Short on corporate cash, Puget Sound Bike Share faces uphill ride to Capitol Hill

Macklemore's NYC bike share ride made Rolling Stone (Image: via Puget Sound Bike Share's Facebook page)

Macklemore’s NYC bike share ride made Rolling Stone (Image: via Puget Sound Bike Share’s Facebook page)

The helmet problem? It pales in comparison. The director for the Puget Sound Bike Share came to Capitol Hill late last month looking for community support for a public-private partnership that — thus far — has lacked in the “private” department and is likely to be delayed as the search for backers continues. Without the money, it might never reach Capitol Hill.

“We need another $1.3 million in order to realize the first phase of our launch, so, we’re looking for additional private sponsorships,” Puget Sound Bike Share’s Holly Houser told the November meeting of the Capitol Hill Community Council.

What's to be gained -- or lost -- without corporate sponsorship (Image: PSBS)

What’s to be gained — or lost — without corporate sponsorship (Image: PSBS)

It’s a massive challenge for a solution that seems to be working well in other cities. As it stands today far from its goals on the private financing front, the plan to bring 50 bike share stations and 500 bikes to four core Seattle neighborhoods—Capitol Hill, the U-District, downtown and South Lake Union — is ready to be cut back to 29 stations and 290 bikes and limited to only South Lake Union and the U-District thanks to the vagaries of federal funding.

Like many bike share programs around North America, the equipment for Puget Sound Bike Share—the bikes, stations, kiosks, and other pieces of the puzzle—would be provided by PBSC Urban Solutions, Houser told CHS. PBSC is the major supplier for the operator Alta Bicycle Share which Puget Sound Bike Share is currently negotiating a contract with and that would be responsible for the setup, day-to-day operation and maintenance of the system, Houser said. Though the contract has not yet been signed, Houser expressed confidence that Puget Sound Bike Share would be working with Alta.

The bikes themselves would be one-size-fits-all, and would be “quite robust,” Houser said. They would feature puncture-proof tires, rear fenders, chain protectors, lights, and small storage racks in front of the handlebars. With a low-slung, easy to step over, frames, the bikes supplied by PBSC Urban Solutions would be “upright…really comfortable and really easy to ride,” Houser said, and would “sort of encourage a slower paced, more casual type of riding.”

To accommodate Capitol Hill’s notorious inclines the bikes would also have seven speeds.

Each bike would be equipped with an RFID tag, which, in addition to helping prevent theft, would allow for the collection of data on bike usage that would made publicly available so that people could do “whatever analysis they want,” Houser said.

Approximately ten stations would be spread throughout the most densely developed and populated parts of Capitol Hill, bringing approximately 100 bike share bikes to the neighborhood at any give time.

Each station would have docks for 12-19 bikes, Houser said, and would feature a kiosk where non-members can sign up for 24-hour, or multiday passes, and access bikes using a code. Those who pay about $80 for an annual membership would be able to bypass the kiosk and check bikes out directly from their docks. In order for PSBS to operate in compliance with Washington State helmet laws, each station would also have a “helmet dispensing” device, and a helmet return bin, Houser said. Helmets would be available to rent for about $2, Houser said, would be sanitized after each use, and cycled out after a certain number of uses.

Screen-Shot-2013-10-11-at-1.01.58-PMThe stations would be spread about 1,000 to 1,400 feet apart, Houser said. The intention is to have a station “every two to three blocks in the neighborhoods that we launch in,” Houser explained. Each neighborhood would be connected to the next at some point, at least, by stations in close proximity, Houser said. (There remains some questions about just how Capitol Hill would link to the U-District, as PSBS currently “can’t have [stations] in single family and residential areas,” Houser explained, which eliminates much of the area that links the two neighborhoods as a potential site for a station. Houser says there would be some kind of connection, however, and also hopes that PSBS will eventually have the permits, and enough demand, to be able to put stations in such relatively lower density, residential areas.

Factors considered in station placement include density and topography, as well as proximity to retail outlets, entertainment venues, schools, points of interest, existing bike infrastructure and transit and pedestrian connections, including bus stops and Light Rail stations, Houser said. The tactfully-located stations would be located on both public right of way spaces, including sidewalks, curbside locations, and in public parks and courtyards, as well as on private property.

“I sense a lot of enthusiasm for this program, why are we lingering behind thirty other cities?” Community Council president George Bakan said. “This strikes me as a no-brainer.”

No-brainer or not, Houser said the launch of the program is being delayed to give the share more time to find private backers. While the Puget Sound Bike Share was initially planned to roll out in the spring of 2014, there is likely to be a delay unless funding solutions emerge quickly. “It’ll probably be a bit later than spring now,” Houser said at the council meeting. “We are still working on getting some of the funding that we need.”

