Council sets Pronto shutdown deadline, keeps bike share expansion funds for now

img_6077The Pronto Cycle Share shutdown timer has officially started.

The Seattle City Council modified Mayor Ed Murray’s 2017-18 budget to remove most of the street use funds currently supporting day-to-day Pronto Cycle Share operations. Pronto as we know it will shut down by March 31.

This action closes an incredibly frustrating chapter for bike share in Seattle.

It also puts more pressure on SDOT and bid-winner Bewegen to get a strong bike share expansion plan together in time for a 2017 launch if they hope to avoid too much downtime for existing system users.

A couple thousand trips are made on Pronto every week on average, so those users will need to find a new way to get around. Members who have paid for service beyond March 31 will be offered the choice of getting the remainder back or putting their credit into the new system.

And on top of the urgency, of course, the expansion plan also needs to be very strong if it is going to win over skeptics on the City Council. Though the Council preserved Mayor Ed Murray’s $5 million to expand bike share through a new e-assist system, the funds cannot be used without further Council approval. SDOT and Bewegen will need to wow the Council and the public when they present the new plan in January.

There will be a gap between the end of Pronto service and the start of the new system. It’s possible the new system will launch in summer 2017, but any delays could get it pushed back to spring of 2018 (they are not going to repeat the mistake of launching in the fall like Pronto).

While it certainly doesn’t seem wise to remove a non-driving option for the city’s increasingly-congested city center, having a gap in service could be helpful from from a marketing point of view for the new system, said SDOT’s Director of Transit and Mobility Andrew Glass Hastings. Pronto has a bad public reputation, and a gap could help give bike share a fresh start.

Or, of course, Council could reject the expansion plan, and March 31 would be the end of bike share in Seattle for the foreseeable future. This would be a rare failure for bike share in a major city, and comes at a time when both Portland and Vancouver, BC, are starting their own systems.

The existing equipment — which thanks to the hard work of Pronto’s staff functions very dependably and has many miles left in — will be sold through the city’s surplus sales process. It’s not yet clear what the sale price will be, though Glass Hastings says there are already several interested potential buyers.

While the shutdown of Pronto is a sad end to a system that could have been a great addition to Seattle, the city seems uninterested in making significant changes to the struggling Pronto system — such as better station placements near more major transit hubs, major destinations and quality bike infrastructure or offering lower entry-level prices. If the city is not going to work to make the system work better, it’s hard to justify continued subsidy.

It didn’t need to go this way. But here we are.

Most people involved in the launch and the boggled buyout have moved on to other jobs, and there’s fresh blood in charge now. The lesson of Pronto is not that the idea of bike share failed in Seattle. The lesson is that this attempt was doomed by a long list of planning and ownership transfer missteps. Below is a recap of how it went wrong. I bring this up not to open old wounds, but to make sure we learn the right lessons.

Pronto Emerald City Cycle Share launched under the ownership of the non-profit Puget Sound Bike Share in October 2014, just as rain arrived to sap the energy out of the public excitement for the new service. The system area was unsustainably small, spread out and disconnected. Many stations were in poor locations, and many major transit stops and destinations were not directly served. Despite all this, there was excitement for the potential.

But plans to gradually add new sponsors to help fund new stations and expand to new neighborhoods were put on hold in spring 2015, when Mayor Murray announced plans to buy Pronto from the non-profit and fund a major expansion (in part, this plan was banking on winning a Federal grant the city failed to get). So before the system even had its first summer, the non-profit ditched its original plan and worked instead to transfer ownership to the city.

As the city buyout kept getting delayed later into 2015, the system kept losing money without adding new service or sponsorship. Many people in the non-profit’s leadership left. Founding members were asked to renew right as the October rains rolled in again, and many chose not to for various reasons. By the end of the year, the system ran out of cash and was in need of city funds to avoid a shutdown.

