A bigger agenda for Bixis?

While Melbourne Bike Share is struggling for riders, it isn’t struggling for attention.

I’ve been amazed at how the fate of the Bixis and reform of the compulsory helmet laws have been brought together and propelled into the public domain as a major public issue.

Before the Bixis, most people thought those who opposed mandatory helmets were the sorts of libertarian nutters who campaigned against obligatory seat belts and corresponded daily with the Unabomber. Now it’s widely recognised there’s a sensible countervailing argument.

There is clearly a power in the idea of Bixis. Melburnites won’t ride them but they like the idea of them.

Perhaps I’m over-reaching here, but I’m thinking that if a few blue bikes can do this with helmets, then they might be turned to a more powerful purpose, like promoting the legitimacy of all bicycles on Melbourne’s streets.

I don’t know if it’s their aspirational Parisian style or the fact that they’re an “official” government program, but the special appeal of Bixis could help to legitimise cyclists as valid road users in the eyes of drivers.

There are merits to both the sides of the helmet debate but to my mind it can only end one way. Moreover, helmets are not the key obstacle to the bigger objective of making cycling in Melbourne more popular.

I’d like to see all that energy redirected to what I suspect is a much bigger impediment to cycling generally and to Melbourne Bicycle Share in particular – the dangers of riding in traffic. The fact is inner city Melbourne is not a safe place to ride and drivers have little tradition of respect or consideration for cyclists.

Traffic safety, if linked directly to the poor take-up of the Bixis, could potentially be used as a lever to create more dedicated bicycle road space in the CBD and inner city and to establish much lower speed limits for cars and vans. I don’t see why any vehicle should be permitted to go faster than 30 kph in such a dense, pedestrian-intensive environment.

Melbourne Bicycle Share could be a key reason to promote road pricing in the city centre. It could help promote restrictions on when vans can make deliveries and how much road space is provided for parking at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians.

This refocusing of the debate away from helmets to “safety in traffic” implies some wider changes. It suggests the market should be deliberately widened to include tourists (as I argued here) as that could significantly increase the political power of the Bixis. It would require a re-jigging of the tariff so that it doesn’t continue to penalise riders who want to rent for longer periods.

I’ve argued before that Melbourne Bicycle Share is a solution looking for a problem. It’s a political exercise, of course. But if it can be used to leverage wider change, then the initial $5.5 million would be money well spent.

So I’d like to see the helmet issue given a rest. I’m sympathetic to the argument but it’s unwinnable. Most mums and dads think anyone opposed to helmets is a crank. And it’s not as strategically important to promoting cycling in Melbourne long-term as other issues like addressing safety in traffic – that in my opinion deters many more riders than the disadvantages of helmets.

16 Comments on “A bigger agenda for Bixis?”

  1. Michael says:

    Good points. The helmet issue is undoubtedly harming bixie (although I have seen a few people riding bixies without helmets) – it’s not the main reason people don’t cycle in Melbourne.
    I’m not optimistic about improvements being made though. Maybe if one council in Melbourne is successful in implementing some serious cycling infrastructure resulting in a measurable increase in cycling then it might set a standard. There are some great cycling paths in Melbourne already, but they aren’t connected, you have to dodge people walking their dogs off the leash and they are frequently sprinkled with broken glass. I ride to work everyday and the CBD is one of the worst places to cycle. The only thing that will spur an increase in cycling will be an increase in the price of petrol or road pricing and they don’t look that likely either. In short there are many reasons keeping people from riding.

  2. Matthew says:

    Could I suggest a legislated mandatory minimum standard for off-road (or at least adjacent, but not on road) bicycle infrastructure in terms of kilometres of network, minimum width, quality of surface, absence of obstacles and a measure of interconnectivity for both retrofitting old suburbs and when building new with a timetable for compliance? And it’s set at a meaningful level that many people will bemoan, but does actually break our dependency on motor vehicles.

