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Pronto’s helmet solution just might work, but can it keep up with growth?

Photo from Pronto
Photo from Pronto

We’ve discussed the challenges of launching a bike share system in a city with a rare all-ages helmet law previously. In fact, we’ve done so at length several times.

But while some other municipalities with helmet laws balk — Vancouver’s planned system has been delayed yet again, and B.C.’s helmet law was cited as a reason — or repeal the adult portion of their helmet laws, Pronto Cycle Share made the call to go ahead with the launch despite the helmet law.

In fact, Pronto even forged ahead despite issues from the maker of their planned helmet vending machines. A much more high tech helmet solution was planned for each station, but Pronto instead launched in October with simple unlocked bins of cleaned and inspected helmets.

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At first, helmet thefts were fairly high. But four months in, the theft rate has dropped to around three or four percent. “That’s sustainable,” Pronto Executive Director Holly Houser told PeopleForBikes:

In light of the success their temporary solution has had, the bike share system has altered their long-term plans. Now, instead of the potentially cost-prohibitive vending machine setup, they plan to lock the bins with a digital keypad. Members or users will be able to rent a helmet and access the helmets using a code.

The hardware costs of this low-tech solution are only a quarter of the original vending machines they’d planned for. The caveat is that helmet replacement costs will be higher and rental revenues will be lower, but according to Houser the low-tech solution is still projected to be more economical.

Houser is optimistic about this as a long-term solution.

Capitol Hill Seattle reports that the city plans to install keypad-controlled locks on the helmet bin so people can rent them. They expect the locks to be in place next month.

As weather improves, Pronto’s real test is still ahead. By launching in the middle of a very rainy October, the system has yet to have a real summertime run. Users are already taking about 0.63 trips per bike per day, an increase from the 0.5 trip average during colder winter months. But that number needs to rise to meet successes in other cities (with several years of operation under its belt, Capital Bikeshare in DC sees about four rides per bike per day in good weather).

But the helmet bin solution can only scale so far. Regular users have probably arrived to a completely empty bin (or full return bin) a few times, and this problem may only get worse as ridership expands. If system usage grows to a healthier one or two rides per bike per day, that’s double or quadruple the helmets to cram into the bins, requiring more trips by Pronto staff to keep the helmet system in order.

In a city where helmet use is so high, it makes sense to offer helmets to users who want them. And Pronto is proving that it can work. But can a bike share system really flourish under a helmet law? Will ridership explode this summer? Will the new users make Pronto part of their regular habits and continue use year-round? Will the current helmet solution hold up under higher use? Stay tuned.

Other bike share notes

Graph courtesy of Capitol Hill Seattle. Used with permission.

Capitol Hill Seattle recently posted an interesting look at bike share use data. For example, how does rain affect bike share use? Well, pretty much how you think. People still ride in the rain, just not as much.

Ridership has increased in the recent nice weather. If Pronto use mirrors ridership across the Fremont Bridge, July use should be about twice as high for example.

But the first ride on Pronto is the biggest barrier for users. Once you’ve learned how to use the system, it is easier to use it again. So I wonder if usage patterns will be a little different than what we see on the Fremont Bridge. Once we have more data, this could be a rather interesting data crunching project. *wink…wink*

Oh, and have you noticed that 5th and 7th gears click and slip on a lot of Pronto bikes? You’re not crazy. It’s a problem, and they’re fixing them.

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77 responses to “Pronto’s helmet solution just might work, but can it keep up with growth?”

  1. Gary

    Well if we assume that those pronto helmets are still used, just not returned, we could count the cost against the head injuries we’d be paying for at Harborview. Pretty cheap proactive care.

    Have they looked in pawn shops to see if they are showing up? Or in Good will bins?

    I assume they will be like pencils, I buy them until my house is full, ie whenever I need one, there’s one right near me. So that folks who have one in a closet when they move will return them.

    1. Dweendaddy

      Wouldn’t it be nice if it were so simple: the more people wore helmets, the fewer head injuries we would have to treat!
      Unfortunately, the association is not that clear.
      Take home points:
      The proportions of head injuries did not change over the period despite helmet use in the USA increasing from 18% of cyclists in 1991 to 50% in 2000.
      However, cycle use during the period fell by 21%.
      Thus those who continued to cycle were 40% more likely to suffer head injury by 2001 than in 1991.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Ok, before this turns into another argument about helmets, let’s focus on bike share. There are plenty of other helmet arguments on the Internet, including in the links at the top of this story. Thanks!

