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City Council may decide killing Pronto is best way to save bike sharing in Seattle — UPDATE: Pronto not dead yet

Seattle Pride Parade 2015UPDATE 4:10 PM: With a focus on creating a transportation system with a strong element of social equity and a desire to recoup Seattle’s investments to date, a split vote of the Seattle City Council’s transportation committee Tuesday afternoon moved forward the plan to acquire and expand Seattle’s bike share system. UPDATE 3/4/2016: Confusion during the voice count has been cleared up and the committee vote now stands 4-2, giving the bill a small boost as it heads to the full council vote.

“We have 3,000 members today already that could transition into the new system,” committee chair Mike O’Brien said. “There’s significant value in that.”

Meanwhile, committee member Rob Johnson cited concerns around equity and Pronto’s relative success in its early period of operation in voting against Lisa Herbold’s substitute bill. The split 3-3 committee vote means the proposed bill will still move forward to the full Council for a vote on March 14th.

Herbold’s proposed substitute bill that would have seen Seattle put its bike share solution to rest and put the remaining $4 million earmarked for expansion into bike infrastructure around the city was roundly defeated in the committee vote. Following, a compromise plan to allow for a new bikeshare system in 2017 with some City involvement from Tim Burgess was also voted down. The committee is slated to vote on the takeover in this session.

In a poll of CHS readers, while the vast majority of all respondents ranked the Herbold plan as their top choice, among Pronto riders, the “Kubly solution” of acquiring the bike share ranked highest:Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 4.59.59 PM


Original Report: Just as it seemed City Council members were ready to advance a $5 million plan to acquire and expand Seattle’s indebted bike share system, District 1 rep and transportation committee alternate Lisa Herbold is pumping the brakes. Members of the transportation committee were set to vote a plan Tuesday that would have the City acquire Pronto in a $1.4 million buyout from its current nonprofit owner, using the remaining $3.6 million to fund a service area expansion in 2017 that officials say will breath new life and equity into the system.Take the CHS Bike Share Survey


SDOT’s proposed expansion map.

But during Monday’s City Council meeting, Herbold said she is introducing an alternate plan: Withhold the $1.4 million, use it to pay off Pronto’s $1 million federal loan, and use the remaining $4 million approved last year for bike share expansion to “support other bicycle and pedestrian projects.” Herbold’s preference would be for any future bike share system to be run without any public assistance.

“I believe bike sharing can be a productive part of Seattle’s transportation network,” she writes. “However, I believe we would be best served by a privately owned and operated system, in the same way as Car2Go, the successful car-sharing program, is privately owned and operated in Seattle. Cities such as New York City, San Francisco, and Miami Beach each have wholly privately-owned bike share systems.”

UPDATE: Council member Tim Burgess has a Pronto plan, too. The at-large representative announced Tuesday that he would also vote against a public take-over of Pronto, but will propose a compromise plan to allow for a new bikeshare system in 2017 with some City involvement. While Burgess would let Pronto go insolvent and use $1 million to pay back its federal loan, he would reserve the remaining $4 million “to support a future public-private partnership for bike share that does not rely on City of Seattle funding for operating revenue and jointly shares responsibility for capital expenses.”

In Seattle, car sharing has expanded this year with a new service from BMW joining the fleet of Car2Go vehicles around the city. A fleet of DriveNow’s all-electric BMW i3s are now available in the city as free-floating share vehicles.

But even car sharing’s expansion in Seattle hasn’t always been a smooth ride. An important factor in planning a bike share system is affordability and equity. It wasn’t until last March that Car2Go finally expanded its service coverage to all of Seattle. Meanwhile, city governments are looking at ways to make services like Zipcar more affordable to lower-income drivers.

Acknowledging that the Seattle Department of Transportation is solidly in favor of a public takeover of the bike share, Herbold raised another just a little bit coldly calculated idea: Allow Pronto to go insolvent at the end of March in order to strengthen the City’s bargaining position. “This could dramatically reduce the cost to the public to acquire the bankrupted company’s assets,” Herbold said in a statement.

Late last year, CHS reported on the City’s plans to take over Pronto to stabilize an underused system, expand it to more of the city, and transform the fleet into a new generation of electric bikes. SDOT officials believe an all-electric bike system can be a game changer in terms of boosting ridership and would allow more riders to make the longer trips required through less dense areas.

