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Mayor kills Seattle’s public bike share

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.

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32 thoughts on “Mayor kills Seattle’s public bike share

    • Come ride down Pine street with me some morning Bob. After that you might have an idea of what you are talking about- for once.

    • At least once they’re built, they’re there to use. Unlike the bottomless pit of millions of $$ that a money-sucking bike share program would vacuum up. I’d rather see bike lanes with initially light use than see an endless succession of failed bike share programs.

    • Just to clarify, Ryan….I am talking mainly about the dedicated bike lane along Broadway….I drive and walk along that street frequently, and it is quite unusual to see a cyclist using that lane. I have also observed the same non-use of the new dedicated lane on Roosevelt Way. Such lanes cost a lot of money to build, and their low use means they have been a waste of money.

      Other, non-dedicated lanes may get more use, such as the one you mention. I am not opposed to bike lanes, but I think more thought needs to go into where they are built.

    • So Bob, when I notice a street that is barely used can we ban cars from it or tear it out because it is utilized so infrequently?

      The bike lanes that you mention are disconnected from other protected bike infrastructure and therefore are used less. When the city actually builds out a CONNECTED network where kids and families can safely ride from one location to another without fearing for their lives then they will be better utilized.

    • Bob, the bike lane on broadway wasn’t built based on usage – it was built because they were putting in the streetcar, which was ripping up the whole street anyway, and was very unfriendly to bikes.

      Don’t condemn the whole concept based on one disconnected part.

    • I agree with Bob re: the Broadway bike lane. I live close enough there to be in the area often enough that I too see it very lightly used regardless of the season and weather. Same goes for the one downtown that runs along 2nd Ave.

      Either the City isn’t building bike lanes that are needed or the cyclists just don’t want to use them. Either way – kind of a waste. They need to build ones that are needed, and the cyclists need to use them.

      I’ve always been a proponent of a law compelling use of a bike lane where one exists, and kicking bikes off sidewalks throughout most of the city.

    • @ d reeves: Are you serious that the Broadway bike lane wasn’t built for projected usage, but only because the streetcar tracks were being installed? That makes no sense at all. Usage should be the only criterion, and at least so far that has been very low.

    • @bob: the broadway bike lane was built to in response, more or less, to this problem statement:

      We want to build a streetcar on broadway, and the rails in the street will make things very dangerous for bicycles. How can we accommodate bikes on this street?

      And in that case, the funding was all part of the “streetcar” project – it was built as a mitigation issue.

      Here’s another problem statement that one might use to build a protected bike lane:

      “What streets in Seattle have the greatest potential to attract more cyclists, given their lower impact on pollution and congestion?”

      In that case, you start by looking at what gets used now, figuring out barriers, what’s more dangerous, etc. Which, as I understand it, is the rough process for the bicycle master plan.

      My point is this: just because the broadway one isn’t getting used much doesn’t mean the whole concept is the problem.

  1. As much as I want Seattle to have a bike-share system, the reality is that Seattle is not an inherently bicycle friendly city (topography, helmet law). I cycle 20 miles round trip to work every work day, and support the bicycle infrastructure investments, but cycling in Seattle is not, and I argue will never be, as common an activity as it is in less topographically (and more cycle friendly) cities such as Portland, NYC, Amsterdam etc. A bike-share system will therefore never be as appealing here as it is in these other cities, and the silly helmet law definitely does not help. So, wise move, Mr Mayor.

    • And further to that…if you have to run trucks to move the bikes back up hills, because people will only ride them downhill and not back up– your bikeshare system doesn’t have much buy-in from confirmed bike riders.

    • AGREED!! This is such a huge relief. I would love for bike-sharing to work here, but let’s accept reality and use these funds for something worthwhile.

    • @Jim – in DC, where the bike share program is quite strong, they still need to ferry the bikes to the tops of hills because people generally are going to want the bikes more often to go downhill than up.

  2. The removed stations should be replaced with bike corrals. Ever since the city switched to parking sticker machines instead of meters, it has been harder to find a place to lockup. The bike rack program hasn’t kept up with demand. Bike parking would serve far more people than the few car parking spots that could be created.
    I got in trouble for locking to a trash can in Westlake plaza. Often on Broadway there is quite a distance between racks, there is nothing in the block by the post office.

    • I agree with you!
      I used to bile from Greenlake to downtown on my bike. The terrain for this route is user friendly.
      Blessings to you!

