A green solution to traffic congestion and carbon emissions, bike-sharing programs have become ubiquitous in crowded cities worldwide, letting users check out bicycles from kiosks to commute, ride across town, or sightsee.
But even as it’s helping solve one problem, bike-sharing has created another: It’s put bicycle riders on city streets without figuring out a way to loan them helmets.
That’s created legal and promotional problems in cities like Vancouver, where provincial laws require cyclists to wear helmets, a requirement that’s delayed the bike-share program for years. In Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia, which also require helmets by law, the bike-share programs were so underused that the government offered 200 helmets to riders for free to boost business.
Trouble is, creating a vending machine to dispense and retrieve bicycle helmets has proven a significant technological trial.
“It’s a very difficult challenge because of the shape and bulk of helmets,” says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists advocacy group and a former city bicycle planner. “We’ve heard all kinds of stories about inflatable or foldable helmets. And the cleanliness issue is something that comes up. Every bike-rental fleet in the country has to deal with this issue.”
Now there may be a solution. After two years of design work that started in a mechanical engineering class, a team of recent MIT grads has designed a bicycle helmet vending machine that will be launched this month in Boston.
The machines, dubbed HelmetHubs, will be attached to four of the city’s 108 Hubway bike-share stations where records show riders are least likely to wear helmets. Another 10 are scheduled to be installed over the next few months. Each machine can hold 36 unisize helmets with adjustable straps, and a 24-hour rental will cost about $2 on a credit card.
The toughest obstacle for the designers was figuring out a way for users to return the helmets. An open receptacle on a city street, they feared, might attract trash. So they put RFID, or radio-frequency identification chips in loaner helmets, which activate a door on the machine.
The devices can’t sanitize the helmets; that would require a more significant power source than it uses to run the credit-card reader. So, once they’ve been returned, the helmets will be picked up and brought to a warehouse to be cleaned. But the engineers hope that future incarnations of the machines will disinfect the helmets automatically.
The long slog from problem to solution started when Boston’s bicycle coordinator appealed to an MIT mechanical-engineering class two years ago to prototype a helmet dispenser.
It was a thankless assignment.
“There were a lot of conversations about how the hell are we going to do this,” says one of the students, Breanna Berry.
But they took it on anyway.
“The challenge was one of the things that attracted us to it. Helmets are really awkward. They’re an awkward shape. So the dispensing and the return were hard to figure out. And how do you get a lot of helmets in a small space?”
After they came up with their proposal, satisfying their academic obligation, Berry and a classmate, Chris Mills—an ardent cyclist—decided to keep working on it when they graduated last year.
“A couple of us thought, ‘Maybe we should keep going with this,’” Berry says. “It was very apparent that this wasn’t a bad business model to get involved in, and that bike-sharing was growing worldwide.”
There are 535 bike-sharing programs worldwide, according to the Earth Policy Institute, collectively loaning out an estimated half-million bicycles. That’s twice as many as when Mills and Berry began to work on the vending-machine problem.
Yet fewer than one in five people who use bike-share bikes wear helmets, compared to more than half of those who own their own bicycles, according to researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. And cyclists who don’t wear helmets are as much as 88 percent more likely to suffer head injuries in crashes than those who do. In Boston, half the cyclists in crashes to which paramedics have had to be called weren’t wearing helmets.
After graduation, Mills and Berry moved to a startup accelerator lab; neither drew a salary, and Berry worked in a restaurant to pay the bills. Eventually, they found investors and a manufacturer—Big Belly Solar, which makes solar-powered public trash compactors.
Each of their helmet dispensers costs $10,000, and there’s been interest from companies that supply bike-share bikes and cities that are pushing them. That’s an enormous worldwide market. And there are potential uses at ski resorts and elsewhere.
“It’s an intriguing project,” says Clarke, the cycling advocate. “And it’s a fascinating design and engineering issue.”
Image courtesy of HelmetHub