BEH member Steve Mooney recently led two studies regarding the use of the free-floating bike share system in Seattle. (Free-floating bike share systems are systems that allow users to pick up and leave bikes anywhere within a service area rather than at dedicated docking stations). These studies showed two things: a) that few people riding free-floating bike share rentals in Seattle are wearing helmets and b) that bikes were usually available in all Seattle neighborhoods across economic, racial and ethnic lines.
The helmet study, recently published in the Journal of Community Health, suggested that bike share systems, as compared with private bikes, may facilitate a more casual approach to cycling that makes helmet usage more challenging. The team, mostly members of the INSIGHT program at the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center in Seattle, counted the number of cyclists – noting helmet use –at four strategic locations around Seattle: the Fremont bridge, the Burke-Gilman Trail, Broadway Bike Lane and NW 58th Street at 22nd Avenue NW. They found that only one in five people riding bike shares wore helmets, as compared with nine in ten people riding private bikes. Intriguingly, they also found that fewer private bike cyclists wore helmets in locations where there were more bike share users.
Other studies have found similarly low statistics of bike helmet use in other bike share systems, with about 15 percent helmet use in New York and about 39 percent in Boston compared with Seattle’s estimated 20 percent use of helmets. However, Vancouver’s system, Mobi, provides helmets and boosts usage there as much as three times Seattle, at 64 percent.
In a separate study, published recently in the Journal of Transport Geography, Mooney (and frequent BEH collaborator Jana Hirsch) again looked at bike share programs. This time they wanted to see if the benefits of bike share were available to all neighborhoods regardless of economic, racial and ethnic composition. Prior studies have shown that docked bike share systems, which are geographically constrained by station locations, tend to favor advantaged neighborhoods.
What they found was nuanced: a baseline level of free-floating bikes were available in all neighborhoods across the city. When they looked a little more closely at where bikes tended to be ridden to and ‘rebalanced’ to (i.e. where the operating companies moved the bikes around the city) and merged that with neighborhood based census data, they did find a higher concentration of bikes in more affluent areas of the city. This inequity appeared to be driven by unequal demand across the city. That is, bike share operators did a good job of rebalancing bikes to places where they did not remain idle long – but those places tended to have wealthier and more educated residents than the city as a whole.
Their future work will dig more deeply into barriers to bike share usage and how much the low helmet use affects injury risk.