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Sterile solutions wheeled out to Vancover's shared helmet dilemma

Bike-share systems have exploded in popularity around the world, with an estimated 480 cities using them and sometimes millions of riders a year in some places.

Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail/christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

The bike-helmet sanitizing machine and disposable helmet liners are two ideas that private companies have pitched to Vancouver as a way to solve the icky problem of communal helmets in its much-anticipated new bike-share system.

Those ideas could make Vancouver a leader in North America, where no city with mandatory-helmet laws has yet managed to create a bike-share system.

At least three companies or consortiums are said to be involved in the Vancouver bid process launched last April.

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"This is going to be a made-in-Vancouver solution," said Vancouver councillor Raymond Louie, adding that a decision will be made by the end of March – almost a year after expressions of interest from the private sector were requested. "We're looking at ways for these private companies to solve this issue."

One local company, part of the Bike Share BC consortium that is one of the bidders, believes it has found a solution: an automated helmet-rental and sanitizing machine.

"We spent quite a bit of money developing this solution," said Derrick Moennick, the business-development officer for SandVault, a Richmond company that was the first to create and sell bike-share systems in North America. "We think we've got a very strong bid."

Two other groups involving Montreal's Bixi bikes and Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Ore., are thought to be bidding with their own innovative ideas on how to provide clean rental helmets quickly and cheaply.

Bike-share systems have exploded in popularity around the world, with an estimated 480 cities using them and sometimes millions of riders a year in some places.

But they have been added almost exclusively to cities that do not require helmets for cyclists or repealed their helmet laws to do bike-sharing.

Only Melbourne and Brisbane in Australia have instituted bike-share systems while maintaining helmet laws, and those systems have suffered from low ridership.

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Mr. Moennick said that's because the bike-share company didn't really do anything to figure out how to comply with the helmet law.

The problem has been that people don't carry around helmets on the off chance they'll hop on a bike. Nor do they want to have to buy one for a quick ride.

And rental helmets turn potential riders off because, as Seattle blogger Erica Barnett put it: "I'm not going to put on a helmet that's been used by dozens or hundreds of other sweaty people of unknown sanitary standards any more than I'm going to wear clothes I found on the ground."

Vancouver will be a leader if it creates a system that makes it easy for people to pick up helmets along with bikes.

As it stands, Vancouver, in spite of its reputation as a pro-cycling city, is lagging behind places like Tulsa and Miami Beach in creating a bike-share program.

Seattle is in the same boat, also because of helmet laws. Some cities, like Tel Aviv and Mexico City, repealed their mandatory-helmet laws to make a bike-share system work, but no one in B.C. is suggesting that.

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Besides the helmet issue, Vancouver's lengthy bid process has also had to grapple with finances and sidewalk space.

Vancouver doesn't want to end up having to help finance bike-share systems, as Montreal and Paris did. "Our intention is not to get entangled financially," Mr. Louie said.

As well, sidewalk and road space will have to be negotiated, he said.

The city's proposal didn't specify the number of bikes or docking stations, leaving it up to the private bidders to figure out what would be financially and physically workable.

The University of B.C. and TransLink have said they're willing to be partners in the Vancouver system by providing space and marketing.

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