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Vancouver invests $50,000 to develop bike helmet dispenser

The City of Vancouver has paid a Richmond company $50,000 to develop a prototype of a bike helmet dispensing machine that it may not even use as part of its proposed bike-sharing scheme.

SandVault Group Global Solutions was contracted by the city last November to build the prototype, which can dispense up to 20 clean helmets, and “quarantine” used helmets until they have been cleaned and checked for cracks before reuse. At the same time, several other companies have also been contracted to come up with “helmet solutions.”

But it’s unknown if any of these companies would be the supplier for the proposed bike share program, targeted to launch this summer, because the city is still negotiating with Alta Bicycle Share of Portland, Ore., as its preferred vendor for the overall scheme.

Jerry Dobrovolny, the city’s director of transportation, said while the city is confident Alta would be able to provide all the bikes and helmets, it contracted other companies to help move the project forward, noting helmets are “a critical success factor and complicated” part of the project.

He would not say how much money the city paid to the various contractors, saying a budget hasn’t been set. But he did note SandVault received the majority of the funds and “it’s not as if three companies are receiving $50,000 each.”

“Time is very tight and the project is very large and complicated so we’re looking at other solutions,” Dobrovolny said. “The goal is to have a plan A and plan B and C.”

The city, which is negotiating with Alta for the overall project, has been struggling to ensure the company follows criteria such as ensuring helmets are easily accessible, are cleaned and disinfected after every use, and are replaced if they’re involved in a fall or crash.

The proposed bike-share program is set to cost $1.9 million per year and would see 1,500 bikes at 125 self-service stations throughout downtown and along the Broadway corridor.

Vancouver is in a tough position, Dobrovolny noted, because under B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act, all children and adults must wear bicycle helmets on public roadways. This has posed problems for other cities, such as Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia, which also have helmet laws and have seen significantly lower ridership numbers than in cities were helmets aren’t required.

Melbourne offers subsidized helmets for sale at just $5 at many convenience stores and two vending machines. The helmets can be returned to the retail outlet for a $3 refund. Brisbane offers similar sales.

Meanwhile, cities such as Tel Aviv and Mexico City have changed their rules to exempt adults from the helmet law, while Auckland, New Zealand, has shut down its bike-sharing system and issued a request for expressions of interest.

Dobrovolny said prototypes of helmet solutions — not just dispensing machines — are “starting to surface now” but added Vancouver wants to move fast, noting there’s a huge market across North America, even in cities that don’t require cyclists to wear helmets. Alta could end up hiring one of the other companies, he added, to provide the helmets but that would be up to them.

“It’s brand new,” he said. “Everybody’s watching to see who’s going to move first.”

Derrick Moennick, SandVault’s business development officer, said he believes the company’s prototype — built in 41 days — meets the city’s demand for an integrated solar-panelled, bike-share helmet distribution terminal.

The terminal allows a cyclist to select the number of a specific bike, as well as the size and style of the helmet they wish to rent or buy. Once they pay for the rental, the bike unlocks and the door of the distribution machine door opens so the customer can remove the helmet. The helmet can then be returned to any terminal in the city, where it will remain until it’s been cleaned and checked for safety.

The helmets are tagged with radio-frequency identification software so they can be tracked. The helmets, just like the bikes, can be returned to any distribution machine in the city, but would not be issued to a new customer used until they have been cleaned by the operations staff. “It’s very similar to a vending machine but it’s not that type of technology,” Moennick said. “It’s a very new product.”

Moennick noted helmets should be offered in every city. If Vancouver doesn’t decide to use its prototype, he said, cities such as Seattle have expressed some interest in the helmet machine as it sets up its own bike-share program.

“We’re saying every city is a helmet city,” he said, noting this applies to cities where helmets are not required. “Some people won’t use a bike share if there’s no helmet available. It’s just a choice.”

He noted bike-sharing is exploding around the world, with his company getting calls from Brazil, Argentina and Australia, as well as San Diego and Miami.

More than 300 cities around the world, such as Montreal, Boston and Washington, D.C., have implemented public bike shares.