Them’s the brakes: Drivers celebrate removal of public bike share from their Seattle streets with jubilant parking

Capitol Hill commuters took their final rides until who knows when on a Seattle public bike share Friday. The city’s Pronto system will shutter at midnight. Don’t forget to dock your bike.

The shutdown comes after two and a half years of service following the system’s October 2014 launch. Back then, around a third of Capitol Hill-identifying respondents told CHS they planned to use the share at least monthly. That might have marked peak enthusiasm for the troubled, limited, and ultimately uncharacteristically underused system.

While public shares have thrived in other cities, it was a relative bust in Seattle as membership plummeted from a high of around 3,000 and an initial early plan for a countywide approach was scrapped. Meanwhile, for-profit car systems like Car2Go and Reachnow have thrived. Along the way, Pronto even provided the city with a classically Seattle political scandal. The feds knew better, rejecting a $10 million grant request to expand the system.

By January 2017, Mayor Ed Murray decided to put the city’s bike system out of its misery, kissing goodbye the $4.4 million budget required to start the system in 2014 and the $1.4 million approved in March 2016 to keep the system afloat. The plans for a transition to electric bikes and expansion in the Central District were axed. $3 million budgeted for the share was, instead, funneled into pedestrian and street safety improvements near schools, and “accelerating design and outreach for the east/west connections in the Center City bicycle network.”

The bikes and the docks will be removed from Seattle’s streets after Friday. In one indignity to advocates hoping to reduce car dependence in the city, the street parking that was removed will be restored. The equipment will be sold providing yet another opportunity for indignity as Seattle watches another municipality or school campus successfully deploy the discounted surplus. Maybe we should have just melted it all down to scrap to save on the psychic costs.DSC01440

Friday morning, CHS found one rider headed west on Republican who said he was a regular Pronto commuter out for one last day on the service. The dock at the popular Pronto station near Capitol Hill Station was empty. The dock at most of the other stations were as full as usual.

CHS, like our business and residential neighbors, never found many uses for the system. The time to check out a bike — and grab a helmet from the code-locked bin if we were feeling law abiding — was sometimes too great to make the stop worth it. Finding a destination station was usually a bigger waste of time. Still, we grabbed a Pronto on a few breaking stories and could see the promise even if we wanted another gear or two to work with and brakes that were a little less casual.

Want to see the future? As usual, look to China where for-profit, floating bike share companies have made their offerings ubiquitous to the point of sometimes ridiculous saturation. It seems unlikely Seattle, then, will live for long without a bike share — or several — operating on its streets. But this particular failed experiment has come to an end.

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38 thoughts on “Them’s the brakes: Drivers celebrate removal of public bike share from their Seattle streets with jubilant parking

  1. a waste of $5.8 million that could have been flushed down the toilet!!! Oh wait! That IS what they did! I hope SDOT’s Scott Kubly is alright? Didn’t lose his job? The scandal didn’t hurt him at all? Kinda hurt the City of Seattle

    • This is extremely low on the list of things that have “hurt” Seattle. But the anti-bike crowd will take delight in wringing their hands at the downfall of Pronto.

    • Remember that the money didn’t just evaporate. It paid for people to do their jobs and for the manufacture of the bikes and so on. Sure, the long-term benefit of that money doesn’t remain with Seattle, but a lot of people were able to put food on the table as a result of the investment.

  2. Interesting how this project tanked. Maybe Seattle is not as super progressive as those who insist on “controlling the narrative” insist it is? Maybe special interests having the ear and wallet of city hall is destructive whether those special interests be left or right. But the amount of money poured into this is no laughing matter. It really could have been put to better use. Last stats I saw only 4% of people in Seattle bike in total, most of them owning their own bikes.

    • The idea for public bike share isn’t inherently flawed. However launching one prior to streets being made safer for the actual bike riding is not a suitable way to bring in more people to the biking community. Then there was also the issue of lack of actual wider distribution of locations, and the heavy bike design, including poor lighting front and back.

      By the way 4% of an entire city’s population is actually huge. Not justifiably “only 4%” how you phrase it. And it’s not a bike vs. car vs. pedestrian thing. A lot of people who ride bikes also drive cars.

      I don’t know what comes next but I support making Seattle more safe for bikes (which by its very nature also makes it more safe for cars and pedestrians). Only in that context can a bike share bringing in new folks be potentially financially viable.

  3. I don’t think there’s an “anti-bike” crowd in Seattle (in the same way there are “pro-bike” groups). It’s just that there are lots of ordinary people that are in the “non-stupid spending” category. Bikes are great. I love bikes. More power to bicyclists (who obey traffic laws). This was an absurd boondoggle. It was not bad to have the experiment. It was bad to continue the program after it proved it could not be self sustaining.

    • I’m one of those people who is a cyclist – I walk or ride almost everywhere I go within town, but even I thought this was a bad idea.. big, heavy bikes in a really hilly town. A system that only allowed you to go between bike stations. I never thought this was going to inspire anyone who didn’t already ride to do so and those who already do, generally own their own bike. I had a free subscription for a year through my work, but I never found any good reason to use it.