The City Council put a proviso on the budget requiring Council approval before the city could purchase the system, but they didn’t technically prevent SDOT from using street use fees to help keep the system afloat. SDOT spent $305,000 to support operations before the Council voted, which many Councilmembers took as in conflict with the intent of their proviso.

The City Council voted 7-2 to approve a $1.4 million buyout of the system in March 2016 after months of debates and research into the struggling system’s finances (with Councilmembers Burgess and Herbold voting against). But the public debate had damaged the system’s already-struggling reputation.

On top of this, SDOT Director Scott Kubly’s history as President of Alta Bicycle Share before coming to SDOT drew an ethics complaint. Alta Bicycle Share was later bought by Motivate, and Kubly has no financial ties to the new company. His previous position was noted publicly in Mayor Ed Murray’s announcement as a benefit for a city about to launch bike share, so it wasn’t a secret. But Kubly had been working to manage the system buyout talks without getting the proper ethics waiver first. He admitted the lapse and was fined $5,000. It was not a scandal of epic proportions, but it damaged his reputation along with Pronto.

With Pronto’s future uncertain, members stopped renewing their annual memberships. After all, who is going to pay for a year of service if they aren’t sure it will last that long? And since the lowest barrier to entry is $8 for a 24-hour pass, non-renewing members are likely to simply stop using the system entirely rather than paying the daily rates, reducing system use even further. This accelerated the system’s financial death spiral, and aside from a few quality station moves, nothing significant has been done to stop the decline.

If they aren’t going to fix it, then I guess shutting it down is the only option that makes sense.

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27 Responses to Council sets Pronto shutdown deadline, keeps bike share expansion funds for now

  1. William says:

    So how much money has the city wasted in total on Pronto? What are the odds of Bewegen delivering a system that is any more successful?

  2. Joseph Singer says:

    I’ve gone by several Pronto cycle stations that have been almost empty. If the system is not popular it sure does not show it.

    I still believe that compulsory helmet use is going to dog any cycle share in Seattle. Other bike shares have also failed because of the compulsory helmet issue.

    • jay says:

      Depends on ones definition of “fail” Melbourne bike share still seems to be in operation, though only due to government subsidy.

      Funny that in the picture Tom posted the Pronto rider is not wearing a helmet.
      But anyway, that dead horse is getting pretty ripe, might be time to stop beating on it.
      Ironically one of Pronto’s supporters on the city council doesn’t seem to care: ” http://mynorthwest.com/250084/kshama-sawant-bats-bike-helmet-law-repeal/ ” It’s nice for her that she apparently thinks Seattle is advanced enough that the police won’t use the helmet law to harass people of color, but for those who live in the world where “stop and frisk” Trump is President elect it’s maybe not looking that rosy (but I’m a white male who does wear a helmet, so what do I care?)

    • LetsGo says:

      The Seattle bike-share assassins:

      1. Topography
      2. Sparse station network
      3. Helmet law

  3. Al Dimond says:

    They aren’t going to fix it before re-launching, either, because the biggest “it” that needs fixing is the downtown bike network, which seems to be perpetually one year away from being planned.

  4. DOUG. says:

    Pathetic. I’ve been a Pronto member since Day One. The current system works fine, except for the fact that it is entirely incomplete. You’ve nicely laid out how bike share was botched from the get-go, starting with the roll-out (and subsequent pleas for renewals) during the autumn rains.

    It’s sad that no one in city government really stepped up to defend Pronto and promote the need to expand it. Mayor Ed Murray certain didn’t. Of course he never leads on anything.

    I have a strong suspicion that this will be the end of bike share in Seattle, that the well is too poisoned, and no one in our current government will go out on a limb to bring bike share back once Pronto goes away. I hope I’m wrong, but those public toilets never came back. Neither did the Sonics.

  5. bilbo says:

    Thank you, Tom, for your nice and unbiased account of this saga. I know it must be hard to see a project fail for which you and others have fought so hard.