According to Houser, PSBS requires about $4 million total in funding to launch the program. “About 3.4 million of it is just for the equipment itself, and then the other $600,000 is all the startup costs,” Houser said. “Paid staff, getting the warehouse, the marketing, the branding, the membership materials, all that stuff, everything,” it takes to launch, she explained. Houser said the program will likely not be self-sufficient and would require ongoing funding after launching in order to cover all its costs.

So far, the nonprofit has secured $1.75 million in federal grant money, meeting its target for the public half of the finacing needed for the rollout of its initial phase and has raised about $950,000 in private sponsorships, Houser said.

“It’s that corporate sponsorship piece that we’ve been having a really hard time [with]” she said. “There’s a lot of conversations going on right now, and there’s a lot of interest, we just have not been able to nail down either that single title sponsor,” she explained. “We’ve been in discussions with a lot of the major corporations in Seattle, and we’re still in discussions with some of them,” Houser said.

Houser added that PSBS has also been working “with a number of private developers and private landowners to actually put these stations on their private property.” She added, “We’ve actually been working with a lot of developers whose projects are still in the design phases, to actually include stations in their project design, which is pretty cool and exciting.” Still, not enough of these developers are ready to pony up the cash required to make the system work.

Riders would be able to check bikes out from any station, and return them to any station with an available dock. So one could, say, check out a bike from the station nearest to their apartment on Capitol Hill, ride it downtown, and park it to the station nearest their workplace, or other destination. A mobile app would show users station locations, and would list how many bikes, and how many empty docks, are available at each station. Throughout the day, workers would redistribute bikes among the stations to help ensure there are always bikes, and empty docks, available at each station.

While other bike share programs have used loans from their host cities to help get programs running, Washington law prohibits the City of Seattle and other municipalities from being able to extend loans to the share, a situation Houser described as “kind of a bummer.”

Not being able to accept such loans may just prove to be a saving grace for PSBS, however, if the organization does launch. With funding coming only from grants and sponsorships, PSBS and its partners may be able to more easily avoid insolvency issues like those Bixi has faced in Toronto, the news of which put a temporary halt on a planned $6 million, city-sponsored rollout of an Alta-operated, Bixi supplied, bike share program in Vancouver, BC.

Houser believes a rollout that would include Capitol Hill will plant the seed for further expansion of the program throughout the city and region. If there were enough funds available, and enough demand for the system, Houser says PSBS’s would “launch phase 1b or 2” within twelve months of the initial launch, bringing bike share to Westlake, Fremont, Wallingford, the Central District, and possibly Ballard. From there, the program would “keep expanding outward,” with later phases bringing the system to Kirkland, Redmond, Bellevue, and the Microsoft Campus, she said. Some of those farther flung location would not be connected to other parts of the system, however. “It would be kind of cost prohibitive” to ride that far considering the charges for using a bike for more than thirty minutes, Houser explained, “and you wouldn’t really wanna ride these bikes that far because they’re not really that easy to ride.”

PSBS’s plan dictates that the organization should recieve half the funding it needs from public sources, and half from private sponsors. “We did that on purpose for a few reasons: first of all it gives us better access to public funds, and then also the idea was that it would be a regional system, rather than just a City of Seattle specific system,” Houser said.

Houser said bike share trips in places where systems are already operational average 20 minutes, and usually cover less than three miles. To incentivize taking shorter trips, rides under 30 minutes would be free for bike share members, less any membership fees, Houser said.

“Basically, it’s a form of public transportation by bike,” Houser said, explaining to concept of bike share. “It’s not a bike rental service where you rent a bike and go on a three hour ride. It’s really meant to be a last mile [connector] between existing transportation, the workplace, [and] retail.”

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15 thoughts on “Short on corporate cash, Puget Sound Bike Share faces uphill ride to Capitol Hill

  1. …”Houser said the program will likely not be self-sufficient and would require ongoing funding after launching in order to cover all its costs.”…

    I’m going to guess that business owners will try keep the lights on and the doors open in their own company rather then dump endless amounts of money someone elses with no return what so ever.

  2. Clarification — there aren’t “Washington State helmet laws,” it’s a Seattle/King County health rule that requires helmets. As for the lack of private sponsors, maybe they don’t want to sponsor a probable failure? Bikeshare systems fail under mandatory helmet laws.

    If they want to succeed, maybe they should lobby the Legislature to declare that vehicle safety equipment rules must be uniform under state law, and strip unelected health departments of the power to impose vehicle safety equipment requirements on a local basis. (The health department happens to have targeted bicyclists in this case, but they could as easily prohibit eating while driving a car.)

