Seattle begins bike share takeover, budgets for system expansion

A plan to expand Pronto aims to reach "vulnerable" populations. Map from Seattle's pending TIGER grant application.

A plan to expand Pronto aims to reach “vulnerable” populations. Map from Seattle’s pending TIGER grant application.

With a big plan for expanding Pronto Cycle Share, including a one-time budget expense to make it happen, the city has begun taking a more central role in the bike share system.

“Bike share really expands the reach of the transit system, particularly when you add e-bikes in there,” said SDOT Director Scott Kubly. And as other cities have learned, the bigger the system gets, the “network effect” makes the system both more useful and more financially stable.

That’s why Mayor Ed Murray included $5 million in his proposed 2016 city budget to help expand Pronto. If the city receives the funding to build the full plan outlined in a pending federal grant proposal, bike share could be within an easy walk of 62 percent of Seattle residents.

But with that much city skin in the game, leaders understandably want to have a more direct role in the system operations and ownership.

“We are working with Puget Sound Bike Share on having the city take over operations of pronto bike share,” said Kubly.

At the moment, the PSBS Board is still in charge. But as we reported in August, PSBS Executive Director Holly Houser has stepped down, leaving the organization unstaffed. SDOT’s Chief of Active Transportation and Partnerships Nicole Freedman is going to work with PSBS to help keep things moving in Houser’s absence, Kubly said.

Pronto is the branded name for the system, which is operated and staffed by an out-of-town company called Motivate (formerly Alta Bicycle Share). But the system is largely owned by a non-profit organization called Puget Sound Bike Share, which has public and private board partners from all over the region and is funded by grants and sponsors. Alaska Airlines is the biggest sponsor, contributing $2.5 million over five years to brand the first 500 bikes now on the streets.

The city has not yet received an answer to its federal TIGER grant proposal, which included $10 million to dramatically expand the bike share system. The city may receive some, all or none of that request. Kubly said they hope to hear an answer this month.

The $5 million proposed in the mayor’s budget is intended to be a match to build on any grant money received. If no grant funds come through, the city still intends to invest that $5 million into bike share, but they will need to reassess what that expansion will look like.

“Do we want to have a larger expansion with non-electric bikes, or a smaller expansion with electric bikes?” Kubly asked.

Also, will the city and Motivate be able to retrofit the existing bikes and docks to support electric assist motors? They’re looking into it and hope to pilot an option in 2016 ahead of a bigger launch in early 2017.

The city’s expansion plans represent a significant change in direction from King County’s original bike share business plan. The original plan would have grown slowly over time from the current service area, adding station density and area with each phase and building satellite systems in several Eastside communities. The whole system would be under the control of one non-profit entity.

But even years into a successful system build-out, many of Seattle’s lowest-income neighborhoods would still be left out under the previous plan. Neighborhoods north and south of the city’s more dense central neighborhoods could use better access to transit the most, but stations there may not be as financially self-sustaining due to lower housing and commercial density. That’s why the original plan for slow, self-sustained expansion left them out.

But with the city making a direct investment into more neighborhoods, the system can reach further without waiting years and years to crawl beyond Wallingford or the Central District. But that means tossing the old regional business model out the window and following the lead of bigger systems around the country where cities have a more direct hand in where stations go and how they get funded.

The city is currently working with PSBS and Motivate to figure out how a transfer to the city would work and how to craft a contract that adequately protects the city finances.

“We’re confident that we can operate the system without exposing the city to financial loss on the operating side.”

But what does this all mean for the regional bike share vision?

“There are lots of good models around the country to how multi-jurisdictional systems work,” said Kubly. The goal is to have jurisdictions control their own portions, “but to the customer it’s seamless.”

So, for example, Kirkland, Bellevue, Redmond and Issaquah just received state funding to launch bike share. Seattle wouldn’t own or run their systems, but the goal would be a system where Seattle and Eastside Pronto members and day-use passholders would be able to use both systems.

And with plans in the works to integrate ORCA cards into Pronto and the possibility of rethinking the pay structure to be more like a transit fare, you can begin to see how bike share can really expand the reach of our region’s transit network.

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46 Responses to Seattle begins bike share takeover, budgets for system expansion

  1. Gordon says:

    “Do we want to have a larger expansion with non-electric bikes, or a smaller expansion with electric bikes?” Kubly asked.

    Smaller expansion with electric bikes!