    It has been really interesting to see the bike advocacy community gradually swing its attitude 180 degrees on bike share. It seems that many people were initially excited about the idea (myself included), but once it became a publicly funded (and poorly used) program directly competing with bike infrastructure improvements for funding, it seems like the strongest support base quickly evaporated.

    I think this article does a good job of summarizing the history, but it would be really nice to have a cohesive and quantitative analysis of all of the things people have pointed to for reasons for failure, and then to see how the city and/or Bewegen plan to address them.

    For example, I personally believe that the $8/day + annual membership pricing scheme killed the system by alienating the large potential customer base of residents who might use the system for a one-way trip, but aren’t willing to commit to a round trip (due to any number of reasons including uncertain weather, personal schedules, things to carry, etc). That said, I’m a scientist and believe in the power of data, and there’s a wealth of it out there.

    The initial numbers from Biketown seem to support my hypothesis (i’m just using the numbers from bikeportland.org’s blog): In the first month, single trip rides accounted for 25% of trips taken. I assume this fraction would increase over time, but can’t seem to find the data. Even if this number would hold true, I’m sure Pronto wouldn’t have hurt from a 30% increase in ridership for a zero-cost change. (and i’d love to see the results of some more in-depth analysis on the actual revenue implications).

    I’m sure there could be some other simple analysis to try to demonstrate scientifically the value to a successful system of things like e-bikes (eg analyze uphill v. downhill trips? look at mixed pilot programs elsewhere?), station density, proximity to transit centers, quality of bike lane infrastructure, etc. Basically what i’m getting at is that it’s easy to be a monday morning quarterback and point fingers at why Pronto failed, but I want to see some hard evidence that the failure modes really cause failure, and that the proposed solutions will really help.

    I also think the city needs to be clear about its goal: is the goal to try to try to get more people to use bicycles, or is it to have a flashy/trendy piece of infrastructure to make the city more appealing to tourists. If it’s the former, I’d argue that spending on bike infrastructure would do much more good than a bike share system, but if it’s the latter, then the economic analysis is much more muddy.

    If there is a good statistical analysis out there, I would greatly appreciate a link. I fully support the city council withdrawing funding until bike-share does its homework; I would just argue that this is a math assignment, not a feelings assignment.

  6. jay says:

    At the link for “The City Council voted 7-2 to approve a $1.4 million buyout…” one can read:

    “After hearing lots of arguments that bike share would work better if there were better infrastructure on the ground, Councilmember Mike O’Brien has proposed an amendment to require the city to complete five key projects before expanding the system:

    a) Dexter Ave N Protected Bike Lane (Mercer St to Roy St)
    b) Westlake Ave N Protected Bike Lane (W Raye St to Valley St)
    c) 2nd Ave Protected Bike Lane (Yesler Way to S Washington St)
    d) 9th Ave N Protected Bike Lane (Westlake Ave N to Denny Way)
    e) 2nd Ave Protected Bike Lane (Pike St to Denny Way)

    It seems as though the first 3 are more or less done , I don’t know about 9th as I haven’t been there lately, but I have ridden 2nd and nothing seem to have done at the North end. Will it be done by “summer 2017”? spring 2018? 2020? 2525?

    • Al Dimond says:

      Draw a map of all the bike lanes in downtown Seattle with all five of those projects completed. Now draw a quadrilateral on that map bordered by (but excluding the ROW of) 2nd Ave, Stewart Street, 8th Ave, and Union Street. What does this quadrilateral represent?

      1. Downtown Seattle’s retail core.
      2. The most or second-most important transit hub in Seattle.
      3. Probably the part of Seattle where you see the most people out on foot over the widest range of the day.
      4. An area with literally not one bike lane in it. Not even a lousy door-zone lane from the ’80s. No nice human-scaled streets, either, all multi-lane arterials.

