How will the Vancouver bike share helmet system work?
Vancouver bike share helmet machines: New facts emerge and a few mysteries persist.
In the end, the solution provided by Alta/PBS C, which consists of an integrated helmet vending machine and helmet return receptacle, was determined to best meet the requirements. The helmet system will include a helmet vending machine and a helmet return receptacle which allow users to rent a bike an d a helmet using a single transaction. The Alta/PBSC helmet vending machine is expected to offer two sizes of helmets, with a capacity of approximately thirty helmets per vending machine. The rental and return of a helmet will be tracked using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on the helmets. Upon return by a user, helmets will be collected by Alta staff and brought to an off-site facility where they will be sanitised and inspected before redistribution.
So Vancouver's helmet-dispenser system will not be entirely automated: no friendly robot will be on hand to sterilize your sweaty helmet. A human will swing by, empty the returned-helmet receptacle, and whisk the lids off for cleaning.
Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston tells me that the helmet machines will be "low-tech, simple, using approaches that have proven successful in other vending applications." Like the corkscrew machine that delivers your candy bar.
Each helmet will cost $3 for 24 hours' use, and a "hefty" fine will apply if you gank the helmet.
The fine will be greater than the cost of a helmet at your local bike shop. Notes Johnston, "It'll be cheap to rent, but not cheap to walk away with."
Just make it work
At first, says Johnston, the cleaning and safety testing will probably be manual. The exact process is still under wraps at Alta's behest: the Portland-based company will be patenting its process. (I have reached out to Alta regarding the Helmet-o-matics, but have yet to hear back.)
What will the helmet dispenser system cost? We don't know yet, but the City stipulates that it's Alta's problem.
Furthermore, adds Johnston, Alta cannot pull the plug on the Helmet-o-matics if nobody uses them: "It's Alta’s responsibility to deliver and maintain the helmet option. [...] They cannot remove the system if it’s underutilized."
It is recognized that after launch and as utilization data becomes available, adjustments to the helmet distribution system may be necessary to meet system demands. One of the key operational metrics staff will be monitoring will be the minimum service levels for helmet availability and return.
The proposal identified the deployment of an "integrated helmet solution" as a "key risk" to the bike share program's early success, but the City only cares about actual bicycle uptake. Unable to circumvent Provincial law, the principle of compliance had to be baked into the proposal.
The City took what Johnston called a principles approach: "The vendor is responsible for delivering based on these principles." This means a system which makes stack-hats available without making them disposable: "We chose to stay away from one-time use approach so we wouldn’t contribute to the waste stream."
Option C (as in "Catch me if you can")
What if riders use the bike share program while simply ignoring the helmet law? For example, a tourist used to this sort of system in her home city, or a commuter who thinks, "Screw it, I'm only doing a 15-minute ride, I won't see a cop."
Then the helmet system or lack thereof is less relevant.
For some reason, a Reddit discussion on my previous coverage ignores the notion of willful flouting of the BC helmet law: there's nothing in the proposal that indicates a head-scanner that will dock-block you if you don't have a helmet.
You'll be in violation of the law, sure, but you can still unlock a PBS bike if you don't have a helmet.
How will the police, in turn, behave? Will they camp on PBS docking stations to snag helmet-law violators, or will they just ignore lidless riders to the extent that they currently do? Judging by the sheer number of helmetless riders I see every day, I can only presume that getting a ticket for riding without a bike helmet is not exactly a daily occurrence.
The next level
For those thinking that Vancouver is going overboard on this whole cycling thing, have a look at Netherlands. The country with more bikes than people is exploring a system of heated bike paths to encourage true year-round cycling. Such paths would cost around C$54,000 per kilometer. That's dedication, and the fact that such a project is even entering the exploratory phase speaks to a political will to make it happen.
Here in Vancouver, though, we're starting out small, at least in terms of bikes... but if we can make a helmet dispenser system work, we'll go down in bike-share history.