    • So you are against mandatory helmet laws? It’s a fact that they save lives. And if helmets were voluntary, many would choose not to use them…and when they are in an accident and suffer a terrible head injury, everyone else pays for their irresponsibility, either through taxpayer funding of Medicaid, passing off hospital/rehab costs for those without insurance., or increased premiums for those with private insurance.

      • Mandatory helmet laws undeniably have a net negative impact on public health.

        Cycling without a helmet is safer than not cycling. Decades of peer-reviewed public health research show 40% lower premature mortality for people who commute by bike rather than by car. Fatal bicycle accidents are rare but very graphic.

        Fatal complications of inactivity are pandemic but taken for granted — heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and more.

        For a solid, well-researched comparison, see

  3. I recently biked around the portions of the rollout area that I suspected would be inappropriate for a first phase rollout: Eastlake, SLU and Downtown. Here is what I learned:

    A) Eastlake is NOT a safe place to ride with: high volume, moderately high speed traffic; buses and trucks; no bike lanes; no adjacent side-street alternatives. Eastlake would be one of the LAST places I would want to put casual riders.

    B) SLU does have a high density of workers BUT it also has some serious negatives as well: some steep grades on the East and South edges; THE MERCER MESS; ongoing construction; trolley tracks; zero easily bikeable connections to Capitol Hill where many bike riders live. (Riding up Pine is doable but relatively steep for heavy 7-speeds and no one can sincerely recommend Denny or Olive.)

    I feel like the people who designed the rollout of the BikeShare program missed the following important memo: “The genius of Seattle is its neighborhoods.”

    For BikeShare to be successful in Seattle it should address the following issues:

    1) SAFETY FIRST!!! Seattle has numerous bottlenecks due to water and topography that force cyclists onto busy streets with no alternative side streets. Eastlake is the prime example. These areas should be avoided in an initial rollout plan for “casual cycling”.

    2) SAFETY SECOND!!! Seattle’s growing network of separated paths and greenways should be combined with local neighborhood grids of low-traffic side streets to form the backbone of any BikeShare program. No BikeShare in Ballard? Seriously?!

    3) SOLVE THE LAST MILE PROBLEM. Getting people from transit to their final destination is one of the goals normally used to justify BikeShare. Seattle has a very compact, walkable and transit heavy downtown. There is no last-mile problem in downtown. The last-mile problem exists between people’s homes and their transit stop. It is unimaginable that the BikeShare rollout plan was developed using 10-year old planning data and does not properly weight the importance of putting BikeShare stops at light rail stops.

    You don’t really want people on Capitol Hill to be biking downtown. You know that “casual riders” won’t be biking back uphill. Instead, you want people on Capitol hill to bike from their home to the new light rail station. Add in Seattle Central, SLU and the brand new cycle track and one has to ask: No BikeShare on Capitol Hill? Reall?!

    4) TRANSIT FOR DOWNTOWN. BIKES FOR NEIGHBORHOODS. Seattle already has lots of transit service downtown. It is an eminently walkable city. What Seattle doesn’t have is adequate transit service in the neighborhoods, forcing everyone to drive even short distances. Where BikeShare can have the biggest impact is in communities like the U District, Capitol Hill, Ballard-Fremont, Columbia City, etc.

    I know that in other successful BikeShare cities, rollout plans have blanketed their core downtown grids with stations. But these street grids are much less broken up by water and topography. Having ridden BikeShare in DC and Boston, I know that you can always get off a busy arterial and ride on a quiet neighborhood street. That isn’t possible given the planned rollout for Seattle.

    I would suggest that the reasons I give above are the main reasons Seattle BikeShare is having trouble finding private sponsors. Too many potential sponsors can see that the current plan is unlikely to prove successful and far, far too likely to result in a serious injury on Eastlake or near Mercer. No one wants to be associated with that.

    • Typo — In my description of the reasons to include Capitol Hill in a rollout I typed “SLU” when I meant “Seattle University”. As I stated elsewhere, the connection between Capitol Hill and South Lake Union is problematic.

  4. These robust bikes look like they’re at least 30 lbs, please correct me if I’m wrong. They don’t look like fun to ride up the hills. Most who’d likely share one of these bikes are not regular cyclists and will have a hard time pedalling up the hills. They’re great for places like NYC where it’s flat and you barely have space for a bike. Here it’s more cost effective to put that $80 towards buying a used, good condition 21 speed bike.

  5. Hey Rodger, a quick check on the hubs in question reveals that the low end of their gear ratio yields a .63 given a 26 tooth chain ring. Plenty low for any hills you may encounter and a wider range than what you have suggested.

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