      O’Brien’s five projects? One block of Dexter, a Westlake route that’s almost exclusively a through-route and is (probably rightly) mostly outside the initial Pronto service area, one block of 2nd south of Yesler, a moderately important PBL in SLU, and a quite important PBL in Belltown. OK, so two nice projects out of the perhaps ten of similar magnitude (pulling a number out of my saddlebag) that would be necessary to have a basic bike network in the Pronto service area. It’s a start? Is it even a start?

    • Andres Salomon says:

      Construction for the 2nd ave belltown extension was originally planned for fall 2016, according to http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2016/03/17/2nd-ave-bike-lane-will-go-one-block-further-south-north-extension-set-to-open-in-2017/. According to the website, construction will now start in winter.. http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/2ndavepbl_belltown.htm

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  8. asdf2 says:

    The question is – will the new bikeshare plan actually happen? I could easily see technical delays postponing it to 2018, followed by the city quietly killing it altogether during the following year.

    I still believe, if done right, bike-share has a lot of potential. A lot of people live in apartment configurations where getting one’s own bike in and out of storage is a significant hassle that deters use (e.g. get the bike pump out of your living room, go down the stairs to the storage room in the basement, unlock your bike from a rack where there’s a bunch of other people’s bikes getting in the way, then pump air in the tires, then lock the bike up again, then carry the bike pump back up the stairs to put it away, then go down the stairs again, then unlock the bike a second time, then carry the bike down half a flight of stairs to the actual street). And on top of this, you still have to lug a lock the bike to wherever you’re going and take the time to lock up the bike upon arrival. For reasons like this, I often find myself walking or busing trips that are, on paper, faster with a bike. Even a trip as far as a mile down the Burke-Gilman trail is usually faster to just run than to deal with the overhead of getting my bike out.

    With bikeshare, however, as long as the stations are in the right places, the overhead of beginning and ending a trip is mere seconds.

  9. RDPence says:

    The average Pronto bicycle is still ridden less than once per day. For 23.5 hours each day, it sits in a slot at a Pronto station. Take out the downhill rides from Capitol Hill to downtown (easily accommodated on Metro, and now Link), and the utilization rate is even less. Huge program failure.

  10. Stephen M says:

    I’m a Seattle resident who works downtown and regularly commutes by bike at least six months/year (Apr-Sept). I was intrigued but a bit skeptical by the prospect of bikeshare in Seattle. I have used and enjoyed bikeshare in other city’s, most notably Paris! After seeing the rollout of Pronto, while it was tempting to support the system just because, well, bikes(!) I decided to pass. Reasons?:
    1) Too expensive unless I committed to an annual pass, which didn’t make sense because I have my own bike with me for six months/year. My feelings about this would likely change if the remaining issues are addressed with the new system.

    2) Clunky bikes. Even someone as relatively in bike shape as myself was intimidated to ride up Seattle’s hills on those 1970s era clunkers. No thanks! I’d rather walk. (Of course, E-bikes would solve this).

    3) Helmet law. I’m not going to carry around a helmet if I don’t have my bike just on the off chance that I might want to jump on a Pronto, nor am I inclined to grab one (at added cost, right?) that’s been worn by others out of the helmet dispenser. I suggest a helmet law exemption for bikeshare users or repeal of the law if we want to make bikeshare work.

    4) Infrastructure! While this is not an issue for me personally – I’m quite familiar with and comfortable riding around the city, I would think this would be a deal breaker for most new, inexperienced riders or visitors, and with good reason. We have an incomplete bike network that abandons the rider periodically (notably NB on 2nd at Pike) or throws obstacles in the rider’s way with very little warning (SB 2nd at Pike and many in-city construction sites). For a newbie or a visitor, the shoddy infrastructure currently offered vy our city is a deal breaker.

    Conclusion: Fix/build the *vitally important* bike network/infrastructure per our Bike Master Plan first. Then revisit the plan to implement the “nice to have” bikeshare amenity – including how to deal with the helmet law and our hills. Otherwise, don’t waste the money on a doomed to fail boondoggle.

    Just one otherwise happy rider’s opinion . . .