  3. Ian Woodcock says:

    Alan, I heartily agree with your sentiments. While there is evidence to suggest that wearing helmets may end up being less safe for cyclists because of the way drivers perceive helmeted riders as less vulnerable, the issue of transport planning, road design and traffic management being dominated by a hierarchy of values in which motorised vehicles are far and away the number one priority is the main issue. It is not just a matter of perception – Melbourne’s roads are unsafe for cyclists because they are not designed for them. The new Transport Integration Act should be a cause for some optimism at a policy level, but the inertia embodied in the thousands of kilometres of existing ‘un-integrated’ roads presents enormous challenges to implementation.

  4. Ian Bright says:

    If in London, look at the appparent early success of the “Boris Bike” scheme (a term coined based on the London Mayor’s name Boris Johnson).

    See here http://www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling/14808.aspx

    Here is a user forum http://www.borisbikes.co.uk/

    The scheme is similar to the Melbourne scheme and helmets are not required in London.

    There is no evidence of Boris Bikers turning up at casualty after riding in London trafic.

    Then again, there are many, many cycle riders in London nowadays. Maybe London drivers are more cycle aware than Melbournites.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Isn’t there a stronger tradition of cycling in the UK than here? Even on Teachers (shown here on ABC TV but filmed in UK) the star of the first series used to ride a bike to school. Some of the other staff used to ride too I think. All seemed perfectly normal.

      • Ian Bright says:

        It has now almost 30 years since I lived in Melbourne so cannot answer accurately. A visit there in August did suggest fewer cyclists than in London – but that is not a scientific analysis.

        In my (distant) youth I cycled from Yarraville to Williamstown beach almost every summer day and for two years cycled to university in Parkville. Maybe I was the odd one out even then.

        In London, bike culture has certainly flourished over the past 5 or so years. Crowded public transport, high fares and travel by bike being faster appear to have encouraged more to ride. There are also public campaigns encouraging people to rise rather than drive.

        When working in London I typically make each 10 mile one way trip by bike to teh City in under 45 minutes. By public transport it takes 1 hour.

        Cyclists are now very common in London. There have been noticeable driver education advertising campaigns which may have helped cycle safety. Still may car drivers get very annoyed with cyclists (some cyclists deserve the anger) and it pays to keep very alert.

  5. averagejoecyclist says:

    Alan, the perception in most of the world is that Bixi is failing in Melbourne (but not anywhere else) because of the mandatory helmet law. And while we have heard of the innovative helmet share ideas, most people just go “Ick” at the thought of sharing helmets 😦

    I have just blogged about my fears that my city is set to follow in Melbourne’s footsteps, as we also have mandatory helmet laws, with legislators who apparently lack the imagination to look beyond that – http://averagejoecyclist.com/?p=1455

    By contrast, Bixi Montreal is gloriously free of helmet laws – and doing amazingly well, even though the city is snowed under half the year – see http://averagejoecyclist.com/?p=392

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think it’s too early to conclude that Melbourne’s scheme is not working because of helmets. That’s a factor but I think road safety is a bigger deterrent. The tariff discourages tourists so it’s aimed at locals and they, I fear, won’t be game to ride Bixis in very large numbers.

      BTW my understanding is that when helmets are returned to 7-11s, the renter gets $3 of their $5 outlay back. The helmets are then cleaned and fumigated before re-use (or more likely not re-used at all)

  6. averagejoecyclist says:

    Alan, interesting to hear. I think it is too easy for folks who are far away to not understand the nuances of a situation. I have probably tended to be too simplistic about Melbourne in my posts, because I do NOT understand all the nuances. I am very much hoping to vacation in Melbourne next year and try your Bixis myself – but even that will not give me the insight of a local, obviously.

    It troubles me that road safety is such a big detterent. Here in Vancouver we have a HUGE problem with that as well, as I document a lot in my blog. We have a great mayor at the moment (Gregor Robertson) who is putting in some safe, separated bike lanes – but whether it will be enough to make Bixis safe, remains to be seen. We are a long way off at the moment …

    Good luck to you in Melbourne! Hope to see your fine city soon (all of my family lives in Australia, and how I envy them when they send me photos of themselves on the beach, while I am freezing here!)