      2. Tom

        No need to be intentionally deceptive. Also from your source:

        “However, according to Dutch Government data (Rijkswaterstaat, 2008), 13.3 percent of cyclists admitted to hospital were wearing helmets when they were injured. Why does wearing a helmet appear to increase the risk of being injured so substantially?

        The answer is probably related to another statistic. Of the injured cyclists wearing helmets, 50 percent were riding mountain bikes and 46 percent were riding racing bikes (Rijkswaterstaat, 2008). In other words, most helmeted cyclists in the Netherlands are engaged in a competitive activity, with very few making utility trips on the traditional style of Dutch bicycle.”

        Don’t you think the same factors might be at play for US cyclists? Perhaps as cycle use fell those who were still willing to ride were also more likely to engage in higher risk activities? In fact, that neatly mirrors the US cyclist stereotype of the kitted-out squid on his carbon machine.

        I am against helmet laws as they do little to improve safety and are likely counterproductive. I am for helmet usage because it can save your life.

      3. Gary

        Another link for those interested in the helmet debate: Deaths broken out by age/gender from 1975 to 2013


  2. Gary

    On Vancouver, it would seem that the bankrupty of the bicycle system created doubt about investing in a bike share program and then having the vendor disappear was the biggest cause of them not jumping on the bandwagon.

    Of course if the Seattle experiment succeeds, I would suspect that Vancouver BC might get off their duff and implement a system.

  3. Gary

    One last comment, if they build a cover over the bikes, aka Western U. ( http://s3images.coroflot.com/user_files/individual_files/original_185279_XGkmzUj8JRDtZQJcVNLADQxNi.jpg ) Then the seats and the bike might be dry when people approach the bikes and decide whether to ride or not. I for one, appreciate a dry seat when I start out. Especially if it was raining but right this minute is not. Or only raining lightly.

  4. meanie

    Or we could pretend we are all adults and make violating the helmet law a *secondary* offence, like it should have been from the start.

    1. Josh

      If we’re going to revise it, we should just repeal it.

      But “we” in this case isn’t any elected representative body, it’s a Health Department regulation, not a traffic code.

      Honestly, it’s time for the Legislature to finish what it started when it recognized bicycles as “vehicles” under the Vehicle Code, and pre-empt local equipment regulations for bicycles. Can you imagine having to stop your car and adjust your headlights if different cities were allowed to have different equipment rules for cars?

  5. Josh

    Glad they’re finding a workaround for the Health Department’s counterproductive helmet rule. I still believe it should be repealed to reduce healthcare costs, but as long as it stays on the books, even if it’s mostly only enforced against minorities, Pronto needs a solution for all users.

    If they’re anticipating an ongoing theft rate of 3-4%, does that shorten the service life of the average helmet enough to consider a lower-cost helmet model?

    At 4%, an average helmet would be gone after 25 uses — maybe they don’t need such a durable shell?

    1. Law Abider

      How exactly would repealing the helmet law reduce healthcare costs?

      And how is it counterproductive? Seattle, with it’s helmet law, is one of the top biking cities in the country, despite hills, rain, poor infrastructure, etc. I don’t think repealing the helmet law will have any impact on the cycling rate, despite what a 20 year old study from Australia might say.

      1. Gary

        Re: Repeal Helmet law:
        The theory is that if you ride a bike even without a helmet , that the long term benefits from the exercise outweigh the risks of riding without the helmet. ie, your chance of dieing from one of the top ten killers just by doing doing regular cardio exercise is so much better than being killed by falling without a helmet.

        The two things in question are, did you not ride because you had to wear a helmet? Did you do any other regular exercise because you didn’t choose to ride?

      2. Peri Hartman

        That’s a misleading statistic. If you don’t wear a helmet, your chances of severe head injury are higher. You may not die but you could easily become crippled. It may be true, statistically, that riding w/o helmet is overall better than not riding. But just don’t fall.

