Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hubway Helmet Storage

I've been riding Hubway a lot this summer and enjoyed it's convenience immensely (I'm at 54 trips and counting since April).

One of the issues with bike sharing, however, is helmet use. The point of bike sharing is that you can pick up and drop off a bicycle like you would get on a bus or hail a cab. To a lot of users, having to carry around a helmet is antithetical to these goals. Attempts to solve this abound: Boston sells subsidized helmets across the city (I know; I bought one in a pinch and it currently serves as my "office helmet" which I've offered to share with coworkers). DC does too (but they cost a bit more). Melbourne, which has mandatory helmet use, has seen its system struggle, and sells helmets for just $5, which you can return for a $3 rebate. Minneapolis is straight giving away 10,000 bright green branded helmets. Vancouver considered shipping Montreal's mothballed Bixi system from winter storage out for the Olympics but was stymied by their province's helmet law. The city still doesn't have a bike sharing system.

And there's the cool MIT helmet vending machine. Really cool. And, uh, not in production yet.

Still, all of these ideas are for origin helmet dispensing? What about those of us who have a helmet already?

Riding a clunky, heavy, stable bike for a mile in the city is not prime helmet use territory, and many casual users don't use a helmet. For those of us who do (perhaps because of prior experience), Hubway becomes an exercise in always having a helmet handy. More than once I've been ready to get off the Red Line at Charles (Side note: this station earns a 4.5 star rating on Yelp.) for the four minute jaunt down Charles Street only to realize I'd left my helmet at home and jumped back on the train.

But I've gotten better. I almost always have a helmet with me when I want to start a trip. Helmet availability is less and less of an issue. The problem is: what do I do with my helmet when I get to my destination?

I could strap it to my belt or put it in a bag. In my line of work and the circles I travel, wandering around with a helmet is, if not a badge of honor, at least somewhat acceptable. Luckily, on Hubway, it usually stays relatively non-sweaty. But in a crowded bar, having a helmet clipped to your belt looks really dorky, and can get in the way. It's awkward to say "excuse me" and have a helmet rub up against someone's thigh. (But maybe it's a good way to break the ice with the cute cyclist across the room. I digress.) Or, I ride Hubway to the train station, and then wind up taking the train, walking to a meeting, going to the meeting, walking back to the train and riding back to the city, all the while toting my helmet. It doesn't keep me from riding Hubway, but it's a nuisance.

So what I think bike sharing needs is helmet storage at racks. More than once I've considered not taking Hubway simply because I didn't want to have to keep track of my helmet while at my destination. (I've never actually found an alternative, because Hubway is really damn convenient.) Here's are a couple scenarios to consider:
  • I leave my office after work and bike a mile across town to meet a friend at a bar. I store my helmet at the bike rack, and when I come back, I grab it and bike to the T, which I take home. With my helmet.
  • I Hubway over to North Station in the morning to take a train to a meeting. I store my helmet at the station. Back a few hours later, I fetch my helmet from the helmet storage, pop it on my noggin, and ride back to the office.
So what I think Hubway needs is helmet racks. Generally, people don't steal helmets. If you lock your bike and hang the helmet off the handlebars, it will be there when you get back. The front wheel might be gone, but not the helmet. No one steals helmets to resell because no one buys used helmets (because you have no way to know if it's been in a crash, and it's all sweaty, too). No one steals helmets to use them because of the aforementioned safety issue and, well, because the population that is in to wearing helmets is generally not that in to petty larceny. I've left a helmet unlocked myriad times and it's always been there later on. And, also, someone else's sweaty hair. Ew. So no one steals helmets. Except …

Except near a bike share. It's the only place where helmetless people would think of grabbing a helmet and going. It wouldn't be their intention to steal it, but to use it and drop it off somewhere else. Which would work great, unless someone else was counting on coming back and finding it there. If you were at a bike share station and saw a helmet just sitting there, would you take it? Quite possibly you would. Even if it quite possibly belonged to someone else. And if there were just helmets clipped to a fence near the rack, they might be seen as a public nuisance and removed and trashed before their users could fetch them. So we need a rack with some sort of security.

The design could take any number of forms. The main hurdle of access can easily be solved by limiting access to people carrying an RFID chip with a unique code, which, very conveniently, is how bike sharing users access the bikes. (Except, of course, for daily users, but they'd be less likely to have their own helmets to store and make up a small portion of the user base. Plus, they could integrate the passcode system in the helmet storage.) It could be a stack of cages with doors which could be accessed by presenting a Hubway key. It could be a set of small U-locks which could be removed, put through a helmet vent (or even strap: cutting a strap to steal a helmet renders the helmet useless) and replaced. It could even be cables which would go through helmet vents or straps. 

Time limits could be enforced: after, say, six hours the user could be charged, or the cage could simply unlock. Rarely am I somewhere for long before I come back to the rack, grab a bike (and my helmet) and go. And it could easily be integrated in to the MIT HelmetHub design. Time to give them a shout, it seems like it would be compatible.

High security would certainly not be needed. No one is going to walk around with garden shears clipping locks and stealing helmets (for the same reason no one grabs helmets off the street; see above). The issue would be keeping the helmets safe from casual, almost accidental thief ("I need a helmet. Hey, look a helmet!") and providing infrastructure which would say "helmets belong here, don't mess with 'em."

I know I'd use this system. I'm not sure how many others would. However, I think the market is there. Whether it's someone who is already using the system and would wear a helmet if she had somewhere to store it, or someone who is interested in the system but doesn't use it because they need somewhere to store their helmet. Either way, helmet and system use would rise. Neither of which is a bad thing.

This doesn't solve the problem. But I think it's a piece of the puzzle.

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