As bike share programs pop up in cities around the world, some places face a serious roadblock to implementing these programs. The problem isn’t a lack of funding, adequate technology, or even public support. The problem, according to some advocates and critics, is bike helmets.

The value of the styrofoam domes that we’ve been told since childhood should be worn as a sensible and effective safety measure is being questioned now that bike share systems are getting people to rethink the role of the bicycle in their transportation systems.

In North America, Seattle and Vancouver are at the epicenter of this helmet battle. Both cities have been trying to start bike share programs, but they haven’t been able to yet. And some cycling advocates and helmet critics say that their mandatory helmet laws exacerbate a widespread perception that bicycling is unsafe.

The bike share program in Vancouver was scheduled to launch this year. But it has been delayed and may even launch next year. Bicycling advocates contend that the naked finger can be pointed directly at mandatory helmet laws. From The Vancouver Sun:

[Bicycle advocacy group Sit Up Vancouver] places the blame for the delay squarely on the bike-helmet law, calling it “the single biggest barrier.”

“We want to see more bikes in the City of Vancouver, and we know it’s preventing people from getting on bikes,” said [Chris] Bruntlett, who has received two tickets for cycling without a helmet. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Seattle faces a similar contest to its mandatory helmet law as the city tries to launch its bike share program. From Grist.org:

Seattle’s calf-quaking hills and drizzly weather might make you wonder if a program like this can really take off here, but bikeshares are succeeding in similarly dreary, uneven conditions elsewhere. (See Dublin.) The helmet law, on the other hand, could create a real problem. The law by itself could whittle a whopping 30 percent off of bike share participation, according to the Puget Sound Bike Share Business Plan [PDF].

But North America isn’t the only continent with a helmet issue. Melbourne, Australia is often seen as an example of a city with an existing bike share system that has all the right stuff–a nice climate, flat topography, urban density–except for Australia’s mandatory helmet law. Some estimate that each bike in the system is used less than once per day. Compare this to Capital Bikeshare, which has between two and four trips per bike per day depending on the time of year, and the ridership disparity between the two cities becomes vivid.

Residents of Seattle,Vancouver, and Melbourne are not alone in seeing mandatory helmet laws as a barrier to increasing ridership on bike share systems. Support for helmet use is waning in the public discourse more generally. In fact, the voices of protest against these laws are getting louder. Last September, an article appeared in The New York Times that gave the dissent over bike helmets a large stage and nationalized the debate otherwise local to Seattle and Vancouver here in North America. From The New York Times:

In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet promotion.

But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.

This article make the salient point that promoting bicycle helmets as a safety measure may not be the right move in every community–especially in places with mature bicycling infrastructure. But not all systems are mature. And promoting bicycle helmets as a safety measure may be exactly what some communities need.

Los Angeles, long the bane of any commuter not driving a car, is rapidly expanding it’s bicycle infrastructure. The city is even expected to have a bike share system launched later this year. But Stacy Farfán doesn’t ride without a helmet in Los Angeles, and she urges her friends and family to ride wearing one too.

“LA’s car culture really does make bicycling feel unsafe in this city. And car-ownership has been a symbol of social status here. Until more recently, it was poor people and immigrants who could not afford a car who were the ones riding bikes. There was a sense of entitlement to the road if you drove a car,” said Farfán.

Farfán is a native Angeleno, a cyclist and a graduate student studying community planning at the University of Southern California. She lived and biked in Washington D.C. for a few years as well, where the bicycle culture and infrastructure is completely different than in Los Angeles.

“When I was in D.C., drivers would wait for [bicyclists], or they safely go around you. And the roads are really easy to ride on. I understand feeling like you don’t need a helmet there. But L.A. is different,” said Farfán.

Los Angeles doesn’t have a mandatory helmet law for adults. And Farfán doesn’t believe that a mandatory helmet law is the right solution for Los Angeles but that in some places like her hometown the concern over bicycle safety is still justified. And the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) thinks so too. Leading up to Bike Week L.A. in May, Metro launched a massive ad campaign in March to bring awareness to the need for sharing the road.

