Study confirms helmet laws killing Australian bike share

By September 27, 2012 April 5th, 2016 33 Comments

A recent study into the reasons for the disappointing usage of Australia’s two bike share schemes has confirmed what many people already know: public bike share will not work with mandatory helmet laws.

Usage rates of Brisbane’s CityCycle and the Melbourne Bike Share are terrible. This new research confirms what we have previously reported; that Brisbane and Melbourne are receiving only 5-10% of the usage we should expect of successful bike share schemes.

The authors note:

“Both schemes have approximately 0.3–0.4 trips per day per bike according to information supplied by the operators to the authors…..most other schemes internationally report usage rates of around 3–6 trips per bike per day.”

Every bike share scheme in the world except for Brisbane and Melbourne allows people to ride without helmets (which is perfectly safe). It is this compulsory helmet requirement that most people say is the main factor preventing them from using the Melbourne Bike Share, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Source: E. Fishman et al. (2012), Barriers and facilitators to public bicycle scheme use: A qualitative approach, Transportation Research Part F

Over 60% of respondents cite helmet restrictions as being the main reason stopping them from using bike share.

When you exclude those who claim bad weather as their main obstacle (which is surely beyond the power of any government or transport authority to influence), helmet laws become even more obviously predominant.

The study found similar reasons for the poor patronage of Brisbane CityCycle. Analysis of CityCycle was done through “focus group discussions” rather than a survey, so the results are descriptive rather than statistical. But a familiar story emerges.

The authors write:

“Participants who had not used CityCycle frequently described mandatory helmet laws as a reason for not using the scheme. Focus group participants felt the requirement to use a helmet reduced the spontaneity often associated with public bike share scheme use.”

Despite having some compelling evidence in front of them, the authors recommendations are weak and disappointing. They suggest Australian bike share needs:

  • a more accessible, spontaneous sign-up process
  • 24/7 opening hours
  • greater incentives to sign up new members and casual users

While there is no doubt that these things are useful suggestions, they do not even come close to explaining why Brisbane and Melbourne are operating at one-tenth the usage they should be.

Melbourne Bike Share already has an instantaneous sign-up process (credit card swipe) and it doesn’t have significantly higher usage than CityCycle which has a longer, more complicated sign-up.

24-hour operation would be beneficial but it’s inconceivable that it would lead to anything more than a marginal increase in usage, certainly not the 10-fold increase that the schemes need.

Why do the authors not make any suggestions about what is clearly the main reason for the failure of Australian bike share: mandatory helmet laws? Why is there no consideration of an exemption from helmet laws for bike share users, as has been suggested by Fairfax journalist Michael O’Reilly and others in the media and community?

This seemingly strange omission becomes understandable when we note that the three authors of this study are from the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q), based at the Queensland University of Technology. CARRS-Q was the group that last year produced a publication in support of mandatory bicycle helmet legislation which was commissioned and paid for by (and included editorial input from) the Queensland government.

We have written extensively on the deficiencies and biases of this publication, including some general criticisms here and here and a seven-part in-depth critique beginning here.

Given the preconceived views of it’s authors it is unsurprising that this latest research fails to suggest that it might be time to rethink our stance on compulsory helmets. This is disappointing because their own evidence clearly shows that helmet laws are the primary reason for the failure of bike share in Australia.

Added 5/4/2016: North American bike share, safer than general cycling.


  • Natural Imp says:

    I have spoken at length with Professor Simon Washington (face to face) on this subject and while he is a nice fellow, I feel he has been drinking the Kool-Aid like the rest of the CARRS-Q team (interesting acronym btw…).

    Privately he admitted that helmet laws are hurting bike share but he personally thinks the law should remain in place without being able to support that position and he *always* wears a helmet he was quick to inform me. This might explain the odd exclusion of ‘helmet law amendment’ to the list of things that will improve CityCycle.

    When he was asked, hypothetically, if he would support the introduction of helmet laws for cyclists if we didn’t already have them his answer was, “No, I wouldn’t”!!

    These people are just bizarre. It is almost as though they NEED a law in place as they feel insecure wearing a helmet if it is not compulsory or something…?? Bizarre.

  • Alan Davies says:

    That paper is gated. Could you link to a copy we could all access? If not, could you e-mail me one? I’m very interested in reading it. 

    • paulmartin says:

      Hi Alan,

      Sure thing. I’m about to email you a copy.



    • Paul Martin says:

      We can’t legally post the full text article online without permission but we can email you a copy.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Thanks Paul, This whole copyright (commercialisation) thing on academic papers is a PIA. There was a push earlier this year, led ironically by the likes of Harvard’s library, to have academics only publish in ungated journals, but it seems to have gone quiet. Fortunately, many US academics publish “working paper” versions that are freely downloadable from their personal and university websites, but disappointingly Australian academics don’t seem to do it much.  

  • Anna says:

    And don’t forget that weather in European cities with more successful bike schemes is less friendly than Melbourne’s.

  • Pautrude says:

    Over 60% of respondents cite helmet restrictions as being the main reason stopping them from using bike share. This figure is made up of the majority of people who would wear a helmet but there were no helmets handy.
     Then that figure is cleverly put in as an opposition to helmets. Remove that 36 number and you are left with what, 25% who don;t like helmets.  All they need to do is invent a  cardboard throw away helmet and problems solved. Ofcourse that won’t happen and giving an open ticket to only those bikes is pretty hard to put in place and avoid serious litigation.
    What needs doing is scraping the word compulsory and those that want to wear a helmet can and those that don’t like e’m don’t have too. Simple.

    • Smorg Smorg says:

      “All they need to do is invent a cardboard throw away helmet and problems solved.”
      How is that cardboard throw away helmet is supposed to protect your head in case of a crash???