    Although readers on this blog will obviously skew towards people who already bike, according to polling the three primary reasons people cite for not biking in Seattle are rain, hills, and distance. We can’t do much about rain other than promoting wearing sensible clothing and installing fenders, but e-bikes can “flatten” hills and make distances feel shorter. But e-bikes present an even higher barrier to entry than a regular bike because they are more expensive, harder to find in a shop, more complicated to maintain, and less promoted. That’s why it’s a genius idea to have Pronto blaze the way for Seattle’s e-bike future.

    What’s the next most cited reason for not riding? Safety.

    If we build out an ages and abilities bike network to the densest parts of our city and provide Pronto E-Bikes, the bike share will boom and be seen as a wise use of public dollars. Thinly spreading around stations to far flung and low-density neighborhoods seems like a recipe for failure and a resulting public outcry of “wasted taxpayer money,” no matter how enticing the geographic equity angle may be.

    • Andres Salomon says:

      My main concern for an e-bike rollout (aside from the normal concerns one would have, like cost and reliability) is safety. Not a single death of a bike share user so far in the US. Part of the reason for that (we think) is because bike share bikes are upright and slow.

      I’d be all on-board with a speed-limited (to 10mph, let’s say) Pronto e-bikes.

      • Gordon says:

        Agreed. No one wants a 25 mph moped fleet on sidewalks, bike lanes, or trails. I’m sure they can use the appropriate technology to keep these bikes at a safe speed.

    • Al Dimond says:

      The question of cost doesn’t go away when the city pays the bill. A person with no history of biking regularly will look at the cost of an e-bike and think twice; a city with no history of operating a bike-share system where the bikes are used regularly ought to do the same! Seattle ought to have a strategy for some kind of success before launching a big expansion, and hope is not a strategy.

      • Mondoman says:

        Al, you’re exactly right. The system should do what any organization does when introducing a new product — provide free/reduced-price samples. Metro did that with Orca cards and the Water Ferry; why not have make the system totally free for a month, and hand out vouchers for free rides or free days? The whole-day-minimum pricing scheme seems quite limited, too. Why not have a per-ride option?

      • Al Dimond says:

        I actually think we need to consider the possibility that a Paris/NYC-style bike share system is just not going to succeed in Seattle in this generation.

        Of course, Seattle is a lot less dense than the cities where bike share has really taken off, with longer distances and more hills between popular destinations, and a mediocre downtown where nothing much happens outside of business hours. Our popular destinations are spread all over town to an even greater degree than our middling density would suggest. Our mass transit system, with great coverage but lousy speed in most places, doesn’t really complement bike share well, either… at least not yet. The fast buses mostly stop in awful places to bike. We’re working on it, but a lot of the light rail stops will be at the same freewayside locations anyway.

        Additionally, just as it’s easier to own a car in Seattle than these places, it’s easier to own a bike. There are some residential buildings here around town that are both big and old enough that it’s inconvenient to live there with a bike, but far more in cities that were big before mass-motorization. I’m one of these people that would consider inadequate bike storage a deal-breaker, and I haven’t looked through an apartment in this town where I thought I’d have serious trouble storing my bikes. Offices here are also more likely to have good bike parking than in older cities, and our sidewalks aren’t too crowded for bike racks.

        It doesn’t help that various people in charge of planning our bike share systems haven’t taken advantage of those opportunities we do have. The original plan was to put stations along 45th in Wallingford, but not near the Burke. Its service area in lower Fremont used Fremont Ave as its eastern boundary, as if drawn by someone that had never been to Fremont. It was going to expand to SODO, not to mention suburban islands (the sorts of islands that have failed everywhere they’ve been tried), before dropping a station outside Fremont Brewing where there’s a mess of bikes parked every evening. The new plan draws a service area for Ballard as goofy as the original plan’s Fremont area, excluding parts of Ballard where bike share might actually be useful for real people but including areas in Magnolia and West Seattle where none of the conditions for success exist. Poor transportation bike routes even for experienced riders, literally no useful transportation bike routes comfortable for less experienced riders, one-dimensional shopping strips instead of three-dimensional urban depth.

        The focus on expanding farther to cover poorer and less-white parts of town seems like an equity band-aid. Yeah, a bike share system designed purely to be financially sustainable in Seattle might end up looking like a map of where to find money. But it’s not clear expanding bike share is going to solve poorer people’s transportation problems (bike share can be convenient sometimes but it rarely transforms your opportunities). If communities were clamoring for Pronto stations, maybe, but that’s not what it sounds like. If the key problem is availability of bikes, there are better-targeted ways to address it, especially for kids (including great programs we have in Seattle through Bike Works). I mean, I don’t know about y’all, but for me, the magic of growing up near a bike path was that I could ride to the next town… and the one past that, and the one past that. See also Adriana Lugo’s thoughts on the matter. To me, a bike share system that’s useful and financially sustainable (operationally) over a limited (and predominantly wealthy) area could be worthy of some limited public grants; a bike share system that truly improves access and opportunities for poorer communities could be worthy of public operational funding in perpetuity. A system that does none of this is worthy only of failure.

