As a three-month free helmet trial is announced for Melbourne's bike share scheme, we hit the street to find out whether this will attract new riders.
The state government hopes handing out free helmets will breathe life into its failing bike-share program, which is yet to break even in three years of operation.
Two hundred free helmets will be distributed, covering a third of the bikes in the Melbourne scheme, which costs Victorian taxpayers about $50,000 a month in helmet subsidies, plus $5 million over five years.
Public Transport Minister Terry Mulder said helmets, which to date have not been available at bike stands, had been a stumbling block since the program began in 2010.
The Age News
21st March 2013
Picture by Wayne Taylor
Melbourne bikes now with complimentary helmuts at the bike bank in Bourke st Docklands.
Top idea: The government hopes free helmets will encourage more people to use its scheme. Photo: Wayne Taylor
"The big hitch from day one was the issue with helmets," Mr Mulder said. "It really wasn't given enough consideration when the program was put into place in Victoria.
"That caused the system to be very slow in terms of uptake. We'd like to think we'd get to a point where we would break even, if possible."
The free helmets, which will be located on bike handlebars, will be trialled for three months at a cost of $13,000. The helmets are meant to be shared, although the government expects that some will be stolen. Currently, share-bike users must bring their own helmet or buy one for $5 at a convenience store.
The move copies a successful trial with Brisbane's CityCycle scheme, where bikes with a free share helmet attached were used three times more often than those without one. Helmet theft declined in time in Brisbane, Mr Mulder said.
"The lost rate [in Brisbane] is now about 10 per cent."
He said RACV contractors would regularly clean the free helmets and he understood there would be no health issues.
Mr Mulder said the government had no plans to axe the program, despite its failure to break even.
"There is no intention whatsoever to stop the scheme. We just want to make sure we get the scheme working better than it is at the moment," he said.
The bikes are still struggling to attract users, with some bike docking stations being used less than once a day on average in January, the scheme's busiest month.
Even some busy city centre locations see little traffic. For example, the GPO station in the heart of the city on the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke streets was used just 239 times in January, which means each bike was used less than once a day on average.
The busiest stations are at Federation Square and Sandridge Bridge at Southbank, the only two that attracted more than 1000 users in January.
But Mr Mulder said the government was considering expanding the scheme further into the inner suburbs, with Port Phillip and Yarra councils indicating interest.
"That would mean an increase in the number of stations, and increase in the number of helmets and increase in the number of bikes. Before we go down that pathway we want to see if there is a better way of dealing with the helmet issue. This trial will give us a very good indication," he said
Mr Mulder said uptake rose about 30,000 last year from 102,000 uses to 137,000.