But details of the system’s financial failures have emerged. Above average overhead costs due to Seattle’s unique third-party owner system combined with insufficient funds raised at the launch of service put Pronto $1.2 million in debt, according to SDOT. Without a City bailout, Pronto will cease operations on March 31st.

By spending $1.4 million, the City would immediately acquire 26 stations from Pronto as well as all remaining hard assets (the City already owns 28 stations after purchasing them with a federal grant). The City would also seek out a new operating contract as Pronto’s current contract with the company Motivate ends at the end of 2016. Motivate could still submit a bid to continue running the service.

Council member Mike O’Brien delayed a vote in February so members could take more time to study the issue. Council members also asked SDOT to return Tuesday with some additional information, including the City’s draft contracts to purchase Pronto from its current nonprofit owner Puget Sound Bike Share and to continue using Motivate as the bike share operator through 2016.

Previous planning called for Pronto to expand to cover all of Capitol Hill to 23rd Ave, much of the Central District, parts of south Seattle, the U-District, and Green Lake. SDOT predicts trips could nearly quadruple under the expansion:


The Seattle Bike Blog recently took a look at different expansion configurations to show how the Pronto could transform into a robust public bike system by going bigger.

Negotiating new sponsorship deals would be key to expanding and sustaining the system in the future, according SDOT’s head of active transportation Nicole Freedman. SDOT projects it could get roughly $1,200 per new bike in advertising, which would put the system on track to being financially sustainable. Acquiring the system without expanding it would cost the City roughly $110,000 a year after 2016.

Re-locating existing stations could also give Pronto a boost after the City takes over, according to SDOT. Officials have recommended the following targets:

a. Central Library
b. 3rd waterfront station (waterfront stations are highly popular)
c. International District light rail (currently across street at Amtrak)
d. 2nd Ave, near bike lane
e. Pike Place (currently a few blocks away)
f. UW light rail station (needs to be closer)
g. Broadway (needs to be closer)

To ensure a Pronto expansion would serve a wider swath of riders, SDOT is proposing to locate at least 20% of its new stations in low income areas and starting a low-income membership program.

Supporting Pronto or expanding the current system without taking it over is not an option, according SDOT, and declining to bail out Pronto would still come at a price. It would cost the City $25,000 to decommission the system and $200,000 to remove it altogether.

Pronto launched in the fall of 2014 with 54 stations and 500 bikes. Annually, the system serves roughly 3,000 members (any many more non-members), supports 140,000 trips, and makes $613,000 in revenue. That is a far cry from the projections made in 2012 by Alta, a company contracted by the City that was formerly run by SDOT director Scott Kubly. For the same sized system Seattle has today, Alta projected bike share would support 4,000 members, 446,000 annual trips, and make $860,000 in revenue.

UPDATE: Here’s a brief presentation slated for Tuesday afternoon’s committee meeting:

Presentation (3116)

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25 thoughts on “City Council may decide killing Pronto is best way to save bike sharing in Seattle — UPDATE: Pronto not dead yet

  1. The idea of bike sharing is a great one. I have enjoyed using bike shares in New York City and Chicago. Notice a theme? Both of these cities are flat, spread out and have smaller living spaces where maybe a bike wouldn’t fit. Seattle does have a lot of biking culture, but the people that are active enough to not mind riding up such large hills already own bikes. I just really don’t see a bike share working here.

    • Some may prefer the convenience of bike share rather than buying and maintaining a bike of their own. Also, some people do just choose to ride downhill, like Capitol Hill to downtown, then take other means back up. Thus the Pronto vans that redistribute bikes throughout the day. I personally think there would need to be such greater scale of this, and infrastructure on the streets, to support wider adoption. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have potential.

  2. The post doesn’t say who is getting bailed out if the city buys Pronto, or who’s going to make money if the city takes the system over and hires a contractor to operate it.

    A Seattle Times article provides some background about the ingrown relationships between SDOT and the companies that set up Pronto and the folks who made the original overly optimistic projections of ownership.

