Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Will Capital Bikeshare helmet sales hurt our D.C. bike shops?

May 30, 2012 - 01:28 PM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On April 13, the District Department of Transportation announced that its Capital Bikeshare service, a public-private partnership of the District, Arlington, and Alta Bikeshare, would sell its members customized bike helmets for $16 a pop. Wise move, no? Capital Bikeshare has earned a reputation since launching in fall of 2010 of members riding bikes without wearing helmets — a safety measure many point to as critical. A study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine this April suggested that more than 80% of bikeshare members in D.C. and Boston don't wear helmets. I've frequently seen the sight myself out on the District streets.

But the editor and publisher of Spokes magazine, a publication devoted to cycling, has outlined a bigger problem with these Capital Bikeshare helmet sales. He sees the new business as potentially destructure to the broader bike equipment industry.

"Selling helmets?!" writes Neil Sandler, Spokes editor and publisher, in the opening to his May issue. "That’s what bike stores and others in the private sector are supposed to be doing. Yes, I have always been concerned that those people who use the bikes rented by Capital Bikeshare don’t have access to helmets. Somehow helmets should be made available with the rentals, raise the rental fee slightly and include a helmet with each rental bike. But selling helmets is quite another thing."

 What Sandler opposes is the government operation intruding on what has been private bike industry business. He would "rather Bikeshare didn't compete" in this territory and leave that commerce to local bike shops, which he calls "true treasures of the industry." Nowhere in his editorial is any suggestion that renting out the bikes will hurt these bike stores — perhaps Sandler reasons that bike rentals will encourage bike ownership in the long run. He begins his editorial with high praise for the Capital Bikeshare system, which features more than 150 stations, more than 15,000 paying members, and clocked more than 176,014 rides already in May.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: Capital Bikeshare)

Capital Bikeshare has made efforts to encourage its members to frequent local bike shops. Members can, at many locations, receive a 10% discount on helmets simply by presenting their bikeshare keys. 

Yet the discounted $16 price of Capital Bikeshare helmets still often beats what you'll find at a bike shop. Consider Capitol Hill Bikes, where the cheapest helmet listed online is $55. At City Bikes, you'll find kids' helmets for as low as $30 but adult helmets seem to run $45 minimum. Revolution Cycles' online catalog is about the same. Even at a large retailer like Target, you can't find an adult bike helmet for less than $19 ... the Capital Bikeshare price beats them all. Why shop elsewhere? On the one hand, the low price is a good thing. We're talking about making safety equipment affordable and convenient for all these bicyclists traveling through our transportation system. It's a vital consideration. On the other hand, we have a government-subsidized operation undercutting a huge swathe of private industry in a way that's entirely new. Sandler worries about a "slippery slope" with these bikeshare systems offerings. "What’s next? Bikes, accessories, repair services?" he writes.

"Every helmet they sell is one a local bike shop doesn’t sell and I don’t agree with that," Sandler declares. "Rent folks bikes all you want, Capital Bikeshare, but leave the business to the private sector. Thanks."

These bike helmet concerns are a far cry from the "broken-down socialism" that the Washington Times absurdly accuses Capital Bikeshare of these days, but they do merit discussion. Is Sandler right to worry?

Update, 3:53 p.m.: The Wash Cycle provides a solid counterargument to Sandler that's well worth reading. "Bike shops might lose a few sales," the blogger writes. "But they've probably gained a few sales from CaBi members wanting a nice nutcase helmet or a stylish riding helmet. And once people have owned a helmet, maybe they'll be encouraged to buy their next one or even upgrade." He suspects most bicyclists will continue to purchase their helmets from stores and points to instances of helmet giveaways from police departments and the Brain Injury Law Center.

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