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City Council to consider $1.4 million plan to keep Seattle’s bike share rolling

Capitol Hill’s Pronto stations — we looked at the most-utilized Capitol Hill bike share stops here

In October, CHS reported on the City of Seattle’s plans to take over the Pronto bike share system to stabilize an underused system, expand it to more of the city, and transform the fleet into a new generation of bikes. Basically, to keep pace with cities from New York to Denver. All that has changed since then are the headlines.

Well… and, maybe, the timeline and price tag.

The City Council’s transportation committee Tuesday will take up the transition of the system from the third-party nonprofit that launched Seattle’s bike share and the $1.4 million needed to pull it out of the red, avoid paying money to the feds, and put the system on track for a 2017 expansion.

The City's planned timeline:  1. 2017 launch 2. Expanded service area w/ SE Seattle 3. Current scenario based on 100 stations 4. Open to Gen 4.0 electric. May sell or retrofit existing 5. Can recover 100% of op ex from sponsors & users, 2018

The City’s planned timeline:
1. 2017 launch
2. Expanded service area w/ SE Seattle
3. Current scenario based on 100
4. Open to Gen 4.0 electric. May sell or retrofit existing
5. Can recover 100% of op ex from sponsors & users, 2018

The early draft of how the network might expand

The early draft of how the network might expand

Here’s how City Council staff describe the plan:

Puget Sound Bike Share, doing business as Pronto, launched a bike share system in Seattle in October, 2014. Due to ongoing operating losses brought on by debt service payments and operating overhead, the system is currently insolvent. The City seeks to purchase assets from Pronto and contract directly with the operator to keep bike share operational in Seattle. SDOT needs a portion of the funds allocated in the 2016 budget for bike share to purchase the assets.

Where would the money come from? $5 million in Seattle’s 2016 budget was approved for expanding the Pronto network. A federal TIGER grant, meanwhile, has allowed the city to purchase 28 of the system’s 54 stations.

Hold on there, CHS. Why spend money on an “insolvent” system? First, the City Council analysis explains what happened:

Seattle’s current system, operated by Pronto, is insolvent for several reasons. In this system, operations are outsourced to a third party (unlike other bike share systems) and this creates substantial overhead costs. Additionally, insufficient funds were raised for the initial equipment purchases and consequently, borrowing costs lead to ongoing debt service payments that contributed to year-end net losses. When overhead costs and debt service payments are removed, the bike share system costs and revenues are comparable with other successful bike share systems around the country. To shift the system to an operational equilibrium where costs are more in line with revenues, and then to proceed with an expansion, the City needs to acquire the portion of the assets that Pronto owns.

OK, but why haven’t more people used the bike share?

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 11.55.43 AM

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 11.57.30 AM “Bike share is most successful at scale. You need a real network of origin-destination combinations,” Nicole Freedman, director of SDOT’s active transportation program, told CHS last year when we first reported on the city’s plans.

Pronto launched in October 2014 under the ownership of Puget Sound Bike Share, a non-profit organization made up of regional public and and private partners. Pronto riders completed 144,000 trips in the system’s first year of operation as the share filled gaps in the city’s transportation system. Here’s how Seattle Bike Blog puts it:

This is the central thesis for a bike share program: Transit is good at getting people to a general area, but it isn’t so good at closing the first and last miles of those trips. And if you live in the service area, it’s even more useful.


The most recent usage stats provided to CHS in late 2015

Freedman says if the share is were city run and there were no debt payments, it would be a break-even service today.

Currently, Pronto serves dense, economically advantaged areas like downtown and Capitol Hill where businesses are willing to sponsor stations and bike service. The city’s expansion plans for 2017 would incorporate equity into determining how best to scale out the network with more stations likely in the Central District and South Seattle. The system currently serves mostly existing bike riders — Pronto says the majority of its members own their own bikes.

Meanwhile, the future of urban bike shares is electric, and SDOT officials say they want to be ahead of the curve. Freedman told CHS last year that her research has shown that having an all-electric bike system can be a game changer in terms of boosting ridership. “We’re hilly, so it levels the land,” Freedman said. And as stations expand into outer neighborhoods, retrofitting current bikes or replacing the fleet would allow more riders to make the longer trips required through less dense areas.

But don’t expect the helmet issue to go away any time soon. King County has an all-ages helmet law that left Pronto in the position of launching with helmet bins at every station. It spends $83,000 a year to pick up, clean, and restock the stations, according to the City Council analysis. Helmet laws have been shown to diminish share use. Advocates are calling on City Hall to change the way it implements the law in Seattle.

The full presentation planned for Tuesday’s transportation committee meeting is below.


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26 thoughts on “City Council to consider $1.4 million plan to keep Seattle’s bike share rolling

    • +1. Admirable idea. We tried it, it hasn’t worked, let’s move on. It works better in Chicago, DC and NYC because they are flat. Or whatever. Somehow I doubt this will make money just by expanding.

  1. I agree with the above statement. I sent a letter to the Mayor urging him to put that money on something else….say, bicycle infrastructure. I commute by bicycle everyday, don’t own a car, and prioritize transit and walking: I think this was just not a good time for bike sharing just yet. We need safer infrastructure first!

  2. “Break even”. Yeah, sure. That giant sucking sound is the sound of YET ANOTHER tax levy. Let them pay it out of the “Move Seattle” $930million we just approved. If it’s that good an idea, they shouldn’t mind doing that, right? No risk, right? Who really believes you can expand this to the CD and not have half the bikes stolen or vandalized within a year? And before anybody starts– I live in the CD. This is insanity.