        I have fallen numerous times. Most are without consequence except for maybe a bruise and a scrape. One time I fell, I really did hit my head hard on the pavement. Fortunately I had a helmet on. No concussion, no problem.

        Another time, my daughter was riding – she was about 10 y.o. – and tumbled when her wheel slipped on some wet leaves. She went down and slid into a parked car. No injuries – she had a helmet on.

        If you doubt me, try this: kneel down on the sidewalk. Lean forward. Gently tap your forehead on the pavement. Now, consider that at high speed.

      3. Josh

        Tom specifically said he didn’t want to start a helmet debate here, but since you asked….

        As actuarial studies go, the math isn’t really that bad:

        In essence, bicycle head injuries are vivid, but relatively rare.

        Diseases of a sedentary lifestyle are pandemic but boring, and people vastly underestimate the effectiveness of very modest amounts of cycling in combating these conditions.

        The cost of preventing a small number of head injuries is a larger increase in heart disease, diabetes, etc.

        This article seeks to answer the question whether mandatory bicycle helmet laws deliver a net societal health benefit. The question is addressed using a simple model. The model recognizes a single health benefit — reduced head injuries, and a single health cost — increased morbidity due to foregone exercise from reduced cycling. Using estimates suggested in the literature of the effectiveness of helmets, the health benefits of cycling, head injury rates, and reductions in cycling, leads to the following conclusions. In jurisdictions where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact.

        Or, as it was pithily summarized in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Ultimately, helmet laws save a few brains but destroy many hearts.”

      4. Gary

        An interesting paper but it starts from the assumption that helmet laws reduce the number of bicyclists. It weasel words this by saying “we just use other people’s data.” and then given that assumption says that by not cycling you’ll die earlier from lack of exercise. So it’s conclusion is true, helmet laws reduce health, only if it’s true that the cause of the reduced rate of cycling is due to helmet laws. Which it doesn’t try to prove.

        Oh well. More justification for making it easier to get some exercise, ie safe routes to school. Or “driving your car kills you.”

  6. Zach

    I’m glad Pronto launched in a slow season, because I really want them to be firing on all cylinders by summer. There are still a lot of kinks to be worked out, namely docking problems and 5th and 7th gears slipping on the bikes.

  7. Peri Hartman

    I’m glad Pronto is offering helmets, law aside. I hope Seattle sets an example for other cities so, if I choose to rent a bike elsewhere, I can get a helmet. I don’t care what the law says, I just want a helmet!

    1. Breadbaker

      You and me both. When I travel to bikeshare cities, I carry a helmet if I have room. I’ve bought helmets in Toronto and Vienna rather than ride without one.

      Of course, since I know I’d be dead without a helmet, I have some incentive never to ride without one.

  8. bill

    I don’t understand all the fussy handwringing. The helmet law is not enforced, so who cares?

    1. Cheif

      Not enforced.. if you’re white.

      1. bill

        I’m not going to say I don’t believe you, but where are the news reports of selective enforcement?

    2. Josh

      Washington courts have plenty of cases where bicycle helmet laws were used as pretexts to justify a stop-and-search.

      The helmet violation itself is often not charged, instead, the helmet law is used to overcome the suspect’s right against random search-and-seizure, with “successful” stops turning up drugs or weapons.

      For a few examples….

      State Of Washington, Resp. v. Christopher M. Smith, Sr., App., a King County Sheriff’s Deputy used the helmet law to justify stopping and searching a man bicycling through Shoreline looking at parked cars. When searched, Smith was found to be a felon in possession of a firearm.


      State Of Washington, Resp. v. LEONARD JAN JOHNSON JR., App., “On May 4, 2008, at approximately 9:43 PM, Tacoma Police Officer Jeff Thiry was on routine patrol when he observed a man, later identified as Johnson, riding a bicycle on a sidewalk without a helmet. Because both riding a bicycle without a helmet and riding a bicycle on a city sidewalk are civil infractions, Thiry decided to pull Johnson over.

      Ultimately, Johnson got on the ground and tried to comply with the officers’ orders to put his hands behind his back, but he could not due to the effects of the repeated stun gun applications. When he did not comply, the officers used the stun gun several more times until they handcuffed him.”

      Johnson was searched and charged with possessing cocaine.