Last month, The Atlantic published an article looking at a study that examined what is known about how effective helmets and mandatory helmet laws are at preventing injury and promoting bicycling as a safe mode of transportation. It turns out, we don’t know as much as we should. From The Atlantic:

In Pinka Chatterji and Sara Markowitz‘s report for the [National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)] last week, they note that no nation-wide study in the U.S. has evaluated the effects of bike helmet laws on injuries. They also say that only one study has looked at helmet laws’ effect on mortality — in it, they were “associated with a 15 percent reduction in fatalities among juveniles.” [....] In short, they found that in the U.S., kids and teenagers ride less in places with helmet laws, and suggest that less riding could be what actually accounts for reductions in bike-related injuries.

This article points out that evidence, like the NBER paper, is mounting that maybe we are better off without helmets. However, this paper focuses on children’s injuries and acknowledges that more research into bicycle safety and helmet laws is needed. And saying that more research is needed is not the same as saying that helmet laws don’t make riders and the people around them safer in all places.

Whether or not helmets and helmet laws make people safer is a bit unclear. What we do know from the few examples we have is that mandatory helmet laws don’t get people using bike share systems. And some advocates, government agencies and businesses aren’t waiting for a verdict on the effectiveness of bike helmet laws.

So, in the meantime, places like Melbourne, a city in a country with a mandatory helmet law, are improvising. The city made the announcement a few weeks ago that it would give away free helmets to get more people to use its flagging bike share system. From The Age:

Two hundred free helmets will be distributed, covering a third of the bikes in the Melbourne scheme, which costs Victorian taxpayers about $50,000 a month in helmet subsidies, plus $5 million over five years.

[...]

The free helmets, which will be located on bike handlebars, will be trialled for three months at a cost of $13,000. The helmets are meant to be shared, although the government expects that some will be stolen. Currently, share-bike users must bring their own helmet or buy one for $5 at a convenience store.

The move copies a successful trial with Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme, where bikes with a free share helmet attached were used three times more often than those without one.

This isn’t the first time that a bike share program has offered a completely free product. This is reminiscent of the White Bike Scheme–the first generation bike share model in 1964. Free bikes were peppered across Amsterdam, but the bikes were stolen or confiscated within days. Melbourne is taking a similar chance with their helmet program. But this time theft is factored in to the cost.

Melbourne’s free helmet program could work. It worked in Brisbane, Melbourne’s neighbor to the northeast. But bike sharing has become more technologically sophisticated since the white bikes. And some cities are using technology to solve their helmet problems in ways similar to how technology accelerated the growth of the bike share industry.

A few weeks ago, Boston put out an RFP for automated helmet vending machines to complement its bike share program–even though the city doesn’t have a mandatory helmet law. If Boston installs helmet kiosks, it will be the first city ever to do so.

Right now, HelmetStation is one of the only products using new technology to sell itself effectively as an automated helmet rental solution. HelmetStation works by using an RFID tag to identify each helmet checked out of the kiosk. Once it’s returned, the helmet is quarantined for inspection and sanitizing before it’s released again for use.

SandVault, the company that builds the HelmetStation, may get the Boston contract though the HelmetStation is not without competition. HelmetHub offers a similar solution and has also responded on a bid for Boston’s helmet kiosks. But how well can helmet rentals work in a city without a mandatory helmet law?

“If there’s a law or not, there’s still a percentage of the population that won’t ride a bike without a helmet,” said Derrick Moennick, Business Development Director at SandVault.

SandVault and HelmetHub did a demonstration for Vancouver and Seattle last year and this may be what’s needed to ensure that what happened to Melbourne doesn’t happen to them. But bike sharing changed with technology. And helmet sharing may change with technology too.

This debate is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Using a bike share bike is a spontaneous decision for many riders. And potential riders won’t always have a helmet with them. If bike sharing cannot succeed where adults are obligated to wear a helmet, then Seattle and Vancouver may need to reevaluate their laws. But until the technology, the law, the public perception and the scholarship get sorted out in places like Seattle, Vancouver, Boston, and Melbourne, we can expect jurisdictions to stick with their mandatory bicycle helmet laws for now.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that SandVault’s HelmetStation is without competition. In fact, at least one other company, HelmetHub, competes in the same market.

Feature photo: Chattanooga BTS riders sport helmets in a photo shoot for the system. Photo credit: mgsloan (Instagram)