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City Council approves Seattle bike share’s public takeover

Seattle’s bike share network will come under City of Seattle ownership with an eye on expansion as City Council members voted 7-2 Monday to save the indebted system.

After tacking on amendments to improve bike lane infrastructure downtown and ensure that bike sharing reaches low income neighborhoods, City Council members approved a plan for the City to takeover Pronto with a $1.4 million investment while reserving another $3.6 million for future expansion of the system next year under a new operator contract.

Council member Mike O’Brien, who ushered the buyout plan through the transportation committee last month, said the system was worth saving as thousands of riders were already relying on it as a mode of transportation.

The vote comes after months of debate on what to do with the insolvent bike share system owned by the nonprofit Puget Sound Bike Share. While the $5 million was already earmarked for Pronto last year, the systems financial shortcomings weren’t known outside the bowels of City Hall. The system would have ceased operations on March 31st without the city investment.

By spending $1.4 million, Seattle will 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’s Tim Burgess, who voted against O’Brien’s plan, said the council would be failing taxpayers by taking over an insolvent system. “This is what economists call optimism bias,” he said. Council members shot down a Burgess amendment that would have prevented the buyout, closed Pronto, and reserved funds for a new system.

The council also passed an amendment to ensure that it retain the final say in approving a new bike share operator contract. The amendment from O’Brien was an attempt to address concerns that SDOT director Scott Kubly would have a conflict of interest in selecting a bike share operator due to his previous job running the predecessor of PSBS.

Presentation-map-575x725-400x504

SDOT’s proposed expansion map.

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.

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. The overhauled bike share could also include point to point or floating elements added to the network to help create a more flexible system.

Details then emerged of the system’s financial failures. Above average costs due to Seattle’s third-party system combined with insufficient funds raised at the launch of the service put Pronto $1.2 million in debt, according to SDOT.

In a poll of CHS readers, while the vast majority of all respondents ranked the Herbold plan to snuff Pronto as their top choice, among bike share riders, the “Kubly solution” of acquiring the bike share ranked highest.

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31 thoughts on “City Council approves Seattle bike share’s public takeover

  1. Ridiculous. It’s already a gaping waste of money, as evidenced by its failure, so the City thinks it can save it? I used to actually work for a city that once took over a failing golf course thinking they could turn it around. Guess what – they couldn’t, and now they’re stuck with a red line on the balance sheet every year.

    • Your golf course example is absolute proof of your point. Nothing illogical about your conclusion here. Irrefutable.

    • The point is that it was failing – just like Pronto – and the government couldn’t make it turn a profit, or even bring it into the black. Just like Pronto will eventually turn out. Government is not – and should not – ever be in a position to spend the people’s money on a failing venture – especially when they know it’s failing and there’s the track record to prove it.

    • You don’t even have to leave the city for examples of the failures they took over. Pacific Place parking garage and King County Metro are two off the top of my head.

  2. To expect a lucrative advertising deal seems unlikely. The whole program is widely viewed as a failure, I have a hard time seeing big money sponsors paying to get their name on bikes.

    • And SDOT director has a background from Pronto, so there’s connections. Comcast gave to Murray so you can forget about municipal broadband!

  3. 1. How many of the “thousands” of riders who use it are existing cyclists who would just ride their own bikes? I literally do not even know a single daily bike share user in Seattle, who is not already an existing cyclist who owns multiple bikes.

    2. Kudos to O’Brien to insisting on providing basic bike infrastructure as a condition for expansion. There’s exhaustive research in city after city that bike infrastructure like Seattle’s (sharrows, narrow bike lanes in door zones) creates a ridership cap at around 3-8%. Seattle is no exception.

    But now does solving bad downtown infrastructure doesn’t make bike share work in other neighborhoods that have equally bad infrastructure?

    So bike share will again in those neighborhoods, and we’ll have those same conversations next year?

    Ah, Seattle.

    • Err, too many typos:

      1. How many of the “thousands” of riders who use it are existing cyclists who would just ride their own bikes? I literally do not even know a single daily bike share user in Seattle, who is not already an existing cyclist who owns multiple bikes.

