2013 may be the year of the bike-share in the U.S. (with the country’s biggest three cities all gearing up to deploy new programs), but cities still haven’t figured out a way to address an important part of the equation: rider safety. Thousands more bikers around the country will begin to hit the streets on borrowed bicycles, and it’s unlikely that they’ll do so with a helmet. (The carefree convenience of just hopping on a bike is certainly diminished if you’re lugging along a helmet in your backpack; bike share users are less than half as likely to use a helmet as cyclists who own their bikes.)
While entrepreneurs in Boston have put together a prototype for a helmet vending machine to accompany bike-share kiosks, a team of designers in London is rethinking helmet design, coming up with a solution that’s cheap and disposable (so it doesn’t have to be sanitized after each use) and that makes sense for a bikesharing program. Their idea is a helmet made from recycled paper pulp that could be cheaply rented in conjunction with a bike share bike, and then broken down at the end of its use to be turned into a new helmet.
"The idea to use paper pulp came about through standing around on tube platforms, sitting in buses and trains watching Metro and Evening Standard newspapers blow around," explains Thomas Gottelier, who co-created the helmet with two friends at the Royal College of Art in London. "We had previously seen what kind of structural integrity could be gained from molding paper pulp and it seemed like a logical step to use this vast resource that currently circulates our public transport network."
Gottelier figured out they could make these recyclable, biodegradable helmets for less than £1 each, without adding any glue or artificial additives.
Believe it or not, Gottelier says a helmet made from paper can be strong enough to save your life in a bike crash. "Our current helmets are two millimeters thick which already provides an amazing amount of strength and impact absorption," he says. The next prototype, made in collaboration with an industrial partner, will more than quadruple that thickness to nine millimeters—the same thickness that’s used for packaging, which, according to Gottelier, is crash-tested using more rigorous standards than bicycle helmets.
"In terms of distribution, our overriding concept for the helmet was for it to be distributed in conjunction with the Barclay’s bike-hire scheme, with the price included in the hire of the bike," says Gotellier. "We have already been in talks with [city transit agency] Transport for London who are keen to make an initial trial order of the helmets." The team has also been invited to other meetings with representatives from the city and the bike-sharing program.
If put in place in London, the paper pulp helmet concept could be a useful model for cities struggling with dismal rates of helmet usage in their bike-sharing program.