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I test ride a Pronto bike (and yes, it can climb hills)

Pronto Executive Director Holly Houser took this photo of me trying out the Pronto prototype.
Pronto Executive Director Holly Houser took this photo of me trying out the Pronto prototype.

Pronto Cycle Share has a couple prototypes of the 500 public bikes they will put into service around the city center and the U District in September, and I had the chance recently to test one out.

The bike is the product of a new supply chain for Alta Bicycle Share, who used to get bikes through the now-bankrupt Montreal-based company Bixi. The Pronto bikes are made by French bike maker Arcade, but look and function much like bikes in other Alta systems like Citi Bike in New York, Nice Ride in Minneapolis and Capital Bikeshare in DC.

In essence, the Pronto bike has an easy learning curve. You sit upright in a comfortable position, and the seat height is easy to adjust to fit people of many sizes (there are even numbers marked on the seat post so you can easily set it at your preferred height on any bike you get).

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The bike has fenders to help keep riders dry and bright front and rear lights that are powered by the bike’s movement and turn on automatically. A chain guard keeps your pant leg from getting caught and ripped and a bungee-cord holds bags and other items of various sizes in a front “basket” (really more like a U-shaped cargo holder).


A few details will change between the prototype and final models. For example, the carrying space on front will likely get some design tweaks and get an easier-to-use bungee cord, and the color will be more of a rave green than pastel.

Unlike bike share bikes in many other cities, Pronto bikes will have 7-gears instead of 3 (the extra low gears will help climb hills). The bike has internal shifting, which means there is no derailer. This will prevent the chain from popping off during your ride, and it’s one less part of the bike that can break. It also means that you can change gears while standing still (like at a stop light), which is pretty cool for people who do not have much experience biking.

The bike is not exactly light, but it has an aluminum frame and is lighter than bike share bikes in other cities.

This brings us to many people’s biggest question: Can this bike handle Seattle’s formidable hills? I took it up a fairly steep street (Republican between Yale and Eastlake), and the lowest gear was definitely low enough that a lot of people will not have a ton of trouble getting up big hills like Capitol Hill.

Obviously, this bike doesn’t erase hills, and anyone who has trouble with hills on other bikes will have the same trouble with this one. But it does not compound the problem like some of the three-speed bikes in other cities might.

I did not measure the top cruising speed, but I’d say it was somewhere in the 10 mph range for cruising along comfortably on a flat street. Obviously you can go faster if you pedal harder, but this is absolutely not a racing bike. It’s a cruise-across-the-neighborhood bike.

IMG_3058The tires are pretty darn fat and bomb-proof. But in the odd chance that you get a flat, all you have to do is walk it to the nearest docking station, dock it and push a button that tells them the bike needs maintenance (this applies to all other maintenance problems you encounter). The system will then let you take a different bike and will prevent others from checking out the broken one (how cool is that?).

I took the bike over to the South Lake Union Streetcar tracks to see how it handled them, and was impressed. The tires are a bit too fat to fit all the way into the tracks, which can catch and grab most common road bike tires. This can be extremely dangerous, and many people have been injured biking over the tracks.

If you bike almost perfectly on top of the tracks they will grab the tire a little, which is probably enough to cause some crashes. But they are much more forgiving if you are crossing or merging across the tracks, something that is likely to happen often since Westlake is such a desirable and direct route in South Lake Union (we have written previously about the dangerous Westlake streetcar tracks). It is still important to cross the tracks at as close to a 90-degree angle as possible, but my fingers are crossed these wide tires help prevent injuries until the city finally gets around to providing a safe bike facility on the street.

Stay tuned for more Pronto updates this week, including an update on the helmet vending system and some cool news about a grant the city won to increase low-income access.

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27 responses to “I test ride a Pronto bike (and yes, it can climb hills)”

  1. Steve Campbell

    What’s the purpose of the black plastic surround between the handlebar grips and the stem?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      It’s actually metal that protects the cables and shifter/brake levers. Just another way to remove variables from the bike and try to make them go further without maintenance.

  2. bill

    Needs a larger basket, probably in back, to carry useful loads like briefcases, backpacks, groceries.

    You should have tested the brakes on a long descent like Pike or Pine or Madison, going slowly like a very cautious rider might. Going slow dumps all the energy into the brakes. They will get bloody hot. Do they fade? Melt the grease out of the bearings? Fail completely? What happens on a second run after the brakes are cooled off?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I did not do extensive stress testing to the brakes, but they seemed fine to me.

      1. The brakes on all three bike share systems I’ve used (SLC, DC and Minneapolis) were much less powerful than on my own bike — coming downhill in particular, you needed to start braking many yards before a stop. I’ve never figured out if this was due to wear/tear on the bikes or if they started like that. Either way, I assumed it was a way to make people bike more safely … same as the theory that a big metal spike on every steering wheel would increase driver safety more than seat belts.