  3. Too bad the city bailed out the original owner/builder of the failed project for how much $? A million? And now he’s the head of Seattle DOT?
    whoa….too little too late.

  4. “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.”

    Nothing more needs to be stated. Helmets are a failure everywhere in the world they are mandated. In Melbourne Australia we have one of the worlds largest Bike Share failures.
    We also have one of the worlds worse helmet fine systems the cops hunt down cyclists for only this excuse.

    The poor excuse saying they will do all the other “people” improvements should be done anyway, just take a few million from a road buget. You without doubt spend billions on roads so now one will notice a few million for people safety.

    • spot on , in melbourne you feel like harison forde in fugitive , the young cops looking for an easy bust hunt down foot path cruisers saving gas heading to the supermarket , mandated helmet law is the most destructive ideologically unsound complete load of… grrrr

      ex melbournian

    • Helmets were not the cause of bike share failure, nor do they affect bicycle usage in Seattle. There are many other factors (weather, hills, good transportation alternates, mediocre bicycle facility coverage) that come in to play well before helmet laws even make a splash.

  5. This posting seems to repeat the claim by Pronto before the buyout that it had 3000 members — but city council members disclosed, after the city bought Pronto, the number of members turned out to be 1900.

    Another confusing part of this posting — it says that the actual numbers for Pronto fell short of projections by Alta (the parent company for Pronto) — then the posting repeats, without any question, numbers Alta projected for a larger system. Why should we believe the higher projections from Alta, when the actual numbers were inflated?

    The posting says, $1.4 million was spent last spring “to keep the system afloat”. Actually, this money was paid to the former owner of Pronto to buy the system. The $4.4 million spent to set the system up in 2012 — this money was gone before the city bought the system. So this money had already gone “poof” last spring.

    Buying the system last spring left the city with a money losing operation that would require additional subsidies to keep it afloat. Instead, the city looked into changing to an electric bike system and junking the Pronto system. (Even Alta, which has changed its name to Motivate, recommended changing to electronic bikes — that is, junking the old system — right after selling the old system to the city.)

    A viable bike sharing operation would be a benefit to our city — but only at a reasonable cost. The head of SDOT, Scott Kubly, previously ran Alta, and should understand the bike sharing business better than anyone. Instead, the city and SDOT city paid for a system that was failing and had no workable plan to move forward. Ugh!

  6. Only 4% of people in Seattle bike. Given the topography etc. its hard to see that growing significantly. Bike share was always an iffy prospect here. (and we have given up significant infrastructure to the 4% even without losing even more parking to Pronto stations) P.S., helmet laws might save you from traumatic brain injury or from becoming one of those white bike markers almost everyone ignores as they pass by. Even children know that.

    • Topography isn’t a sufficient explanation, because plenty of Seattlites *walk* and walking is also harder on hills. People who move here from flat places take a while to adjust.

      Having bicycled enthusiastically in the Bay Area, and moved back here and found Seattle more threatening than Oakland, I think we have too little separation between bikes and cars. I don’t know how much is topological and how much is philosophical, probably some of both.

    • “Even children know that” … What those children don’t know, but might benefit from knowing, is that they should probably be wearing a helmet when riding in a car also.

      Motor vehicle crashes are the #1 cause of injury for children age 4 to 14. An Austrailian study found a higher rate of head injury per hour as a motor vehicle passenger than per hour riding a bike.

    • Paul, 4% of people in Seattle bike *to work* — that doesn’t count people biking for other reasons (shopping, social, fitness…)

      What “significant infrastructure” are you referring to? From my perspective, as a car owner, cyclist, and pronto user, it’s not very much.

      That said – personally, I blame two main factors for the failure of bike share:
      1) too much effort going up hills — a combination of the topography and lack of electric bikes
      2) insufficient density — there were so few stations, compared with other successful systems I’ve ridden in Chicago, NYC, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, that it was hard to rely on.

  7. Another failure for Ed Murray. And a black eye for emission-free transportation options in Seattle. “Green mayor”, my ass. It’s time for Murray to go. Make it pronto!

  8. OMG. the mayor finally workup and realized what a failure pronto is. Bikeshare and Seattle don’t go together for many of the stated reasons. I worked in the OR at Harborview and anyone who says helmets are useless should see the head trauma cases that roll through there, many of them the result of bike accidents.

  9. Pronto worked for me. It saved me a lot of money on bike repairs. Being that the city is full of hills, I was replacing brake pads every week. That pronto bike was a big $$ saver for me.