  3. The operating revenues seem inflated, with the projected user revenue for 2017 & 2018 looking way overestimated…why use a regression analysis of other cities user revenues when there is actual data based on Seattle user revenues in 2015 & 2016? Actual Seattle user revenue decreased between 2015 & 2016, yet they’re projecting it to almost double from 2016 to 2017, and more than double from 2016 to 2018? Makes the business case look reasonable on paper, but I seriously question these assumptions.

  4. I can see the city selling off all of these bikes and stations for pennies on the pound scrap metal in a few years and the money pit that it was will be brushed under the rug.

  5. The article says the City’s Transportation Committee will take up the issue on Tuesday. Which council members are on this committee? Can someone please publish any appropriate name(s) and/or email addresses so we can contact them to share our opinions?

  6. Why not offer the Pronto system to private bidders to get a sense of what it is really worth. Personal opinion is that it could not be given away.

  7. I use the Pronto system several times a week (and have no affiliation with them, I hasten to add), and it’s by far the best option for many trips I make (e.g., Cap Hill/ID).

    We don’t demand that the road network be revenue-neutral, and we shouldn’t do so for bike share (which costs essentially nothing by comparison). Bike share drives demand for bike infrastructure improvements and vice versa.

    Or maybe I’m the only person who enjoys riding these things. :)

  8. Gotta love this city “something is working, lets expand it!”. I’d hate to see this expand and then add in complexities such as electric bikes.

    I love bikes and bicyclists! I wish we had more. But in Seattle it’s not for the faint of heard. Except for 3 months a year, its wet and dark. Most avid bikers are equipped and that leaves only a very small population who’d adopt this.

  9. I just wanted to call out this astute comment by Jonathan Callahan, whose company participated in the Pronto data challenge, and who has a strong grasp of the actual ridership data:

    I want to just copy and paste it here, but that’s probably not nice.

    I think he captures why Pronto fails, and why SDOT’s on track to repeat the same thinking that led to that failure.

    • Thanks. His recommendations:

      A) Put bikes where people already like to ride: Waterfront and Myrtle Edwards, Burke Gilman, Alki, Capitol Hill, Ballard, etc..

      B) Become a “transit extender” by putting a bikes at light rail stations and along safe, “railroad grade” routes radiating from those stations.

      C) Take advantage of the income generated from tourists putting stations where tourists like to visit (see data browser) such as: Waterfront/Myrtle Edwards, Seattle Center, Alki, International District, SLU Park, UW, Fremont, Greenlake, Ballard.

  10. I, for one, LOVE Pronto. I own a very nice, tricked-out commuter bike but it has been gathering dust now that I almost exclusively (and unexpectedly) use Pronto. Pronto bikes are heavier/clunkier and the range of use is limited but the convenience factors far outweigh the downsides. I think if more people tried them they’d be surprised, as I was, by how liberating it is to dump your bike and helmet wherever you go.

    I live in the CD and commute by bike to downtown. It’s not for everyone, but I’d love to see Pronto stay and expand. It’s only been a year (it launched in October–bad idea), so give it time.

  11. I walk, bus, and bike for my commute. I live on the hill and do not own a car. About year ago I needed to replace a $30 thrift store bike I bought a few years before. I looked into Pronto, did a little math, and found that I could buy a nice enough, more mid-range bike for close to what two years of Pronto would cost. I could also bike directly between my home and destination, make stops along the way, and not worry about time.

    Pronto is just not practical for many. Some tourists may be interested, but our hills will change most of their minds. For the most part, places such as Greenlake where people may want to occasionally bike already have a bike rental place nearby. Most people who will bike in Seattle already own a bike or do the same math I did and buy a bike. I have rarely seen any of these bikes in use. I understand that it may work for a small group of people, but the costs for the many would outweigh the benefit of the few.

  12. This I don’t want my tax dollars going to an elite club of mostly white people. What about the rest of the population of Seattle? I’m a single 70yrs. young woman on a fixed income. I’m not giving my money to a bunch of entitle white men. The for the rest of us needs to be taken care of now! Seattle has become a greedy sinkhole. I give Seattle 10 yrs. and all the people you are catering to now will be leaving Seatle like rats because they will be starting families in houses with yards and everyone in their families will OWN their own their own high tech bikes.

  13. I don’t want my tax dollars going to an elite club of mostly white people. What about the rest of the population of Seattle? I’m a single 70yr. young woman on a fixed income. I’m not giving my money to a bunch of white guys with an entitlement complex. A rich city like Seattle does not need another bike project. We need homes for the homeless, many of whom are vets that the government has not taken care of. Why not give them bikes for FREE. Seattle has become a greedy sinkhole. I give Seattle about 10 yrs. until all the people the mayor is catering to now will leave Seattle like rats because they will be starting families in houses with yards so their children can have room to put their high tech bikes that their parents now OWN along with their pot shops. While we’re asking, I want free bus fare in exchange for bike taxes since I can’t ride in the traffic in the rain or maybe a plane ticket to move to LA. At least the sun shines there. The most liveable city is no longer liveable unless you are young and white and can ride a bike.

  14. It’s interesting to see that most of the commentators see the reality of this program but if you go to a City Council meeting the bike proponents hand out “Pronto” tee shirts to their followers and dominate the public comment period and then council members say, “See, everyone in Seattle supports the bike share program.” Seattle city government is such a pathetic, ideological joke.