Photo via Citi Bike / Instagram
Welcome to the Brokelyn Files where our resident unlicensed P.I. Sam Weiss answers the local questions you never thought to ask. Got a lead on a Brooklyn mystery? Write us in the comments below.
It’s been four years now since Citi Bike first asked, “What if we just set tourists loose in New York City with a bunch of bikes?” and so far, the answer has been “it’ll be fine.” The system has grown more and more popular, with remarkably few accidents, all despite the fact that one almost never sees a Citi Biker actually wearing a helmet. Citi Bike heavily advertises bike safety and is constantly giving away free or cheap helmets, but since there’s no way to get one at a Citi Bike docking station, is anyone actually wearing them? Following Citi Bike’s tragic, first-ever death, the Brokelyn Files asks, “Do Citi Bikers wear helmets?” and, while we’re at it, “Does it matter?”
First off, how easy is it to get a helmet for a Citi Bike? Well, there’s no way to get a helmet at a Citi Bike, so it’s not that easy, but if you’re willing to do a little planning it’s not bad. Citi Bike has a whole page about getting a helmet and about wearing it correctly once you have one (you’d be surprised!). But, then, one of Citi Bike’s big draws is that it doesn’t take a lot of planning, it’s just there, right when you find out the L train is down for the rest of the night. And all of the helmet options do take some time; there are occasionally free helmet events, but otherwise the options are to buy one at a discount (including on these hat-mets if you’d rather look like a Victorian time traveller than a safe biker) or to take a “helmet fitting class” with the DOT for a free one.
Those are all viable options, but none of them really make sense for tourists and those riding without an annual membership, given the amount of forethought required (I mean, at $12 a day and no single-ride option, if you could plan ahead wouldn’t you just buy a bike or at least a full membership?). And those casual riders make up about a third of the overall ridership, according to Citi Bike’s June report (there were 74,605 one- or three-day pass-holders that month, compared to 130,301 active annual members).
And, evidently, the forethought required really is getting in the way of riders wearing helmets. Citi Bike itself doesn’t publicly keep track of how many riders wear helmets, but according to a report in the Journal of Community Health, the vast majority of Citi Bikers do not wear helmets. Only 21 percent of 5,000 riders observed by that report wore helmets, with a station-low of 3 percent at the Christopher St. dock, as the New York Post points out. Said the report’s co-author Corey Basch, “NYC’s bike-share program endorses helmet use, but relies on education and persuasion to encourage it. Our data confirm that, to date, this strategy has not been successful.” In fairness, that report, though the most broad and recent, is still a couple of years old. Since 2015, when that report was released, Citi Bike has only put more of a focus on bike safety and the number of annual members (presumably the riders most likely to wear helmets given that Citi Bikes are a part of their routine) has increased by about 50 percent.
But still, it appears that for the most part about three out of four Citi Bikers do not wear helmets, but, how much does that really matter? According to New York State law, it doesn’t; nobody has to wear a helmet in the city unless that person is under 14, which is two years too young to check out a Citi Bike anyway. Of course, that could potentially change soon, given a newly proposed law out of Albany to make helmets mandatory for everyone. The bill, sponsored in the state senate by Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder and in the state assembly by Queens’ Nily Rozic, would impose a $50 ticket on anyone of any age riding a bike in New York City without a helmet. And even the Governor’s office specifically says, alongside the current law, that all bicyclists, “regardless of age, should wear an approved helmet. Helmets significantly reduce the risk of sustaining a serious head injury.” So far, only one rider has died in a Citi Bike accident, just two months ago, and that rider, a New Yorker and an avid bicyclist, suffered a full-on collision with a bus so the helmet issue is moot. And while that situation was obviously a tragedy, one death in four years and hundreds of thousands of people biking New York City is actually impressive.
And it’s not by accident, either; according to Business Insider, Citi Bikes are specifically designed to be safer than normal bikes, partially so that people don’t need helmets. Citi Bikes can’t go as fast as normal bikes, they’re super visible (it’s not just so they look like a CitiBank card) and they have those huge, ugly tires that prevent accidents caused by debris or uneven roads and flat seats that keep the bike stable.
All of that still hasn’t totally covered Citi Bike’s collective ass, though. In 2013 a rider got in an accident on a Citi Bike, wasn’t wearing a helmet, sustained brain damage and sued for $60 million in damages. The man claimed that Citi Bike and the city itself were negligent for not providing helmets at the station alongside the bikes. The case was supposed to go to court this summer but, in May, Citi Bike and the city instead settled on confidential terms.
So the court’s still out on if Citi Bike’s helmet policy is illegal but, the court papers for the case revealed that the city conspicuously “considered, but chose not to mandate that Citi Bike riders wear helmets.” In that document, though, the city makes some pretty good cases for not giving out helmets; if the law doesn’t require helmets they don’t want to “promote different standards,” because studies found that mandatory helmet laws “decreased bicycle ridership in general and bike share system use in particular” and that less bikes on the road means less bike safety and because “research suggested that helmeted cyclists tended to ride more recklessly than those without helmets.” Also, apparently the city “specifically evaluated the feasibility and wisdom of instituting a public helmet distribution system, but ultimately concluded that there were numerous logistical barriers to such a system, such as hygiene, the fact that the structural integrity of helmets would be compromised if they were involved in an accident, and lack of proper fitting and sizing capabilities.” So, apparently we actually were close to a CitiHelmet vending machine situation, but our gross, fat, accident-prone heads got in the way.
So, how many Citi Bikers actually wear helmets and, also, does it matter? The best numbers we’ve got say that definitely not a lot of them do, likely around 21 percent, but the exact, current numbers are up in the air. And, so far, it hasn’t really mattered; it’s not illegal, the bikes are specifically designed to be safe enough not to need a helmet and in four years, there have been remarkably few accidents. The most surprising thing, though, was that the city just doesn’t seem to really think helmets are worth it in general; they worry they’d make the system unpopular, expensive and gross, but they even suggest that non-Citi Bikers might be better off just biking responsibly with their hair flowing free.