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.
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?
“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.
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.