      • Andres Salomon says:

        I would use Pronto a LOT if there was a station near me. It compliments the bus network nicely. For example, I would take it from my house, through UDistrict, and then take the bus from Campus Pkwy so that I don’t have to bike through Eastlake or out of the way through Westlake. The slow part of my bus journey is through UDistrict; biking speeds that up immensely. Of course, that will be even more appealing in a few months when the UW Link station opens up. My options now are to take the bus the entire way (which is usually what I do), use my own bike and throw it on the bus (which I’ve done a few times, but it’s annoying), or lock up it up near Campus Pkwy for multiple hours (which I’m not willing to do with any bike that I care about).

      • Josh says:

        “a mediocre downtown where nothing much happens outside of business hours” is changing fast — it still feels like they roll up the sidewalks at sunset in many areas, but take a look at all the new residential units going into the downtown core and you can see the demand is growing.

  2. asdf2 says:

    “Do we want to have a larger expansion with non-electric bikes, or a smaller expansion with electric bikes?” Kubly asked.

    I vote for larger expansion. The usefulness of the system is based on the number of origin->destination points served, which is the square of the number of the stations. For every additional station you add, each existing station becomes that much more useful. The network effect is a much bigger deal than electric bikes – especially along flat corridors such as the Burke-Gilman, or when traveling in the downhill direction.

  3. Gary says:

    A larger system that’s more integrated into the transit system. Why ride a bike up the hill if your same Orca card will let you ride the bus up. Yes that means we’ll truck the bikes back up the hill, but many folks will also ride the bus down the hill if there is a bike station at the bottom.

    The key to the best systems is the integrated cost structure. One day passes that are good for the bus and a bike all day, (good for tourists). Bus fares that include a 1/2 hr rental of a bike as a “transfer”

    While electric bikes are way better than electric cars for power/weight and efficiency having tourists zip up Pike a 20 mph in the door zone is going to have bad consequences. We need to build out the dedicated bike lanes before we add electric bikes to the mix.

  4. ronp says:

    I think people should really recognize this is a big positive step and will reinforce the bike plan and protected bike lane construction (which after light rail is the most important new transportation infrastructure project my view).

    Politically I think bike share e-bikes in protected bike lanes are a big winner. They are just really fun to use and could be seen as welcoming to new users. They counter anti-bike lane investment arguments about utility and carrying capacity of protected bike lanes.

    I just wish it was easier to road diet and free street parking removal our way to more protected bike lanes.

    I saw a dad with a kid trailer (with kid) on Eastlake near Pemco Insurance the other day and it nearly gave me a heart attack. Hope they can get Eastlake improved soon.

  5. Kirk says:

    Expansion. Ebikes/mopeds are rightfully not allowed on any of the Multi Use Trails, which are already very popular with Bike Share users. Adding 20 mph mopeds onto these already crowded trails would truly be a nightmare.

    • ronp says:

      Well, the bike e-bikes could be speed limited electronically. I am occasionally passed bike commuting by e-bikes but there is never been a problem.

      I would argue e-bikes on the BG trail could be OK too. Enforcement could be an issue.

      • Josh says:

        The e-bike industry is recognizing the need for a lower-speed category of electric assist bikes to share space with pedestrians, but for now, state law has only one category of electric assist bikes, and they’re prohibited state-wide on sidewalks, and on any trails/paths that local authorities close to motorized vehicles. Changing that will require concerted lobbying in Olympia, it’s not something Seattle can do on its own for bike share.

      • Gary says:

        Hmmm well there is no enforcement of this as I get passed occasionally on the I90 bridge trail by people with electric assist bikes. So far it hasn’t been a problem.

      • Josh says:

        I don’t think there’s much risk of an individual rider getting a ticket unless they’re repeatedly doing something extremely hazardous — there’s essentially zero law enforcement presence on most local trails anyway. I get passed by gas-powered mopeds on I-90 several times a year and never see any sign they’re being ticketed.

        But there are liability concerns if you’re in a collision and you’re breaking the law simply by being there. Or perhaps if you’re lending out hundreds of electric-assist bikes without making sure users know where they’re legal and where they’re prohibited.

