument. What about comparing cycling levels between Australia and Denmark, or comparing Melbourne with Portland, Oregon etc etc. No validity whatsoever. Casualty rates are fairly similar too between UK and Australia, but the point to note in relation to the subject matter of Mr Fishman's article is that the bike share in London is very safe compared to other forms of cycling in that country…

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  11. Adam G Jones

    logged in via Twitter

    These are big, heavy, slow, upright bikes similar to those ridden in every country where lots of people cycle: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Japan, China, etc.

    Riding these metal horses is <i>measurably safer</i> than speeding along like a vehicle on a sporty bike with your head pointed over your handlebars. The latter is what helmets were made for, which is why most look irredeemably sporty.

    In Australia, "57% of riders were travelling at 20 kilometres per hour or greater at the time of the crash. ... MACCS has demonstrated a relationship between increased bicycle speed and the risk of head injury."
    http://www.monash.edu.au/miri/research/reports/muarc311.pdf

    Even in the safest bicycle country on earth, 'sports cyclists' (on mountain bikes or racing bikes) are at significantly higher risk of injury than 'utility cyclists'.
    http://cyclehelmets.org/1261.html

    Ditch the helmet law for non-sports cyclists?

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    1. Tristan Cooke

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Adam G Jones

      This is correct... but it is a problem that if we remove the helmet law most the bikes in the system are the sporty missiles.

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    2. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Adam G Jones

      Well Mr Cooke, if you are worried about letting the lycra missiles go helmet free, then the bike share is the obvious candidate for an exemption, isn't it?

      In countries where people have a choice, the lycra missiles tend to wear helmets in any case, including in The Netherlands. Recall the recent survey in Norway which found two main types of cyclist - lycra wearing racing bike, fast moving helmetted cyclists and slow-moving upright bike, ordinary clothes helmet-free cyclists. They concluded the effect of a law would be to discourage the safest cyclists the most. I suspect that a gradual relaxation here would leave helmet wearing rates quite high, because undoing 20 years of brainwashing will take a long time.

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  12. Arthur James Egleton Robey

    Industrial Electrician

    The real reason we are forced to wear helmets is to make us look like dorks, so that the kids wont ride to school and get in the way of the hallowed motor cars.
    In Africa I have had many high speed crashes without a helmet.
    I remember going flat out at night without a light because of the real possibility of being shot. All I could see was the white line in the middle of the road.
    Unfortunately someone else was using the same tactic in the opposite direction. We hit head on, picked ourselves up, murmured our apologies and went on our way in the Stygian darkness.
    Australia is a nanny state with underhand hidden agendas. Get a grip.
    If you are truly worried, force the drivers of motorcars to wear breastplates and helmets.
    The steering wheel hits the sternum and the head hits the windscreen.
    And while we are about it make them wear neck braces for rear-enders.
    No? See what I mean?. One rule for the Dorks on bicycles and another for the super cool yuppie.

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    1. Robert Moore

      Street Sweeper

      In reply to Citizen SG

      http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/paris-bike-hire-scheme-is-five-years-old-a-840775.html

      Crikey is too negative about bike share, if the Spiegel article is correct. Car use reduced by a quarter in Paris, according to the Mayor. Even if only a few percent, that would significantly improve congestion, as is noted here during school holidays.

      The Velibs serve the purpose of improving mobility, much faster than walking, or taking the metro for many trips. The Velibs have also encouraged Parisiens to ride their own bikes more in Paris.

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  13. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Presumably "integration with public transport smartcard ticketing" means working in with Melbourne's not-so-very-smart system that does not allow you to buy tickets on trams, buses, or at any but a few railway stations.

    We keep getting data (such as the MUARC study) pointing to higher casualty rates for higher cycling speeds. To what degree might that reflect the failure to design helmets to protect against oblique impact? As far as I can determine, all standard testing of bicycle helmets throughout the World assumes a straight fall onto a hard surface. This is a very poor approximation of how people fall from a moving bicycle.

    Might it be that faster cyclists in The Netherlands are being head-injured to a higher degree because they are wearing helmets? That is easy to laugh off, but more challenging to substantiate, so spare us the reflexive smart-alec responses, please.

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    1. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to John Harland

      You're right John, it is easy to laugh off. I've addressed the theory that helmets cause injury in a accident in another forum (with you) so I won't drag back old arguments to state the case, except to say that the epidemiology of cycling injuries certainly supports the case that helmets are protective, statistically, in the event of a cycling accident.

      The argument that ought we be compelled to wear helmets is a different thing altogether and certainly less clear.

      Your concerns about oblique impact are curious, do you mean injury to the lateral aspect of the skull and brain or do you mean forces imparted at 45 degrees to the coronal and sagittal planes of the skull? If you mean rotational injury the research i have previously quoted to you reveals that this argument is not at all strong.

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  14. Roger Davidson

    Student

    I would be extremely reluctant to put on a share bike helmet that has been used by who knows who previously.

    Is that a valid concern?

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    1. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Roger Davidson

      Yes it is completely valid. i sweat like a sweaty thing, you would not want a helmet that had been worn by me....
      If you're going to have a bike share scheme they must be exempt from helmet laws - well, if you want them to be patronised anyway.

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  15. Timothy Varday

    Student

    In Copenhagen, Denmark, the public bike sharing scheme consists of very basic bikes that would costs no more than $50 each. To borrow, you insert a 20 Danish Kroner coin (equivalent to AUD5). Essentially, it works the same as borrowing a grocery trolley from Aldi etc. You get the money back upon it's return. It is illegal to ride them outside the inner city area.