  7. Chris Greenleaf says:

    Alan, you are spot on regarding road safety.
    A great example of this is the Copenhagen style bike lane down Fitzroy street. It is a breath of fresh air to see this type of council initiative, but what people fail to realise is this type of bike infrastructure comes with a more greater need of traffic taming. If you watch this video clip through to the end (which is excellent), you can see what I mean by traffic taming.


    I ride down the Fitzroy bike path on a regular bases, but where the path crosses the side streets, I take extra care to make sure no vehicle is going to take me out, as they attempt to turn left or right into the side street. Obviously the drivers could be paying a bit more attention, but you can’t put the blame solely on the driver, if they don’t know there is a two way bike lane they are about to cross.

    If I had my way haha, I’d introduce 30km inner city driving limits, launch a campaign to educate people on the new type of bike lanes, and subsequently introduce nasty laws for any driver that fails to respect the new cycle infrastructure. It is next to impossible to totally separate cyclists from motor vehicles, so compromise needs to be reach by the motor vehicle fraternity.

  8. chris gordon says:

    alan, check out this blog, although you may have already…
    This is my lovely boss’ brother, Mike Rubbo.

  9. Herb says:

    The problem with your argument is that the most likely reason there has been no strong uptake in bike sharing in Melbourne compared to other cities is the helmet law and not “dangerous” traffic. The Boris bikes are quite popular in London, and it has very heavy, chaotic traffic with a strong perception of being dangerous. Maybe people in Melbourne have an even strong perception of the roads being dangerous than in London, but I doubt they are that timid.

    Maybe there are other mysterious reasons, but I think the answer is right on top of your heads. And if people want to increase cycling mode share getting rid of or preventing helmet laws would be a great way to promote cycling, in my humble opinion. But then I come from a city (Toronto) with no helmet law where we leave it up to personal preference: if you feel like you need to wear a helmet go put one on, but don’t legislate me to wear one.

    One last thing. Your argument that bike sharing is a “solution looking for a problem” falls flat when you actually consider that they are very popular in most cities. It doesn’t matter how or why they started (even though in many cities there were strong grassroots organizations pushing for them). So what if it was “top down” in Melbourne. Bike sharing has helped solve a bunch of problems such as: “how do I get from point A to point B quickly and cheaply?” “How can I get some exercise without having to plan everything out?” “How can I have a more enjoyable commute?” The side benefit, of course, is getting people out of their cars (and even transit since bikesharing is even more efficient for short trips). In Montreal they found 10% of BIXI users were previously using taxis or their own cars.

    • Alan Davies says:

      $5 helmets were made available from 13 October 2010. Not as convenient as no helmet but it certainly lowers the barrier. We’re getting towards the end of summer now, but use of Bixis doesn’t appear to be on the up and up.

      I think it does matter “how they started” because unlike personal bikes, Bixis in Melbourne are heavily subsidised by the government.

      Update: Tuesday afternoon 1pm – only 1.5% of Bixis currently hired out.

  10. Matt T says:

    Herb, Melbourne’s scheme doesn’t really work as how to get from point A to point B. The system doesn’t have an extensive footprint and is focused on the CBD. So it is more like how to get from point A to a place really close to point A. Add that to the helmet law and most fit people would walk, or catch one of the frequent trams in inner city. The inner city of Melbourne is busy, noisy and riddled with tobacco smoke. It’s all tram tracks and private cars rushing through the traffic lights. Riding through the city is just unpleasant.

  11. brisurban says:

    Alan, do you think it is a valid or invalid argument for someone to say that these cycle schemes are good for public transport because they take people off buses?

    And secondly, would the $5.5 million dollars spent on Bixi be better spent on achieving the same goals by spending $5.5 million dollars on just more bicycle parking?

    • Alan Davies says:

      In Melbourne I think if they were used to the degree anticipated much of it would be at the expense of public transport (mainly trams). Revenue would be lost, mostly in off-peak times. As it is they don’t get used, so the only waste is in the subsidy.

      Today is fine with moderate temp yet at 12:25 only 3.9% of Bixis are rented according to Bike-O-Meter. They’re pitched at workers and residents who’ve now had ample time to get a helmet, so I’d expect much better usage than that.

      Yes, I think the money would have been better spent on improving facilities for (ordinary) cyclists.

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