      State Of Washington, App. v. DANIEL JAMES HALL, Resp.,

      1. On May 15, 2005, at 1:30 a.m. Officer Cestnik, a Spokane Police
      Officer, stopped and detained Mr. Hall, who was riding his

      2. The reason for the stop was to issue a notice of infraction for
      failure to wear a bicycle helmet and failure to have illumination on
      the bike during the hours of darkness.

      3. Mr. Hall immediately provided identification when requested. He
      was shaking and sweating.

      4. As Officer Kennedy was running Mr. Hall?s name through
      dispatch, Officer Cestnik asked questions of Mr. Hall, beginning
      with ?[w]hat do you have in your backpack??

      5. The bag was opened and the contents displayed to Officer

      6. Contraband was discovered in the backpack and seized by law enforcement.

      (Hall said the search went beyond what was reasonable for a traffic stop, and the contents of the backpack should be suppressed.

      The court ruled that he wasn’t in custody and that “Mr. Hall’s encounter with Officer Cestnik amounted to nothing more than the routine detainment associated with traffic stops. There is no evidence that either Officer Cestnik or Officer Kennedy used threatening language, physically restrained Mr. Hall, placed him in their patrol car, or indicated in any way that Mr. Hall was under arrest. In these circumstances, a reasonable person would not believe he was in custody.”)

      I personally find it hard to believe the Court *really* believes that the average citizen detained and cited by law enforcement considers themselves free to leave or free to disobey a request to search their backpack, but that’s in line with other court decisions.


      Now, those are just three cases, only easy to find because their cases went as far as the appellate courts. But they certainly suggest helmet laws in Washington are as open to pretextual stops as they are elsewhere in the U.S.

  9. Gary

    On last note: I bet that for Pronto the other issue is lawsuits. If they didn’t provide a helmet and a person fell or was injured and a helmet would have prevented that injury, the cost of the litigation may exceed the cost of providing helmets. It’s a business decision not a religious one.

  10. Kirk

    I haven’t seen the helmets, but can’t they make them so ugly or distinctive that no one would want to steal them?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      They are actually pretty awesome, as far as helmets go. I use my (legally acquired) Pronto helmet all the time now. So I’m one of those people you see riding a regular bike with a Pronto helmet.

    2. daihard

      One issue with the Pronto helmet is that it only comes in one size. My co-worker got a free one when he signed up for the annual membership, but it won’t fit. He ended up removing the inner padding so he could wear it!

      1. Doug

        Yeah, the provided helmets do not fit my head. At all. At least two sizes too small. They are not large helmets.

        Fortunately I ride my own bike everywhere and have my own helmet. If I ever have s need to use pronto I won’t have a helmet option.

  11. asdf2

    I used a Pronto helmet once, found it didn’t really fit my head and didn’t want to spend more time adjusting the helmet then actually riding to the destination. That one time, I opted to wear the helmet anyway, even though it was effectively providing zero head protection. Now, I don’t consider Pronto helmets anymore – I either bring my own or (illegally) do without.

    Similarly, the offer of a free helmet for annual members was not much more than a gimmick. Anybody who already possesses a better helmet than a Pronto helmet (which is a pretty low bar to beat) has no reason to take one, even if it’s free. And it still doesn’t solve the problem that your personal helmet isn’t there when your trip begins somewhere other than home.

    1. daihard

      Exactly. As I said above, my co-worker had to remove the inner padding to be able to wear a Pronto helmet. What’s the point of wearing such a helmet, which provides little head protection? He wears it just so he won’t get ticketed.

    2. jay

      Um, does anyone else see that elephant, or is it just me?

      “rental revenues will be lower”

      Can’t be lower than the zero they are getting now, must mean lower than what they were projecting for the vending machines. However that does imply that it will be more than zero. What do you suppose that will mean for the usage?. Granted their unimpressive usage so far was in the (mild) winter, but the helmets were free, even a token fee is likely to have an inhibiting effect on the increase one would otherwise expect in the summer.

  12. daihard

    My typical Pronto trip is a short one between the City Hall and Chinatown stations twice a week. It is insanely ridiculous to have to carry around a bike helmet for utility rides like this. The MHL is one of the dumbest laws.

