Ken Livingstone says he planned 'compulsory' helmets for London's cycle hire scheme
Former mayor wanted to ensure users got a helmet, but evidence from Australia shows effect on uptake
Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who is the Labour candidate in next year’s mayoral elections, has revealed that he planned to in effect make helmets compulsory when drawing up plans for London’s cycle hire scheme.
Mr Livingstone had given the green light to the scheme during his tenure at City Hall, although it wouldn’t be formally launched as the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme until July 2010, more than two years after Boris Johnson had succeeded him as mayor after defeating him in the May 2008 election.
“It was always the plan that you should make certain that people who are cycling have got a helmet. You almost want to have a way where the helmet is actually chained to the bike, so people who don’t bring one can have one,” he told the Camden New Journal this week.
While it’s difficult to see how such a requirement could have effectively been enforced - one imagines that in practice, many cyclists may have shoved the helmet in a bag or left it dangling from the handlebars - the effect may well have been to deter many potential users of the scheme by giving the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is.
The former mayor made his remarks as he joined a group including local politicians to visit the junction of York Way and Pentonville Road in Kings Cross, where cyclist Deep Lee died last month after being crushed beneath a lorry. It goes without saying that a helmet would not have saved her.
He described the Kings Cross gyratory system as “one of the worst in London” and described the current mayor as “ridiculous” for not making the issue his highest priority.
Prior to his electoral defeat in 2008, Mr Livingstone had revealed that he planned to widen Euston Road by an extra lane as well as giving additional space over to cyclists.
Helmets, of course, are not compulsory for cyclists in the UK, although official advice is to wear one, and a Department for Transport spokesperson told the newspaper: “Our position is that cyclists should wear helmets, but it is up to the cyclist to decide.”
The London Borough of Camden’s Cycling Champion, Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Braithwaite, told the Camden New Journal that requiring users of the scheme to wear a helmet was impractical.
“When I anticipate I’m going to get on a Barclays bike, I carry a helmet,” he explained. “But in practical terms, I don’t see how it could be done. Where you would store them? There’s the issue of head lice. It is not practical.”
Australia’s compulsory helmet laws mean that Melbourne and Brisbane are the only two cities in the world with bike-sharing schemes that require helmets to be worn.
Evidence suggests that the legislation has severely restricted uptake of both schemes, despite would-be users in Melbourne being able to buy a helmet for $5 from a number of shops and vending machines in the city, with a $3 refund available if they return it afterwards.
In an article that appeared earlier this year on the Australian academic website The Conversation, helmet compulsion opponent Chris Rissell, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, said that take-up levels of the two schemes in Sydney were only at around 10 per cent of those seen in London and Dublin.
He added that in Mexico and Israel, compulsory helmet legislation had been repealed specifically to facilitate the implementation of bike-sharing programmes.
On the Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme section of the Transport for London website, cyclists are advised to consider wearing a properly fitted and secured helmet as part of the scheme’s Code of Conduct.