  3. I remember when the Pronto bikes were first installed, I thought it was a crazy idea and didn’t expect them to be used that often. I was wrong. I see people riding these bikes nearly everywhere I go. This system already works, and already has high usage. As with the bulk of transit options, expanding them serves to increase use. I think the last thing we need to be doing is limiting options, especially right before the lite rail opens. Once that happens, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if ridership of the bikes increases.

  4. What, no plan from Sawant? Like take it over, expand it by 10-fold, raise taxes on homeowners, and give free bikes to everybody?

    • That’s too much detail for a Sawant plan – it almost sounds plausible. Hers are mostly just words and hot air.

    • Yes, everyone will have a bike. They will all be the same size and color. Then, because no one has any reward for hard work, they will fall apart within a month.

    • Ha ha, stupid socialists. Why don’t they just get a job and buy a bike? Or better yet, a car? That’s what makes America great – cars! What next, socialized medicine!?! That’ll cost way more than dying in the streets, I won’t pay!

    • JS: Yes, I was making fun of Sawant by referencing Russian history and the fact that socialism/communism fails as it replaces the wealthy with a governmental upper class.

      However, I do not fit your stereotype of anti-socialist you think I am. For example, I do not own a car and I think too many people are reliant on a polluting/wasteful device that will soon be obsolete for most city dwellers. I also think socialism sounds good, but I don’t see how it could work in the real world, especially on a large scale. All I see is it adding more corruption and importance on who you know. I can hear my old SCCC teacher in my head now, “real communism hasn’t been tried.” Then what is real communism and how will it be different? He couldn’t really answer, then again he also moved to Seattle because of a joke article he read about Seattle’s “Little France” neighborhood.

      I encourage you to read more about what other people think, not just articles you find that support your beliefs.


    You can read about Vancouver’s work. They spent 8 years developing their bikeshare program. Remember this isn’t a hilly city like Seattle either.

    They developed a robust bike route/trail infrastructure first so cycling is SAFE. Duh#1

    They are not competing with bike rentals.

    Their city is far denser than Seattle and oh, they are linking bike stations to their mass transit like Sky Train (which has been around forevahhhh). Duh#2

    They’ve figured out a system where you can lock your bike up and make a return without having to return it to a bike station. That way you can bike to a place, lock it up, clock out and go on your merry way. Duh#3

    Bike helmet is free. (So are super lice.)

    It’s not without huge economic risk. The city is nervous about it. Rightly so. Vancouver metro voted down multi- billion transit tax package last year. Evidently, being rich doesn’t mean people like paying more tax either. The 1% has that tax burden figured out. Duh#4.

    Take note rich Seattle.

  6. When will this stop! I’ve read about this boondoggle for months. You don’t buy failing businesses. The poll poll above shows that no one rides it and no one wants it.

    It is surprising how surprised the bureaucrats are at a sane idea – spend the $ on improvements to transportation and after they are in place let the private sector step up when the time is right – light ride sharing.

  7. Why isn’t there any reporting on SDOT Director Scott Kubly and his clear conflict of interest in this entire boondoggle????

  8. Right, no one rides it except for those of us who use it, ride it, and love it. Hey, “let it die” crowd: you’re making an argument akin to “the school district is corrupt and I don’t have a kid in school, so let’s vote down the school levy and give the money to private schools.”

    Have any of the haters actually used Pronto? It’s a delight. It’s by far the best way to get from Capitol Hill to the ID, for example. I agree with plenty of the criticisms: the $8/day minimum is too much; it should integrate better with transit; need more stations and electric bikes. All great. But bike share is so ludicrously inexpensive compared to any other form of transportation, it would be absurd not to continue experimenting for a couple of years and get it right.

    Look, I don’t work for Pronto, but here’s what I’d to point out. It takes half an hour (plus waiting time) on the bus or streetcar to get from central CH to Uwajimaya. Pronto cuts that to less than 12 minutes. The ride is fun, safe, and easy. The cost of providing the stations and bikes for a year is probably less than what it costs to run the #49 bus line for one day. For me, it’s an enormous improvement to the transit network.

    I get it—my individual experience is just anecdote, and the city shouldn’t run an entire system to make me and couple of other zealots happy. But neither should we give up on an incredibly promising form of transportation because we didn’t get everything right on the first try.

    • You’ve never seen me on a bike. It is NOT SAFE, especially on Seattle’s rainy hills.