        I wonder if this will also be the case with Arcade’s new bikes.

    2. I’m pretty sure you can’t buy brakes crappy enough to fail on descents of the length you see in Seattle.

      1. bill

        I once melted/glazed my brake pads descending the west side of Madison.

        Pretend you’re timid and scared of steep downhills. Go down about 5 mph and see what happens to your brakes/rims/rotors/or whatevers.

    3. Josh

      Judging by the photo of the front hub, they’re Shimano drum brakes with oversized cooling discs, should hold up to Seattle hills just fine, mine don’t overheat going down Madison at pedestrian speeds, and I have only the standard size cooling disc, not the larger slotted one.

      They’re also very easy to maintain, easy to regrease, quick to replace if something does go wrong. A good choice for a fleet bike.

  3. Andrew Squirrel

    Really glad they opted for the dynamo powered front and rear lights.

    1. jay

      I think dynamo lights are de rigueur for bike share bikes, though it seems some systems do not have the stand light feature !? but that is so bizarre that I’m sure it is a rare anomaly (that I trust will not apply to Pronto).

      “The system will then let you take a different bike and will prevent others from checking out the broken one (how cool is that?)”
      Pretty cool! almost as cool as rounded corners on a generally rectangular object, or in other words, don’t pretty much all modern electronic bike share programs do that?

      I do wonder about those pedals however, I have a bike that came with pedals that look like that (it doesn’t have them anymore), and on a sunny July day they are great , but not so much when it rains. (by “not so much” I mean “What the #$%* is this *#&!%!”)

      1. Clark in Vancouver

        I agree about the need for a standlight on generator powered lights. Bought in bulk, a super capacitor is very cheap so it would be a nice touch.
        The handlebars could be more Porteur-like as well but no big deal.

        Overall I like these a lot. Very similar to but also an improvement on the Bixi/DeVinci bikes.

    2. Allan

      Sure, dynamo lights are the only choice for this kind of bike. Otherwise you would need a full time battery change technician. I must admit, I might even try dynamo lights on one of my slower bikes soon. They would be great for slower speeds and fatter flat proof tires.

  4. Matthew

    I’m a little surprised they don’t completely cover the drive train. Without derailleurs, there is no reason not to, and the chain will last longer in the rain. It’s fairly common in Holland, usually on single speeds.

    1. I have an Azor bike from Holland that is very similar to this one in a number of ways (the brakes, dynamos, and 8-speed rear hub are all Shimano Nexus like this), and it has its chain enclosed. There really isn’t any reason to not have it enclosed on the Pronto bikes.

  5. RC

    The front fender looks way to short to keep you feet dry, it needs a mudflap that goes almost to the ground.

    1. Gary

      The trouble with long mud flaps is that it’s easier for your toe to connect and prevent you from a slow speed turn… I’ve made my own, I love mine but even though I am an experienced cyclist, it’s nearly sent me into the sidewalk a couple of times.

      1. andrew squirrel

        That’s a frame/fork/tire geometry related issue, not necessarily a mud-flap issue.
        When you plan a bike from the ground-up you can forsee clearance issue such as this and avoid them fairly easily during drawing/prototyping stage

  6. […] County has a very rare all-ages helmet law, which will certainly complicate the launch and daily operations of Pronto Cycle Share in September. But fueled by a grant from Seattle Children’s, they are forging ahead with an ambitious and […]

  7. […] for Seattle! Rather than walk you through the whole bike again, check out this blog post from the Seattle Bike Blog about how Pronto rides. I couldn’t agree […]

  8. […] I test ride a Pronto bike (and yes, it can climb hills) […]

  9. […] at any of the 50 Pronto stations near the city center and in the U District to check out one of 500 hill-climbing, 7-speed bikes. They get unlimited 30-minute rides for the whole year. Since a 24-hour pass will cost $8, the $85 […]

  10. […] convinced of cycle share yet? Tom over at the Seattle Bike Blog has a fantastic rundown on Pronto!’s standard bike. Last month, he was invited to take a test run on Seattle streets, and needless to […]

  11. […] no chains falling off. Internal shifting is also easier for inexperienced bikers. Seattle Bike Blog took a Pronto cruiser for a spin […]

  12. […] have been working hard in recent weeks to install the 50 stations and build up the 500 hill-climbing and rain-ready bikes that make up the system. Meanwhile, annual membership numbers have continued to grow, and Pronto […]

  13. […] which launched in October, is essentially a Car2go for bicycles and allows people to rent seven-gear bikes, pedal around, and then drop off the bike at any of the 51 docking stations in town spread […]

  14. The maintenance system for the bike hire they have in place sounds awesome. I wonder if this will ever be the case downunder?

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