It’s drilled into kids today: don’t ride your bike without a helmet.
But when the much-balleyhooed Yellow Bike Program kicked off on March 21, saving the environment won out over saving the skull. In a risky, if refreshing, breach of political correctness, City leaders Mayor Blake Caravati and Councilor Maurice Cox tooled around for the cameras sans helmets.
“We do have helmets,” says Satyendra Huja, director of strategic planning. It’s just that the helmets are available at the recreation department downtown, and that’s not much help if you’re picking up a bike on the Corner.
Officially called the Community Yellow Bicycles of the Piedmont, the nonprofit organization places free bikes around the city to be ridden and left for the next rider. Privately funded by the Dave Matthews Band, the program is the offspring of organizers like Stephen Bach who worked for over a year before the refurbished bicycles finally hit the streets with their own yellow bike racks.
Is liability a concern? Yes, according to Bach, but not for the city. “It’s a gray area,” he says. “This is not a city program.” Running the program through the nonprofit Yellow Bicycles gets the city off the hook for liability.
Bach’s take on helmets is simple: “You can’t run around regulating people’s behavior.” And he stresses that 35 helmets donated by the UVA Architecture Student Environmental Action Committee are available— if you can get down to City Hall Annex to pick one up.
Bike activist Alexis Zeigler admits that providing bikes without helmets is “not ideal, but a whole lot of your body doesn’t fit in a helmet.” He adds, “It’s not the end of the world to ride without a helmet.”
And given the choice between riding a bike with no helmet, and not riding a bike at all, Zeigler favors riding helmet-less.
Even at the Bicycle Safety Helmet Institute in Arlington, director Randy Swart applauds Charlottesville’s handling of the issue. “They’re going about it the right way,” he says. “To put a helmet on a bike and leave it just isn’t practical.” There are sanitation concerns— lice— and the icky condition of helmets left out in the rain.
“People using bikes have a responsibility to ride safely,” maintains Swart. “The helmet is a part of bicycle safety, but not all.”
The City endorsed the project, says Huja, because it wanted to change the mindset of people and demonstrate that bicycles really can be a method of transportation. “Even someone like me can use them,” Huja points out.
Organizers think the program is off to a good start, even though the Daily Progress reports that many of the bikes are already missing. At least two bikes were vandalized almost immediately.
“Anything that’s free, you expect that,” says Bach, who was ready with replacements.
And Bach was heartened to find one of the bikes at the Thomas Jefferson Parkway Trailhead.
The bikes can go on buses, too, expanding their range. Who knows? Maybe somebody will bus to Wal-Mart, and the bike will turn up in Stanardsville.
As for helmet use by yellow bike riders, Bach takes a laissez-faire approach: “It’s their own business.”