      (I wear a helmet, but I’m against making helmet wearing required by law).

  • Wayne54 says:

    I rode to school for7yrs before mhls never had a problem. Rode in road racers with a helmetalso no problemrode to work 5yrs no problem; all bfore mhls.1991 don’t ride.fines too much

  • Wayne54 says:

    Its all about choice.I’m not against helmets just the way we lost our right o make our own decision to wear or not to wear

  • kie7077 says:

    Would it be OK to link to the bike share image, forum debate over at re compulsory helmet laws in the UK ( )

    Compulsory helmet laws would ruin our 6000+ strong bike share scheme (boris bikes).

  • Wombat says:

    Why didn’t the authors join the anti-helmet bandwagon? Because their study found that helmets were not the significant factor in the slow take-up of bike-share schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane. You have cherry-picked the data that suits you without acknowledging the wider conclusions.

    • Richard Bean says:

      Au contraire, the conclusions weren’t related to the survey findings. The authors just didn’t want to touch that issue.

      This webpage content is more than a year old now. Since then a few articles have been published by Oliver O’Brien of the University of London. He’s the maintainer of which tracks more than 100 schemes live. There are now 629 bike sharing schemes worldwide and only four have helmet laws (Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland, and Christchurch).

      O’Brien has stated – – “Helmet Requirements Kill Bike Sharing” and in a paper in the International Journal of Sustainable Transport in June, examining usage rates in 38 cities, the authors wrote “[Australia’s systems] are relatively unpopular in this study due to local bylaws requiring helmet use.”

      You’d have a case if you found someone outside Australia who says it’s not about helmet laws …

      • Wombat says:

        You misrepresent the Fishman study (have you looked at it in detail?) . The authors have published several papers, and have more than once acknowledged that the issue of helmets has been raised as a factor – but their results could not confirm that. Several people here have hinted at the reasons: relative to other factors that applied in the two Australian cities, helmets did not loom as large an issue. The fact that respondents to this self-selected site said otherwise does not really form the basis of an objective conclusion. (My answer would have been heat and traffic as the main deterrents in central cities.) The rest of your contribution may well be right, but that does not mean Fishman et al were somehow guilty of bias or corrupt science.

        • bernlin2000 says:

          It’s totally irrelevant: do they not believe in civil rights in Australia? Adults should be able to decide for themselves if they wish to be protected by a helmet or not. That goes for bicycles and motorcycles. It shouldn’t be the business of the government to tell individuals how much safety equipment they’re required to wear on a non-motor vehicle. Period.

          What next? Mandates to wear elbow/knee pads? I imagine next you’ll suggest that pedestrians should also be wearing helmets, along with car drivers. No doubt it would safe more lives than it wouldn’t, but it would also be a serious breach of basic liberty. It’s unjust and also unjustifiable: the damages to liberty outweigh the possible benefits of fewer deaths…it’s a serious issue.

          Also, by the way: bicycling is subject to a sort of “herding” effect: the more people on the road biking, the more aware cars are of them and the number of bicycling accidents (relatively and even absolutely) go down. This is a clear correlation that can be demonstrated throughout the world: places like the U.S. (very low bike share) have more bicyclists dying per year than the CITY of Copanhagan (where 20%+ of citizens there bike regularly).

          Helmet laws reduce bike share, this has been clearly shown in many studies. Via syllogism logic, that means helmet laws are consequentially responsible for MORE deaths, not less. This is what happens when governments are motivated by fear over logic, reasoning, facts, and science. I expect MUCH better from a well-developed country like Australia.

        • TiagoBarufi says:

          São Paulo: heat and dangerous traffic AND a very successful bike share scheme.

          YOU are the one cherrypicker here.

  • whatsaheadworth says:

    So who should pay for your head injury when you do fall or crash without a helmet on?

  • Chris Gillham says:

    Fishman et al published two more analyses in December 2014 re influences and barriers to Melbourne and Brisbane bike share schemes. They can be downloaded at and

    As has been clear for more than 20 years, the papers confirm that about one in three would-be cyclists in Australia doesn’t ride because of the helmet law. I assume law supporters aren’t perturbed by the fact that many of those discouraged people instead drive their cars, increasing accident and injury risk for all road users including the helmeted law supporters themselves.

    I’ve a new chart and table atop my home page ( that dissects ABS participation data since November 1993, a bit over a year after the last helmet law was enforced – which was about how long it took for everybody to fully understand that they really were going to be punished for getting a bit of exercise.

  • Sandy says:

    The funny thing is, that over here in the UK we don’t have mandatory helmet wearing yet most people choose to wear one. So it proves that people aren’t against helmets they are simply against mandatory helmet wearing.

    It’s hard enough to decide to start riding without the worry of extra laws and clothing to go with it. Most want to buy a bike and get on it. Then they start to think about adding helmets or hi-viz. Once you get someone’s bum on a bike, the high chance is that they will choose to wear a helmet for most journeys. All the time it’s mandatory they don’t even think about riding because at that stage it’s simply too much trouble to make a start.

    I mean, who wants to get all the gear on to ride half a mile down the street to pick up a pint of milk or a newspaper. But the same person would probably voluntarily wear a helmet to say cycle to work.

    Many thousands of lives are lost every year through inactivity. Many thousands more are lost because of foul air in the cities from over crowding of motorised vehicles. The Australian governement should weigh up the cost of those lives against the handful of head traumas saved through mandatory helmet wearing.

    If you take into concideration the above paragraph, mandatory helmet wearing is causing many deaths.

    I wouldn’t be surprised that if your mandadory helmet law was rescinded that 80% of Australians would continue to voluntarily wear them along with more people deciding to give bicycling as a form of transport a try.

  • Alison Pell says:

    Only fascists and LCF’s want mandatory helmets

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