  6. Oscar p says:

    Turning a small flop into a big flop is quite a feat. Didn’t Kubly run Alta bike share?

    • Andres Salomon says:

      He was there for 3 weeks before they declared bankruptcy; his full tenure there wasn’t even a year. So either he had some INSANE parties in those 3 weeks and he personally rode the company into the ground, or it was already well on its way downhill when he joined.

      I’m guessing the latter, but if it was the former – I need to figure out how to get myself invited to his parties.

    • Mondoman says:

      I don’t think it’s his fault that it tanked, but he clearly doesn’t have the skills to fix it.
      A bigger part of the problem has been : 1) no goal for the system: who is the target rider? For what types of rides? and 2) terrible/non-existent marketing/growth promotion.

      • Kirk says:

        And 3.) No connected system of bicycle infrastructure to use them on.

      • Eli says:

        Exactly. the folks posting who say they would ride on bikeshare if it were expanded through the city represent a tiny percentage of the population that are willing to ride bikes on Seattle’s current streets. It does not represent a sustainable business model.

        After the Summer Parkways fiasco in the Central District (in which we spent TWO ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE more money to subsidize each attendee than PDX did for their first event), it could not be more evident to me the extent to which SDOT lacks the capability to take on new responsibilities that fall outside of their existing zone of competency.

        I wish it weren’t the case, but it feels that what SDOT lacks (and needs) is a culture of taking on hard, unfamiliar problems and delivering against high standards of accountability — and being self-critical when they fail to do it.

        Just like Summer Parkways, there needs to be a clear business plan, marketing plan, target audience, and some plausible reason to believe that the money being spent will actually serve the population at large and offer an appropriate ROI for the level of spending.

      • Eli says:

        While I’m at it – I work for a smart & successful company whose entire model of operation is to find the smallest problem we can solve better than anyone else, go solve it really well as fast as possible & prove that there’s customer demand for our solution, and after we’ve proven it, we keep expanding the audience. (aka: Minimum Viable Product/Lean Startup model.)

        We don’t take something and after it fails insist that we just need to keep doing more of it and it’ll magically become useful to customers if we expand the scope of a failed product. Nature cannot be fooled, nor will Pronto bikes start riding themselves on unsafe streets just because you’ve sprinkled them all over the city.

        Pronto is a system that, in its current fashion, has not been proven to be useful to (or utilized by) the public at large.

        Before throwing more good taxpayer money after bad to expand a model that isn’t working, the city needs to find a model that actually does work, prove it in a geographically contained area (e.g. downtown + SLU) and then expand it given that proof.

        Otherwise, it sounds like we’re more in Windows Phone territory of making a product that lacks utility, but insisting that if we keep doing the same thing and throwing more scale at it, it’ll suddenly become useful. (hint: that didn’t work for MS, and I doubt it’ll work for Seattle, either.)

      • kptrease says:

        The system of only allowing for a half hour ride is also killing their reputation. I frequently see tourists in Fremont on the Pronto bikes, cruising along the trail. I have to tell them about the half hour rule, and they look at me like I’m nuts. When they see the bill come in, they’re sure not using it again, or telling their friends how awesome it is.

      • asdf2 says:

        Bike share is one of those products that gets inherently more useful the more it scales. You can’t make trip with it unless both endpoints have stations. Every new station that gets built makes every existing station that much more useful.

        Some things, you just have to be willing to go big, if you’re going to bother to try at all.

  7. RDPence says:

    Do we have any demographic data on Pronto bike subscribers? I’d be curious as to their age, income level, and ethnic identity.

  8. Ryan Packer says:

    I’m hoping with a city takeover will come a rethinking of current station placement, particularly downtown. No station with direct access to Westlake Station right now, for example. The situation on the north end of the 2nd ave PBL is one block away from it. I could go on. The city should seriously invest in station optimization downtown before spending TIGER grant money.

  9. Enduzer says:

    It’s been 10-months & I have yet to even see a Pronto bike ANYWHERE

    • William C. says:

      I’ve seen them a couple times on Second Avenue, and once on Dexter. And then, once on Westlake, riding right between the streetcar rails. (I gave that last rider a warning while we were stopped at a light.)

      • Al Dimond says:

        ‘Eh, those bikes have got to have, what, 40mm-wide tires? I’ve gone down on tracks with 25s and 28s, but I bet you can do just about whatever you want with 40s.

        I am not willing to test this personally.