    • William says:

      Great arguments that have been made multiple times but since when has transportation policy in Seattle been based on rationale arguments and well justified priorities.

    • DOUG. says:

      I don’t find the annual pass too expensive. I too have my own bike and ride it mostly between April and October. But I use Pronto in the winter months, typically in lieu of hopping on a bus. In the end, I spend less on my annual Pronto membership than I would have on the bus rides I would’ve otherwise taken.

      Also, the helmets are free and are clean, so there’s no need to carry your own.

  11. Joel S. says:

    I use pronto to get to and from the South Lake Union Trolley. Without Pronto I will not be using that thing either.

    • asdf2 says:

      [sigh] and the only reason to switch from bike to trolley in the first place and not simply stay on the bike is to avoid getting caught in the streetcar tracks. It’s certainly not about speed.

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  13. Clark in Vancouver says:

    I’m sort of not surprised. I’m really keen on bikeshare and I found my experience with Pronto was just not worth the hassle. I was excited to not have to buy a folding bike for my visits to Seattle but it looks like I might have to anyway.

    Vancouver is another city in a province with a mandatory helmet law that applies to most streets. The City has it’s own helmet law that applies elsewhere on Seawall paths and such. There are also hills and even an escarpment like Seattle.
    The Bikeshare system is still less than a year old but is doing very well from what I understand. I think the differences are that there are places that meet or are close to AAA standards to bike on with more planned all the time. It also has a thriving rental bike industry where tourists come from all over the world to cycle the Seawall.
    The launch was done in July right after Bike Month. Different than October.
    The bikes are similar to the Pronto ones. (Vancouver Mobi uses Smoove bikes. Seattle Pronto uses 8D Bixi bikes. I’m told that the best are the SoBi bikes that Portland’s BikeTown uses.)
    There’s a cable for the helmet to be stored. It’s not intuitive but it works. The helmets are free and on some stations there are hair nets in a bin hanging on the side of the kiosk.
    There has been a conscious effort to have high density of stations and not over extend the service area too soon. Having to rent a helmet in Seattle was a real hassle and tipped it over the affordability edge for me making me decide to take transit instead.

    It looks like bike share systems are vulnerable to a few things and if too many of them don’t fall into place it can not work out.

    I agree with Stephen M. that Seattle should now concentrate their efforts and money towards a good high quality cycle network.

  14. Tim F says:

    Pronto launched during a relatively rough time for bike share in North America (I think it might have been the only non-trivial system to go live that year). As such it was under-sized (the original plan had significantly more docks) and under-funded (bike share systems now can get larger ad revenue than they could when Pronto launched).

    Also, the metrics of what makes a successful bike share were less well understood at the time. To this day, people use the one-ride-per-day metric to compare Pronto to systems that are many times larger. Pronto’s performance in terms of ridership was actually about as much as could be expected for such a small system (two really small systems is more accurate since the UW system was effectively separated). Now it is known that the number of docks and how closely they are spaced is critically important to bike share. Vancouver, Portland and other systems have used this knowledge to their advantage. It’s also better understood now that bike share works better when it’s well-integrated with other public transit options.

    Recently there have been several headwinds to the program’s success. There’s uncertainty caused by the city takeover process and re-launch. But also an extremely high-quality transit connection came on-line in the middle of the Pronto zone in the form of ULink (and the associated bus improvements). The ubiquitous and constantly shifting construction closures in the Pronto zone (including the Burke-Gilman Trail, the 2nd avenue bike lane and along the waterfront) were also particularly bad this summer. Even so, ridership would likely compare positively to many similar systems across the country.

    I’m confident that bike share will be re-launched in spite of the difficulties. I hope that Seattle’s wide-ranging bicycle community will be a positive force for that instead of the bickering that has been so common. My tri-bike gets maybe one ride or two a year, and it’s useless on hills. That doesn’t make it a bad bike. I won’t use the downtown bike lanes at all this winter because Pronto won’t be available. That doesn’t mean they are a poor investment.

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