Lack of helmets a Biketown road bump

Other cities with bike share programs offer helmets

Light rail tracks like these in front of a Biketown station caused Brittany Jones to fall and suffer a concussion on a rented bike. No helmets are offered at the stations. (Portland Tribune)
Light rail tracks like these in front of a Biketown station caused Brittany Jones to fall and suffer a concussion on a rented bike. No helmets are offered at the stations. (Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — It took less than two months for someone using Portland’s popular new bike-sharing program to suffer a head injury — a concussion that could have been much worse.

That raised the question of whether the city should make helmets available to the thousands of people using Biketown.

Brittany Jones, 25, doesn’t normally ride bikes on city streets, but she went along for the ride when her friends spontaneously wanted to give the new orange bikes a try.

Now she wishes she had her helmet with her — or that Biketown had offered her one to rent.

As the Beaverton resident tried to cross the light-rail tracks near the Convention Center three weeks ago, her wheel got caught in the groove next to the railing. She vaguely recalls her bicycle falling sideways.

As she fell, her head smacked the ground. She lost consciousness, and her friends called 911. Her memory is fuzzy on what happened next.

“I woke up 30 seconds later is what they said,” Jones says. “When I was getting put in the ambulance I remember asking my friends, ‘Is it really that bad? Is it really that bad?’ ”

After a CT scan and examination, she was released from Legacy Emanuel Medical Center hours later. But she felt the after-effects for a week — exhaustion, splitting headaches, difficulties with word recall.

Jones is feeling better now, and doesn’t blame the city for her frightening experience. “I take full responsibility,” she says.

But she does hope officials will look more seriously at what it would take to provide helmets, given the program’s popularity and that most users don’t seem to wear anything to protect their heads.

“I just want people to think about it, because I’ve seen these bikes all over, and no one thinks about wearing helmets,” Jones says. “It’s too important.”

The Biketown program, offering 1,000 bikes to rent spread among 100 locations, has been praised for making bikes accessible to people who otherwise might not ride them. But while sending thousands of new people — including tourists and inexperienced cyclists — out on the sometimes-tricky streets of Portland, it doesn’t offer the one safety accessory that most serious riders consider essential.

Portland officials stress that Biketown bikes are built with safety in mind; they’re slow and stable, with lights built in. Officials encourage people to wear helmets, and have participated in a promotion with Nutcase helmets, offering coupons from the local firm for $10 off.

But while they’re keeping their eyes open, city officials have no immediate plans to adopt a helmet-sharing system to go with bike-share.

“We’re frankly really not happy with the technology that we’ve seen,” says city transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera, speaking of helmets for bike-share. “In our assessment, the technology is not there yet.”

Other cities share helmets

Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, made a different decision. They offer helmets at each location of their bike-share programs.

So how do they do it?

In Seattle, the ride-share system is called Pronto, offering bright green bikes. Each bike-share location has a bin offering bike helmets to renters who punch in a PIN code. Renters return used helmets to a separate compartment, where they are picked up, cleaned and disinfected after each ride — or series of rides, depending on how long they’re kept.

“We’re processing about 0.4 helmets per ride right now,” says Demi Allen, general manager of Pronto! Cycle Share, which is the Seattle arm of the same larger bike-sharing company used by Portland, called Motivate.

But picking up, cleaning and returning the helmets to each location is “pretty labor-intensive,” Allen adds. He won’t divulge costs, except to say it’s on par with the cost of bike maintenance. “It adds a substantial amount of cost to the operation,” he says. Is the cost prohibitive? “It depends who’s asking,” he laughs.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, officials launched a bike-sharing program the day after Portland did. There, the system uses bikes with a cable lock that comes out of the handlebars, and helmets are attached to each bike with the cable. They can be stowed in the bike’s rack for those not wanting to wear them,

“I would say there is at least a 70 percent use of the helmets,” says Mia Kohout, general manager of Mobi, or Vancouver Bikeshare.

Maintenance crews in Vancouver disinfect helmets at each location once a day, and the program is adopting a schedule of deep-cleaning all helmets once a week. Disposable helmet liners are available at each location for those wanting extra protection.

Though each helmet costs the program about $20, “It doesn’t add a lot to the day-to-day operations (costs),” Kohout says. Only a handful have gone missing, and the helmet system “has been working really surprisingly well.”

In Melbourne, Australia, the bike-share program offers helmets at convenience stores at a subsidized rate of a few dollars each.

However, Portland officials note that in those three cities, helmets are mandatory. Under Oregon law, only riders under 16 are required to wear helmets.

Looking to new technology

City officials also note the high cost of Seattle’s program, and say that their mandate is to not spend city funds. Instead, Biketown is funded through a federal grant and $10 million from Nike. The Portland program is “self-sustaining,” says Steve Hoyt-McBeth, the city program manager who oversees Biketown.

Hoyt-McBeth says there are encouraging options that might make sense, ideas like a disposable helmet designed in London specifically for bike-sharing programs. There are also folding helmets that can be packed away in a bag or a purse.

“There’s a lot of exciting and intriguing possibilities that are right on the horizon,” he adds. “But for the most part, they’re not ready for market yet.”

Attorney Ray Thomas has spent a good portion of his career suing on behalf of riders who’ve been in accidents. He has a whole collection of helmets that belonged to his clients, typically saving lives or reducing the harm they suffered.

If Seattle can offer helmets, he wonders whether Portland couldn’t do it even better, perhaps using some homegrown solution supported by local bike stores.

“The people who are local who are using these bikeshare bikes tend to be people who are not as aware of things like potholes, MAX tracks and some of the other types of surface hazards that we have,” Thomas says. “Which, of course, makes it more important to warn them and to provide some help to them.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner. 

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