Despite a trial making helmets free for casual bike users, the three-year-old program could continue to struggle because Melbourne’s CBD congestion was still the biggest deterrent for riders, according to Professor Billie Giles-Corti, director of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne.
“The tension between cars, trams and cyclists is so intense,” Professor Giles-Corti said. “Cars are so dominant, despite the installation of Copenhagen-style bike lanes, that many potential cyclists feel unsafe.”
And trams travelled at a similar pace to cyclists – on average, at 16 km/h – “so most people feel it is far easier to just jump on a tram than to ride a bicycle,” she added.
Bike rental has increased modestly in recent times. The bikes were hired 16,090 times in January, compared to 12,879 trips a year earlier. Use in winter remains starkly lower: just 7982 trips were taken last July.
The free helmet trial is aimed at encouraging more spontaneous use of the bikes because the need to carry helmets has been identified as a key deterrent for many potential participants in the Bike Share scheme.
The trial, which began last month, is part of a series of initiatives announced by the Minister for Public Transport and Roads, Terry Mulder, to try to “reinvigorate” the program.
Under the plan, 200 free helmets will be distributed across the bicycle network every day for three months. It is based on a similar project undertaken for Brisbane’s public bike program two years ago.
VicRoads’ regional director for the metropolitan north-west, Patricia Liew, told The Citizen that Brisbane’s CityCycle helmet trial had been highly successful.
“Bicycles with free helmets were rented three times more than those without,” she said. “This indicates that free bicycle helmets actively encourage spontaneous cycling.”
The Brisbane City Council now supplies all bicycles in its program with helmets.
Ms Liew said the Victorian Government was willing to issue free helmets on all 600 of Melbourne’s bicycles if the trial was deemed a success.
Exchange students Juliana Tenucci and Diego Moreno said “the availability of free helmets [was] one of the reasons” they chose to ride around the city.
“The helmets are convenient and accessible but more are definitely needed to improve the program,” Ms Tenucci said.
A spokesperson for Bicycle Network Victoria, Garry Brennan, welcomed the free helmet trial but said commuters could be better served by expanding the number of bicycles in the Bike Share program from 600 to several thousand.
“Melbourne has 600 blue bikes on the streets, which means they get lost in a city of this size,” Mr Brennan said. “In Paris, by contrast, there are 26,000 bikes. Users never have to give a thought to where they can find a bicycle or where they can drop one off.”
Melbourne cyclist Chris Yates said the helmet trial was “a fantastic idea” but was concerned people were keeping the helmets for their personal use.
A spokesperson for the RACV, which operates Melbourne’s Bike Share program, was unable to say how many helmets had gone missing since the trial began.
But VicRoads’ Ms Liew said results from Brisbane’s CityCycle helmet trial suggested it was inevitable that some helmets would not be returned.