Bike rental schemes have been introduced for the last five years in different cities around the world with the common goal of reducing traffic congestion, fuel consumption and air pollution while promoting healthier lifestyles.

Melbourne and Brisbane were the first two cities in Australia to introduce bicycle rental schemes, doing so in 2010, although they were warned the concept would fail if riders were forced by law to use helmets.

During its first week of usage, Melbourne Bike Share had 253 rentals. Six months later, it had reached 180 rentals per day and 650 memberships overall, numbers markedly lower than expected and a very poor result when compared with the numbers obtained last week for a similar scheme in New York City.

New York’s bike share scheme is only one week old and it has been a massive success. With an average of 8,100 trips recorded per day and more than 25,200 annual members already enrolled, it appears to be a hit, as were bike share schemes in cities such as London, Paris, Barcelona, Dublin, Montreal and Washington, DC.

Each bike in Melbourne is used only once a day on average compared to four to six times a day in Paris and seven times a day in the summer months in Barcelona. Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme has fared even worse with an average usage of around 0.4 hires per bike each day.

This failure is being blamed largely on Australia’s strict helmet laws, despite that not being the only way in which the country’s bike share schemes fall short of programs abroad. Compared to the different schemes around the world, there are differences in the prevalence of bikes and stations, rental rates, operating hours, the population’s cycling culture, climate and topography.

Moreover, poorly-located pick-up points and wet and cold seasons have hindered bike share programs in Melbourne.

bike share melbourne

Riders take part in the first day of the Melbourne Bike Share scheme at Melbourne University.

Trying to improve the performance of the system, Melbourne Bike Share is now offering free helmets throughout the month of June which can be collected and left with the bike upon completion of the ride. Some retail stores near bike stations are also selling refurbished helmets for just $5 at many retail stores near bike stations, with $3 rebates when people return the helmets, which are cleaned and disinfected between uses.

Melbourne’s Bike Share scheme cost the City $5.5 million and if the low current usage rate is maintained, it will probably take six or seven years just to break even.

A review of the helmet law would undoubtedly lead to an increase in the demand for bike shares in Australian cities, but there also other problems that have to be solved, such as station locations and bike lane planning.

In March 2012, Sydney opted not to proceed with a bike hire scheme unless an exemption from bicycle helmet laws was created. Even though a carbon dioxide tax was introduced in Australia in July 2012, the government appears to have no intention of encouraging bicycle use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Urban planning provides an even greater challenge to the success of bike share schemes in Australia. By improving the bike lane network in cities, the system will be more successful, bike riders will be safer and those cities will have less traffic problems and less air pollution.