Seattle bike share’s surprisingly simple solution to a mandatory helmet law

by April Corbin, PeopleForBikes equity writer

Photos courtesy of Pronto Cycle Share.

Before Seattle launched Pronto Cycle Share in October, observers wondered how big of a setback themayor-supported, mandatory helmet law would be. After a few months of operations, all signs suggest it will be minimal.

And it’s all thanks to a low-tech solution that everyone expected to be temporary.

Many cities addressed their compulsory helmet laws before launching bike share systems. Last summer, in preparation of a citywide bike share system it hopes to launch in the next few years, Dallas amended its law so it applied only to cyclists under the age of 18. Melbourne, Australia, infamously failed to change its law before it launched a bike share system five years ago, and consequently underperformed.

Pronto Executive Director Holly Houser says Seattle’s bike share organizers didn’t want to take on King County’s mandatory helmet law. Such laws are a subject of much debate within the bicycling community and the general public. Some see them as an essential safety precaution. Others believe they are unnecessary for typical urban riding and potentially harmful because they send a message that bicycling is a dangerous activity and discourage people with naturally curly hair.

“We had enough to worry about,” says Houser about the decision not to push the issue, “We just wanted to accept the law as it is. We understand both sides of the debate, but we wanted to go neutral.”

Their solution was going to be to add helmet vending machines at each docking station, similar to the ones used in a pilot program in Boston. Before these could be installed, however, a temporary fix was needed.

They opted for an honor system. They left Pronto-branded, sanitized, wrapped plastic helmets in unlocked bins located directly next to the docking stations. This tech-free solution offers no way to track who took the helmets or where the helmets are. However, assuming they are available, it allows riders to follow the law of the land and avoid a $30 fine if ticketed.

What has happened since the October launch has been a pleasant surprise: People aren’t stealing them. The no-return rate on the helmets is low—only 3 or 4 percent. That’s lower than Houser expected.

“That’s sustainable,” she says.

In light of the success their temporary solution has had, the bike share system has altered their long-term plans. Now, instead of the potentially cost-prohibitive vending machine setup, they plan to lock the bins with a digital keypad. Members or users will be able to rent a helmet and access the helmets using a code.

The hardware costs of this low-tech solution are only a quarter of the original vending machines they’d planned for. The caveat is that helmet replacement costs will be higher and rental revenues will be lower, but according to Houser the low-tech solution is still projected to be more economical.

Houser is optimistic about this as a long-term solution.

Members and casual users don’t seem too dissuaded by the helmet issue either. According to the executive director, use of the bike share system is hovering close to what initial forecasts were. Between their mid-October launch and the end of 2014, Pronto averaged 262 trips per day, or 21,026 total. Those numbers are expected to rise significantly once the weather improves in the spring.

Pronto already has a plan to expand their availability this year. Those plans include adding stations into chronically underserved communities. Houser expects the helmet solution to continue working throughout this expansion.

And when it comes right down to it, the worst case scenario here is that some Seattle residents will get free bike helmets. That’s not such a bad thing.

Adds Houser, “We’ve seen some people not on Pronto bikes wearing the Pronto helmet, but we just look at it as, ‘Well, at least we’re getting helmets on people.’ If they needed a helmet that bad…”

The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Story tip? Write