    • I think there are very few “anti-bike” people in Seattle, but there are many who question whether the dedicated bike lanes are a good idea. They are expensive, make for a confusing and cluttered street, and are little used. Most motorists are more than willing to “share the road” with cyclists, even though this is sometimes a challenge when cyclists disobey the traffic laws.

    • I am not a fan of dedicated bike lanes – I think they cause more problems than not, but I totally disagree that most motorists are “more than willing to share the road”. Drivers here have a really awful attitude here about anything – cyclists, buses, pedestrians, stop signs…. – anything that causes them to have to slow down a little bit.. I and experience stupidity every time I go outside – like the people on E. John up behind Group Health who just cannot wait for the bus to unload – and are willing to drive on the wrong side of the road while there are cars coming to go around… It’s unfortunately not a minority.

      I spent a few days in San Francisco a little while ago and it was amazing and very noticeable how much better drivers were there – like drivers actually did wait for pedestrians to cross the street. They actually really stopped for stop signs… don’t know why it’s called a California stop when people roll through… they don’t appear to do it there..

    • Count me there too– I’m not “anti-bike” and I’m not “anti- bike lane” either. But I’m totally “anti- stupid, wasteful spending”. And for the record, I don’t think dedicated bike lanes are wasteful spending (assuming they’re done right). This system was just a money pit and not used enough to make it worthwhile. Topography, climate, etc– all are reasons that can kill a system like this. If someone wants to launch one that’s self-sustaining or supported by advertising– fine. But nobody should hold their breath on that happening.

    • @Jim:

      Can you give an example of a dedicated bike lane that was “done right”? Certainly not the one on Broadway!

    • Bob,
      I’m not debating whether the Broadway bike lane is or isn’t “done right”. I’m not an expert on bike lanes, so I have no intention of spouting off about Broadway’s. It’s built, people use it, I respect it, I can accommodate it. I just said I’m not anti-bike, and I’m not against the city building dedicated bike lanes.

  4. Before my recent move to Seattle I lived in Minneapolis and Montreal, two of the best biking cities in North America. In both cities I did most of my commuting and other travel by bike and really loved it. In addition, bike-share programs thrived. I don’t think the failure of Pronto means that Seattle is any less progressive than those cities. Pronto was probably sabotaged by the same factors that makes me less eager to bike here: ubiquitous steep hills, narrow streets, and incautious drivers. The hills are the biggest problem, so maybe an electric bike system would work. I guess we won’t find out for now. In the meantime, it would be great if the city did more to remind drivers to share the road with bikers and pedestrians.

  5. SDOT is an embarrassment. Between this and what they did to Broadway, it’s amazing that heads haven’t rolled. A competent mayor probably would see these failures as an issue, but Ed probably thinks we just need a levy.

    • Adam, you are assuming this was a mistake. Pronto was a tool used to build Kubly’s career. Whether the program worked or not was not a concern, it was a successful operation in Kubly’s mind I’m sure. They should put one of the Pronto bikes in the traffic circle the city built at 26th and Alder where Kubly owns/owned a house. I’m sure that traffic circle wasn’t on the up and up either cause the need for a traffic circle was much greater at 27th and Alder.

    • I’m gladly pay my tax dollars toward the tunnel – you know, something that replaces a critical piece of damaged infrastructure and makes way for a waterfront reconnection.

    • me too – I don’t begrudge viaduct replacement a penny. It is dangerous and will most certainly fall if we get a big quake. Replacing it with another big, vulnerable, elevated structure would have been stupid. Go Bertha – 5 feet from the finish!!

    • Me too 2. The viaduct was a mistake in the first place, and its demolition is way overdue. I can hardly wait until our central city is re-connected to our waterfront….it will be a beautiful thing!

    • I’ll come out in favor of the viaduct. Always liked it when a car I was in took that route. Great view. Was against the tunnel from the get go Mainly the expense. Would’ve been far, far cheaper to retrofit the viaduct. Instead rich folks griped they didn’t have a view (play me the world’s smallest violin), so developers got together to convince the people oh how much nicer it would look w/o that nasty viaduct! I wasn’t so easily duped. And I’d much rather be on the top of the viaduct than in a tunnel when the earthquake hits. I don’t doubt someone’s getting kickbacks from the project as well.

    • @T, simply retrofitting the viaduct was never a safe solution and didnt make it out of the alternative screening process. The three viable alternatives that came out of the screening analysis were:
      1) Tear down and rebuild the viaduct
      2) Build a new SR 99 segment underground (via either cut&cover or tbm) and then tear down the viaduct
      3) Make SR 99 a surface street, push N/S drives moving through the city on to I5, and then tear down the viaduct.

      Of those three options which would you have preferred?