      • Josh says:

        I can confirm that a 40mm tire will drop to the bottom of the flange gap if parallel to the tracks. But it’s about the widest tire that will fit.

      • J. says:

        I saw a rider go down on the tracks on a Pronto bike, while I too was riding on Westlake on a Pronto despite my policy against doing so. I stopped doing that after that little reminder.

    • Douglas says:

      I see 5-10 every day coming down Pine while I’m riding up in the morning.

    • Kirk says:

      I see a lot of them in Myrtle Edwards Park and along the waterfront. These are probably mostly tourists just out for a spin. I’ve also seen tourists in far flung locations, thinking their $8 daily pass meant they could ride that one bike all day for $8. It might be a good strategy for Pronto to have an all day pass for one bike, so someone could check out that bike and use it all day going wherever they want.

    • J. says:

      It might surprise you to know that I see them often… in Fremont! People like to ride them from downtown, and I frequently see a few locked up next to the Fremont Dock. Other than that, I usually see at least one being ridden on the days when I walk around downtown or SLU a lot.

  10. Tim F says:

    As much as I’d like to have e-Bikes available to take me uphill from my house, I think more bikes and stations are the way to go for this big of an expansion.

    I signed up this spring as a “gesture of support” thinking I’d use it once or twice. But given the traffic crunch that Eastlake/SLU is seeing, I used it frequently. It made my complicated bus commute much, much more bearable. Pronto bikes are big and clunky with squishy brakes, sure, but they’re usable enough for what they are. I check the brakes of my personal bike before I ride it, I do the same with Pronto bikes. The Pronto doesn’t catch my pants leg in the chain, it locks up in literally a second and I don’t worry about it getting stolen or damaged.

    The thing I didn’t realize with this kind of system when I signed up is the rides it is designed for are so short. You don’t see a lot of riders because they just get to where they are going and are done. Mine trips average around 10 minutes. They work as a ‘last half mile’ solution for transit, or for turning a downtown walk-shed into a bike-shed (I never had time to go downtown from work before). It’s also a nice backup for that bus that doesn’t come. I’ve ridden from SLU to UW to make a transfer when traffic was bad.

    But the key to the system is density. Walking a few blocks to and from the station can turn a convenient trip into one that’s not worth it. You also have to take into account how little success you need with this kind of system to reach a break-even point. If it can take even a little of the stress off the rest of the transportation system (or add just a little ridership to the main routes) it is worth the investment.

    Honestly, what I’d almost like more than eBikes would be on-demand eLockers like the ones at Northgate, but combined with the Pronto fob. That would provide the option of riding a personal bike or a Pronto bike in combination with transit with better security. The pronto onsite fob vendor is a much better model than the bike-link.org card-by-mail.

  11. Gary says:

    My other hope is that if SDOT runs this program that they add better signage to the stations so that tourists, and out of towners can find them without trouble. It would improve the usage to know that a station is just block away.

    Also density of stations is key to making this system work. If you look at the Street films video of the biggest system in the world, they have stations near every bus stop and building. You ride the bus, get off, get on a bike, ride to work. If a station is everywhere, then it’s like a bus that comes every 10 minutes, you stop caring what the schedule is, you just go. If it’s integrate with the ORCA card, then either a percentage of your ride is paid for, or all of it is. If you then move the bus stops a little farther apart, the bus goes faster, but you bicycle more too.

    Throwing more money will work, if as Al noted you use the data you have for where to locate the stations, ie near bicycle racks full of bicycles. It’s like pouring sidewalks where there are already dirt trails. People are telling us where they want to go, now we just need to take advantage of that information.

  12. asdf2 says:

    One other thing that would be a nice-to-have – raise the 30 minute limit for annual members to at least 35-40 members. On a Pronto bike, 30 minutes is just barely enough time to get from the U-district to 3rd/Pine, under the best of assumptions – Eastlake/Stewart St. all the way (in mixed traffic), make nearly every light, make it up every hill without having to walk, and no ship canal bridge opening. It is not quite enough time to make it from the U-district to King St. Station or Safeco Field.

    The best part was the one time I attempted to ride Pronto up the hill from the U-district to Capitol Hill. I just barely made it in 29 minutes, 10 seconds. Considering that riding their bike up a hill is actually doing them a favor (makes the bike available at the top of the hill without them having to truck it), it seems ridiculous that if I were just a little bit slower, I would have had to pay extra for the privilege.

  13. asdf2 says:

    And, also – if they can’t find the money to do anything else, PLEASE PUT A STATION NEXT TO THE HUSKY STADIUM LINK STATION!

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