      And I think you’re wrong about the economics of Pronto. If it was so cheap and awesome, it wouldn’t be losing money.

    • Matthew,
      Nobody is suggesting we “give up on an incredibly promising form of transportation”. You’re conflating many people’s widespread lack of support for this overpriced, money-sucking boondoggle of a public-financed bikeshare system, with people’s general attitudes about the utility of bikes as urban transit. Personally I’m totally in favor of a *privatized* bikeshare option with some city support– perhaps the city subsidizing memberships for qualifying low-income people, etc. Leave the risk of theft, vandalism, lack of cost-effectiveness to the private sector. If nobody steps up to it, that will tell you a lot about the prospect of the City successfully making a go of it. Just because we’re not all lining up for this money pit option doesn’t mean we have a negative perspective on bikes.

    • If only there were other, more efficient methods of transporting large numbers of people throughout a city like ours, ones which aren’t just for the physically fit, youthful, and/or moneyed. Imagine a bus-like, clean electric vehicle moving up and down these hills, ones full of people, with dedicated lanes and infrastructure instead of pushing more money at inefficient single-operator options.

      Imagine those millions being spent on that being invested in such a system. What a future that could be!

    • I bike commute frequently. While I don’t have a problem with the idea of bike share, I don’t think the city ownership/take over is a good move. If a company can’t make a go of it, how can the city? If the city exchanged use of land for low income membership, I’d support that. Otherwise this system is too expensive and unworkable for most people.

      I for one looked into it and found that my 40 min bike commute was not served by Pronto for many reasons. I bought a used bike. I can bike at my schedule, to where I want, and it is cheaper.

  9. Seattle will never get future grants (after returning their initial ones), sponsorships or private investment to support starting over if they close down Pronto, which is already partially owned by the city. We will be labeled for ever as the only US city to have a “failed” bike share system with only 50 stations, 140,000 rides per year and 3,000 annual members. In fact there was $5 million approved in the 2015 budget for expanding Pronto to a self sustaining sized network, but the City Council never released the funds to allow an expansion which really should have occurred prior to the first summer season. Seattle’s shortsighted, provincial culture strikes again. When our streets are totally clogged with car2gos, driverless vehicles, cars for hire, buses and streetcars we will do the facepalm.

  10. So many poor arguments made… #1: “And I think you’re wrong about the economics of Pronto. If it was so cheap and awesome, it wouldn’t be losing money.”

    Remind me which transportation system makes money? Roads/highways need a bailout every year from property/sales taxes because gas taxes approach 50% of costs.

    #2: “Imagine those millions being spent on that being invested in such a [bus] system. What a future that could be!”

    Yes, what if council put $5 million towards buses… what is that, four buses? Three? To say nothing of operating costs. It’s simply ignorant math to refute bike share systems on an economic basis. It’s a cheap, cheap transportation option for those who choose to use it. It’s not forced on anyone and it reduces traffic, transit loads, etc.

    • There’s nothing cheap about changing existing road infrastructure for the tiny minority of bikers. We’re actually making buses less efficient by taking away vehicle lanes or pushing bike lanes ahead of transit lanes, and buses are used by significantly more people.

      Like, the entirety of users of Pronto per month are probably less than a day of the 48. And the 48 serves more working class people, whereas bikers are demographically (in Seattle at least) a much more privileged class.

      So keep fighting for those issues that mostly benefit white male tech workers! They are truly the underclass and in need of more help from the system.

  11. There’s nothing cheap about building good, safe cycling infrastructure. Do it on the cheap with mish-mash design, you get what we see in Seattle.

    Sorry. We have mass transit in this city and Pronto isn’t it.

    It’s a failed private company hoping to be rescued and absorbed by a governmental agency. Quite a business plan there, but enough pork already.

  12. The role of city government is to build the infrastructure, not run the businesses; especially one, that by all measures, seems to be a loser.
    The entire budget we currently have to improve bike lanes is approximately $5 million.
    The City may spend approx. $8 million ($1.4 bailout, $5 million expansion, $1.8 million maintenance) by 2018 on Pronto.
    What if instead of acquiring Pronto, it spent $5 million more on bike lanes/road improvements, and made a bike sharing program actually viable.
    That would be a much more traditional role for City government, and essential to the success of any program.