    • The reason that SR-99 replacement is a boondoggle has nothing to do with your love of the viaduct, or your wish to see the waterfront from 1st Avenue better. It has to do with hundreds of million dollars in cost overruns. In contrast, the city council used money to buy things (bike share equipment) which we are now going to sell. The rest of the money that was earmarked for expansion of the system is going to other projects.

      In contrast, the extra $150 million that STP had to ask for is gone forever. And wait till the state legislature fails to come through on the money for our waterfront park.

    • @T: Of course there is a fabulous view from the upper level of the viaduct, but that is not reason enough to rebuild a dangerous structure which cuts our city off from our otherwise beautiful waterfront. There are plenty of other spots in Seattle where you can get a comparable view.

  6. SO SAD ABOUT THIS.

    I was a proud member with the scanner on my keychain and everything. The whole system just didn’t work well. Not even for a dedicated fan like me.

    I wonder if a private for-profit company could start something similar with bike share stations in a tighter concentration around places like the Central Waterfront/Myrtle Edwards, Lake Union/Cheshiahud Loop, Burke-Gilman, Lake Washington, etc. You know, the types of places that are already somewhat bike-friendly and where people who don’t already have a bike might want to take a short little jaunt on a nice day. I’d pay for it!

    • I’m thinking rental kayaks might do better than bikes in Seattle. I see a place in town is doing them at $18 / hour.

  7. Seattle is not a good city for bike rentals. People who rent bikes are entry level bikers, no experienced cyclist rents, they own.

    Seattle is inhospitable to novice cyclists for many reasons.

    Bad weather 9 months a year, lots of steep hills, dangerous streetcar tracks, and two way cycle tracks (i.e. Broadway and 2nd Ave) are counter-intuitive and intimidating for novice cyclists.

  8. Finally, a silver stake thru the heart of what was always a bad, expensive idea. Now the question is, what will the city waste our money on next? So many possibilities.

    • “Safe” Injection Sites that will serve less than 1% of the daily injections in Seattle, increase the number of homeless/addicts moving to the region, and take $ away from the county budget that could be used for treatment beds.

  9. Wow, so much negativity and so many haters.

    I am deeply thankful we have a city government that’s interested in improving our quality of life.

    There are so many ways that bikes and biking are linked with a high quality of life. Less traffic, better health, less pollution. It’s a worthy thing, and the kind of thing that a government interested in quality of life should encourage.

    I would much rather have a government that’s willing to take risks and try than not try in the first place. Sometimes things don’t work out. And what matters is what we learn.

    • I’m also interested in “a city government that’s interested in improving our quality of life”. But they need to do it in ways that WORK and not waste our limited funding on stupid crap that won’t. I’d rather have seen this money go to stuff that’s already working but under-served. Like more frequent buses on crowded runs, more late-night service, etc. These are things that people heavily use NOW and we can use more of. Rental bikes are expensive and hardly used by anybody. We don’t have unlimited funds, and programs that waste our money on crap like this are pushing us to a breaking point with this un-ending parade of property tax levies.

    • @jim98122:

      To your point about building on things already working: seattle bike commuting has grown by 135% in the last decade. (seattle bike blog, 9/15/2016).

      Also, bike rental is very successful in many other cities, many of them just as rainy as seattle.

      So how does one know for sure what will work and what won’t? Sometimes you just have to try.

      Finally: I am an experienced cyclist, and I used pronto all the time. I found it incredibly useful and freeing, especially when I didn’t want to worry about getting my bike back home.

  10. BTW, this is a great counter case-study in what customer awareness & leadership looks like, if you want your bike share system to succeed:

    http://nyc.streetsblog.org/2017/03/31/an-emerging-bike-share-success-story-in-bed-stuy/

    If my memory is correct, NYC is now getting similar summer ridership numbers in just the *Bed-Stuy* neighborhood of Brooklyn (with 36 stations) than Seattle was getting for the *entire city-wide system*.

    I’m good with government experimentation. But Seattle’s problem is that SDOT isn’t nimble, they’re not customer-centric, and they don’t know how to fail fast. SDOT is more like the Windows 8 of government — they don’t have the skills at failing fast and cheap, so they can only fail slow and expensive.

    • I’m not actually sure that’s true.

      First, pronto was not a creation of SDOT, so you can’t lay the system design at its feet.

      And you can argue with things like the execution of the first hill streetcar, but that project’s vision/mandate also was handed down came from a compromise between soundtransit and advocacy groups.

      I think they have been pretty incremental and aware regarding the projects where they’ve been able to shape the goals and timeline – think some of the changes to rainier ave, street parks, and some of the shifts from four-lane roads to two.

  11. I think Seattlites love to hate on new things and secretly hope they fail, rather than actually giving it a try. I was a member of Pronto for two years and clocked in over 1000 trips. It was super convenient and way cheaper and more fun than taking public transportation. I rode the bikes all over the city, in every weather condition, and will miss the bike share program.

  12. A city with hills everywhere, where it rains and is slippery 9 months out of the year, dark as early as 4pm November to April and cold even in the summer. This was never going to work.

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