    Whereas in Brisbane, the council has opted for the most expensive option, choosing bikes that are too expensive which means the chances…

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  16. Kathy Francis

    logged in via Facebook

    I'm not sure what motivates Mr. Fishman to explore only options other than the removal of the helmet laws to try to improve the uptake of the Bikeshare bikes. Feedback from the participants in his own research study demonstrated that these laws were the most significant barrier to the use of the bikes.

    From the article Mr. Fishman concludes :

    " There is little doubt rescinding helmet laws would boost bike share usage in Australia. However until the full population health/safety impacts have…

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    1. Murray Henman

      transport planner

      In reply to Kathy Francis

      I can't answer for Mr Fishman, but to me, the answer is obvious. It's not just about bike hire schemes, but encouraging everyone to get on a bike. Mandatory helmet laws may discourage some people from riding, but a lot more are deterred because they simply don't feel safe riding on the facilities (roads) we have. Creating dedicated cycle lanes and paths will do a lot to address that.

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  17. Dan

    logged in via Twitter

    Whilst better ticketing and infrastructure will indeed improve Melbourne's bike share, Mr Fishman's own research indicates that they are, at best, peripheral issues. Indeed, the weather was a bigger barrier to usage than either safety (9% of non-users cited this as reason not to use) or cost (8% of users).

    A whopping 61% cited helmets as the primary reason they do not use Melbourne's bike share. See figure 1 in Mr Fishman's own research. As 'ignoring the elephant in the room' goes, this is right up there. Quite extraordinary.

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    1. Murray Henman

      transport planner

      In reply to Dan

      As I've said in another comment, I think this issue goes beyond bike share to examining ways to encourage everyone to ride a bike, be it a hire one or their own.

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  18. Tristan Cooke

    logged in via Twitter

    I think this is a pretty reasonable article.

    There is one point I would like to make on each side.

    POINT 1: CHICKEN AND EGG

    I agree that all the other measures could make the bike share scheme (and biking in general) more appealing.

    However, part of the problem in getting these changes is public demand for them to happen. This would largely be generated by more bike usage, potentially by removal of the mandatory helmet law (even if it's only for some bikes in some areas). So, the…

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    1. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tristan Cooke

      Mr Cooke, that is why a trial would be a good idea. The bikeshare as I outlined below offers a good place to start, because data is readily available, we have the before and now we just need the after.

      Like all trials of health interventions, whether drugs or treatment, a protocol needs to be established for the trial which would call it off if head injuries were larger than random chance would predict. This is considered acceptable in all other public health interventions, why not bike share…

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  19. Citizen SG

    Citizen

    Whilst I see merit in a cycling scheme, what is the evidence that they reduce traffic congestion in the inner city? Melbourne, for example, has an excellent inner city public transport system so why have a bike share scheme there?
    Are the various cycling schemes doing anything to mitigate the effects of poor infrastructure that forces thousands of car commuters to drive long distances in our major cities. Surely the money spent on public bikes should be injected into cycling infrastructure to get more car commuters cycling, or walking to public transport options (to get to work); not to get more tourists riding or to increase the competition for public transport in the inner city.
    The helmet issue and the bike scheme issue are both distractions within the greater problem of improved commuter and urban infrastructure. The holy grail of turning our cities into little copenhagens won't be realised by a bike scheme it will be realised by infrastructure.

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    1. Murray Henman

      transport planner

      In reply to Citizen SG

      I find this a very good point. What is the purpose of a bike hire scheme? I don't pretend to know that answer of our councils, but I'd argue that it's not only about congestion.

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    2. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Addit:
      One comment that I wished to make about the case for/against helmets is the issue of causation and correlation. There was a decline in cycling in the 90s at the time of the MHL laws. It is commonly supposed that there is a causative relationship between the two. Whilst it is entirely probable that there was some effect there were other factors at play in Australia at that time, car owner ship, expanding suburbs, busier roads etc all which had contributed to the decline in bicycle commuting…

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    3. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Seamus, I'll try not to froth at the mouth.

      There are many reasons for introducing a bike share, I'll list a few.

      Most bike trips in the inner City are from suburb to work and occur during peak hours. You see hardly any bikes in the City at other times. The bikeshare if used to potential will put hundreds of bikes on the streets all day long. This is an important demonstration effect to normalise cycling as a means of transport.

      The main resistance to getting better bike facilities in…

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    4. nik dow

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Citizen SG

      In relation to your addit. Census data is one way of trying to find out whether and how much cycling declined when helmet laws were introduced. Unfortunately governments did a very poor job of before and after monitoring to provide evidence on this.

      The other factors that you mention didn't all take effect in 1990-92, they are gradual and existed as influences both before and after helmet mandation. What the census data shows is increasing bike modal share in the '80s with a sharp turn with helmet…

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  20. Mark Sindone

    Self Storage Franchisee at Archive Storage

    Bicycling does indeed brings about many positive benefits to the cyclists and the environment. However, many factors need to be put in place first before more cyclists agree to participate in this environmentally-friendly movement. The workplaces of the cyclists need to provide a conducive cyclist-friendly area like a shower facility and a secure bicycle storage area where cyclists can rest assured their bicycles and helmets will be stored away safely while they are working.

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