By the end of March, Seattle will no longer have a public bike share system. Mayor Ed Murray announced Friday night the city will take $3 million set aside to replace its struggling Pronto system and instead put the money to work making bicycling and pedestrian improvements across Seattle. The $4.4 million budget required to start the system in 2014 and the $1.4 million approved last March to keep the system afloat? Poof.
“This shift in funding priorities allows us to make critical bicycle and pedestrian improvements — especially for students walking and biking to school,” Murray said in a statement. “While I remain optimistic about the future of bike share in Seattle, today we are focusing on a set of existing projects that will help build a safe, world-class bicycle and pedestrian network.”
The announcement said the bike share money will be doled out to four projects slated to start this year:
- Adding pedestrian safety improvements, including traffic calming and crosswalk improvements, at 19 schools through the Safe Routes to School Program.
- Completing a missing link of the 4th Avenue bicycle lane and extension to Vine Street.
- Accelerating design and outreach for the east/west connections in the Center City bicycle network.
- Improving accessibility in Pioneer Square by adding curb ramps at key locations.
While bicycling in Seattle — even through its icy winter — remains as strong as ever, the financial loss coupled with what will amount to three lost years is a blow to the city’s urbanist culture. The money includes $2.5 million from Alaska Airlines for what was supposed to be a five-year sponsorship deal, a $1 million federal grant, $750,000 from the state, and a $500,000 sponsorship from Seattle Children’s Hospital plus membership and usage fees.
The failure is a bad look in comparison to Seattle’s Pacific Northwest neighbors. “It is also poor timing for Seattle to abandon bike share right as Vancouver and Portland are launching their systems,” the Seattle Bike Blog writes. “Where once Seattle was the only large Pacific Northwest city with bike share, it will now be the only one without it.”
Pronto launched in the fall of 2014 with 54 stations and 500 bikes including 10 stations around Capitol Hill. Annually, the system served roughly 3,000 members and many more non-members. The bikes made about 140,000 trips per year, generating more than $600,000 in revenue. UPDATE 1/16/2017: To answer an issue raised in comments, the 3,000 member number represents the total at the end of Pronto’s first year of service. By the time the city was contemplating taking over Pronto in spring of 2016, there were closer to 1,900 members. The system ended its first year with more than 3,000 annual members, but many have not renewed,” the Seattle Bike Blog wrote of the discrepancy.
Those numbers fell short of projections made in 2012 by Alta, a company contracted by the City that was formerly run by Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly. For the same sized system Seattle is about to shut down, Alta projected bike share would support 4,000 members, 446,000 annual trips, and produce $860,000 in revenue.
Why did the system struggle? Hard to say, exactly. Pronto gamely worked to overcome the challenge of meeting helmet requirements with a cumbersome combo-locked box and “helmet return” dump. Capitol Hill is a hill. So is Queen Anne. Etc. It rains here a lot. Etc. Stations weren’t in the right locations. Etc. Station density was a problem leaving many users wasting time riding out of their way to park their bike. But it also had its days. CHS enjoyed it the most on a nice day with either a long walk or a public transit ride ahead — downhill. Those bikes are heavy beasts.
Putting together the city’s 2017 budget, the plan was to fix some of that with a new system that would include electric bikes and spreading stations into neighborhoods including the Central District. With Friday night’s announcement, that plan is finished, members will receive a prorated refund after the March 31st shutdown, and the stations will be removed, possibly restoring — rejoice, ye drivers — a few parking spaces.