Company peddles bike helmet vending machines in Vancouver

Helmet laws vary from city to city

The company negotiating with the city to implement a massive public rental bicycle system next spring plans to sell helmets in vending machines to accommodate the province's mandatory helmet laws.

Michael Jones, the CEO of Portland's Alta Bike Share, said the vending machines for the helmets, which are expected to sell for a low price, will be part of the 125 bike stations. "They have vending machines in airports that sell headphones, so I don't think this is like rocket science," said Jones, referring to Vancouver city staff's concern there is no successful integrated helmet system worldwide. "I'm optimistic this system is going to work."

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Jones said no city aside from Vancouver has requested his company implement such a large-scale bike system where helmets must be included at stations.

Helmet laws vary in cities but helmets are mandatory in Melbourne, Aus., where Alta operates a smaller bike share system with 51 stations and 600 bikes. Helmets are sold in convenient stores and two vending machines for $5 each. A cyclist gets $3 back if the helmet is returned after a ride.

The vending machines are not integrated into Melbourne's 51 stations. One is in a train depot, about 100 metres from a bike station, Jones said.

With Vancouver on board for 125 stations and 1,500 seven-speed bikes, which will be located downtown and along the Broadway corridor, Alta wants to create a system that can be deployed in other cities embarking on bike share programs. "We're trying to keep things as simple and as straightforward as possible, but this will be-as far as we know-a ground breaking system," Jones said.

The Vancouver system will include bins where helmets can be returned. The operator will collect the helmets, test them for safety deficiencies, sanitize them and redistribute them for another sale.

The system will cost $1.9 million amortized over 10 years. Both Alta and the city will not disclose what share of the cost either will pick up until negotiations conclude.

Jerry Dobrovolny, the city's director of transportation, told city council earlier this month he expected to bring the contract with Alta before council in the fall.

Jones and Dobrovolny both attended the Velo-city Global 2012 international cycling conference at the Sheraton Wall Centre this week. Delegates were given helmets and access to public share bikes provided by Bixi, the Montreal company working with Alta to bring the rental system to Vancouver.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal attended the conference and happened to be looking at helmets at one of the exhibitor's booths when questioned by the Courier about Alta's plan for vending machines. "Frankly, I think if we get this made-for-Vancouver solution right, it won't stop here and a lot of cities will choose it," she said. "It has to be integrated. You want to be able to swipe that credit card in once [at the station], and it pops you out a bike and a helmet."

The cost of renting a bike still hasn't been finalized but in Toronto a bike can be used for $1.50 an hour. Memberships of varying time lengths can also be purchased.

Mexico City created a helmet law exemption for adults after its bike rental program's first year of operations. Tel Aviv recently exempted adults in urban areas. In Brisbane, the city bought 400 helmets that remain on the bikes and are not cleaned.

Whether cyclists will wear helmets when using the new bike share system is difficult to predict, although the Courier spotted several people on the Bixi bikes this week without a helmet-including a delegate who was stopped by police in Strathcona and given a ticket.

Twitter: @Howellings

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