It’s not surprising that Vancouver is dragging its feet on implementing the city’s promised bike-share scheme — it’s one of the few major cities with a law mandating the wearing of helmets by adults. There seems to be good reason for Vancouver to be nervous: the available evidence indicates bike share has failed in the only three cities it has been tried in where helmets are compulsory (ie: Auckland, Brisbane and Melbourne).

These failures prompted a vigorous campaign in Australia and New Zealand for the repeal of mandatory helmet laws. The aim of advocates extends well beyond the welfare of Australasia’s ailing bike-share schemes — most want the wearing of helmets to be made a matter of individual choice for all adult cyclists.

New figures released this week show usage of Melbourne Bike Share‘s (MBS) blue Bixis reached a record high in January. Still, the performance is poor. On average, each Bixi only gets hired once per day. No data on typical hire times was made available but the pattern in other countries suggests each Bixi is used for less than 30 minutes per day on average.

The argument that the mandatory helmet law is the main reason bike share has failed in Australasia seems compelling. However, while it is undoubtedly an important factor, it might not be the only one and it might not even be the most important one. It doesn’t automatically follow that, were MBS (say) given an exemption from the helmet law, the scheme would be a resounding success.

There are reasons to avoid rushing to judgment and I want to look at them using MBS as a case study. One reason I’m cautious is access to helmets has much improved since MBS began.

The government now subsidises the cost of helmets and makes them available at hotels and a range of outlets near MBS stations for $5 (in Brisbane, the city council made 400 free helmets available on an honesty basis). Unfortunately, helmets are mostly not available at the point of hire. Some observers point out that’s unfriendly to tourists, but MBS isn’t pitched at tourists — it’s explicitly aimed directly at inner-city workers and residents.

After 18 months operation, I reckon any Melburnian who’s likely to be a serious and consistent user of Bixis has had ample time to put a $5 helmet in their desk drawer or hang a couple near the door of their apartment.

Some argue that having to seek out a helmet from a nearby convenience store works against spontaneous trips. Availability at the point of sale would of course be better, but I doubt many trips are so spontaneous they’re made in the street on the spur of the moment. Meetings, interviews, dates, lunches, shows, etc, are almost always made with at least some notice. People imagine they’d make impulsive trips on Bixis but in practice make few unplanned trips. Frankly, I wonder if truly “spontaneous” trips are valuable enough to warrant the subsidy the government provides for MBS.

I think many observers implicitly compare MBS with the most successful schemes elsewhere, especially Paris’s Vélib, and imagine that’s what Melbourne would be like if it weren’t for the helmet law. But like almost everything, there is immense variability between cities and countries. We should expect some cities do much better than the average and some do much worse. The absence of mandatory helmet laws doesn’t guarantee bike share would be a huge, or even modest, success in all cities.

I haven’t seen a reliable comparative analysis of the performance of the various bike-share schemes across the globe, but I know that overall cycling rates vary enormously by country and city. For example, cycling accounts for 27% of all trips in the Netherlands but only 1% in the UK. Neither country has mandatory helmet laws so there must be other variables at play.

Or consider differences between individual cities in Europe — cycling accounts for 20% of all trips in Bruges but 5% in Brussels; 19% in Salzburg but 3% in Wien; 37% in Groningen but 10% in Heerlen. Helmets have nothing to do with these large within-country variations.

There is a range of other factors, both “exogenous” and “endogenous”, that are likely to affect the demand for bike share. The sheer unfriendliness of our roads for cycling is in the former class. Streets in Australian cities do not feel safe for cycling and many drivers are aggressive and intolerant of cyclists. Notwithstanding the intensity of pedestrian activity, the speed limit in Melbourne’s CBD is still 50 km/h.

Melbourne has a wonderful system of recreational cycling paths along water courses, but very few kilometres of segregated bicycle lane suitable for the sorts of purpose-driven trips (ie: for transport rather than recreation) MBS is aimed at. The city also lacks the pro-bicycle history and culture underpinning the success of cycling in Europe. Melburnians aren’t confident cycling on roads and aren’t used to doing it.

A related factor is that many of those who are confident enough to cycle on roads may already have their own bikes in their apartments or in the basement of their office buildings. And perhaps the need for Bixis is not as compelling as many assume. The CBD and its outer edges are already very well served by public transport. It might be that trams and trains provide a more attractive offer than Bixis for many journeys.