      2. Kudos to O’Brien to insisting on providing basic bike infrastructure as a condition for expansion. There’s exhaustive research in city after city that bike infrastructure like Seattle’s (sharrows, narrow bike lanes in door zones) creates a ridership cap at around 3-8%. Seattle is no exception.

      But how does solving bad downtown infrastructure doesn’t make bike share work in other neighborhoods that have equally bad infrastructure?

      So bike share will fail again in those neighborhoods, and we’ll have these same conversations next year?

      Ah, Seattle.

  4. They just better not come back next year asking for another couple of millions when the current crop of bikes is stolen, vandalized, or destroyed. Just don’t.

  5. Typical. Now that Pronto is on the public dole, there will be no incentive to make it, ever, financially self-sufficient. We will subsidize it more and more each year. Just watch.

  6. Ah, how quickly times change! Wasn’t it just two years ago Seattle couldn’t afford bus service? Now, we get this…
    Glad to see bad economic times have been banished forever and those golden eggs will keep coming.

  7. The Seattle way. Keep throwing money at a bad idea and hope that it works out.
    I guess it looks good to outsiders that the city is right up there with other places where bike shares actually work.

  8. Oof. Everything about this decision makes me cringe. As others have said, the “throw money at it until it works” strategy doesn’t have a great track record.

    I’m also not convinced that expanding the program will do anything to change ridership due to the varying geography/streetography of different neighborhoods in the city. If anything, I think contracting the program and focusing on neighborhoods that are inherently bike-friendly (relatively flat with good bike infrastructure) would make more sense.

  9. This is so dumb. Zero demand for this here. The hills are awful and we don’t have many leisurely bike riders here.

  10. SDOT is by far the most dysfunctional of City agencies, so I am not at all optimistic they can make this work.

  11. Pronto’s been great for me getting to the transit tunnel downtown. It turns a 30-minute walk to work into a 10-minute ride. Sometimes I take the bus, but that’s unreliable at rush hour. I’ve literally watched buses take 10 minutes to go three blocks then pass me by because they’re already full. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I would have given up on transit if it wasn’t for Pronto. The new Capitol Hill Link station is going to be pretty great in combination with bike share for either getting to the station or running errands from the station. I personally haven’t been making the trip to the neighborhood lately, but with Pronto and Link in combination it will be so much easier to get around quickly, I’m excited to start going there again.

    • Glad to hear it, Tim. Agreed. Personally, I’d take it all the time, if I could get from Fremont to SLU, or from Cap Hill to Fremont.
      They’ve been collecting a lot of good data about where people ride, and what they want. Just like a bus system that gets more ridership when there are more frequent busses, not fewer, expanding good infrastructure and making them a super practical and safe choice is going to do a lot to get people out of cars.

  12. Gee, what a lot of negativity over bikes! I love how many comments are about how dumb it is to subsidize travel by bicycle. Yea: like roads aren’t subsidized, nor are freeways, or the massive infrastructure it takes to keep them clean and repaired and clear of broken SUVs. Do you think GAS and OIL isn’t heavily subsidized in a million ways? Have any of you klever recliner economists ever hear of the oil depetion allowance? Who’s paying for the occupation of the Middle East? Gee, let’s just do away with bus and light rail, that sure as hell doesn’t pay for itself. What does a gallon of clean air cost? How long do you think we can maintain a lifesyle of starting a $40,000 two ton P.O.S. to drive two miles to get a gallon of milk? Bikes are an extremely effecient, healthy, economical, quiet and fun way to get around. The more bikes there are and the easier and more convenient they are to use the better off everyone is. There are fewer better ways to spend tax dollars.

    • I don’t think anyone (most) in this comment section is anti-bike or even against subsidizing bicycle infrastructure THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY USE.

      I think what we’re all questioning is the city’s decision to throw money at a concept that people/cyclists have more or less rejected (by not using it).

    • Thank god someone finally stood up for all of those majority affluent, white, male, young, healthy bikers. That’s the group that should be receiving the majority of our funding.

    • Well, how do you feel about them spending money on a bike rental business when they could be spending that money on bike lanes, infrastructure and road improvements.
      Those improvements would do FAR more good for bike commuters; and are essential to any bike RENTAL program being successful.

  13. 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.