    1. Gary

      You must ride this route at different times than I do. I consider riding South out of town on 5th insane from anywhere between 5pm to 7pm. I do it only because there are no sane ways out of town going East and some days I want out faster than the slower but slightly less insane Pike street hill climb.

      1. daihard

        I usually ride Pronto around noon, so the traffic isn’t too bad. I agree that the traffic on 5th is ridiculous during rush hours. When I bike-commute, I ride on 3rd instead.

  13. Not a member – yet

    You use the word “rent”. Will there be a charge to access the helmet bins after the keypads are installed, or is this simply a way to deter helmet theft by passers by who aren’t renting a bike?

  14. Eric

    I visited dc and the bike share there is ideal: All the monuments are bike distance apart, there’s wide, flat connecting paths, and no helmet law. Here in the nw is the opposite- far fewer tourists, steep hills, no dedicated paths in tourist areas.

    I wish bike investments were more focused on greenways here.

    1. daihard

      My main concern about Pronto in Seattle is hills. Yes, the Pronto bikes have 7 gears, but those bikes are still quite heavy. I ride one on 4th from Chinatown to the City Hall, It’s not an easy trip. I’m certainly no Greg LeMond, but I’m relatively fit. This makes me wonder how much Pronto will be used once the tourist season begins in a few months.

      1. Gary

        4th Ave is a deceptive hill coming up from Jackson. I ride everyday and 5K a year and I still huff and puff climbing that stretch. “It’s not about the bike”….

    2. Matt

      I also enjoyed the DC bikeshare but I wouldn’t give it nearly as much praise as you. For one thing, by “connecting paths” you mean that you get to ride on a wide sidewalk along with millions of other tourists by the monument and museums. The bike infrastructure throughout the rest of the city did not connect very well at all. Lastly, all the bike infrastructure in the world can’t calm east coast driver aggression. I have to say though, as much as I love the hills here, they do drive me nuts when I just want to make a simple trip or not show up somewhere sweating. In any case, I have a lot more faith in our cycling system and the infrastructure improvements ahead.

      1. Eric

        I see pronto working once the warerfront is redeveloped- tourists will want to cycle around Elliot bay. Ideally waterfront cycling will eventually go from alki to discovery park.

        I hope pronto doesn’t fail before then, but I think launching when they did, without an audience or infrastructure, is causing the system to fail right now.

      2. Gary

        Wait, they launched during our wet season with the minimum of stations. Besides you need to look at Pronto/bike share in the same lens as other transit. It’s all subsidized, cars, airplanes, trains, …. so it’s more about, does it fit a need, (YES!)… could it be better, yes!, and more stations would make it better.

  15. Helmet laws are probably part of the story with Pronto’s unimpressive ridership so far… but there’s another, deeper thing. Pronto reflects the aspiration and the project of Seattle’s urban core, rather than its status. Someone recently tweeted that largely-helmetless NYC bikeshare has 16 times the ridership per-bike as helmeted Seattle. Frankly, that number is a credit to the fervor of Seattle’s cyclists: New York is far more than 16 times the city Seattle is! Citibike is something New York was ready for, was crying for. Pronto is part of Seattle’s plan to have something like that. A city that never sleeps, or at least a downtown that isn’t a ghost town at 6:30.

    The whole project (the deeply conformist idea of how Seattle’s urban core ought to be transformed) could be questioned in many ways, but here my point is merely that the guy pulling the wagon is going to be going slower than the guy being pulled by the wagon. The guy being bikeshare, the wagon being, to use the driest term possible, “land use”.

    (I don’t mean to slight Seattle, for what it really is, here. I generally feel about New York roughly what one of its famous citizens feels about the time zone I was born in: “I wouldn’t live there / if you paid me too!” — at least I’d have to negotiate a cost-of-living adjustment…)

  16. Matt

    I agree that Seattle lacks the density at the moment (give it another decade) to have the success of NYC’s bikeshare. What we need to do is look at Pronto as a way to fill the gaps in our public transit system. I own multiple bikes and refuse to take any one of them on the bus. It does not help the fact that I am a 30 minute walk away from the D line, which is the only reliable bus line in my area. Pronto would be the most useful tool in the world for me if I could just ride it from my condo to the bus stop. I would never have to drive in the city again. Only putting Prontos downtown and in Capitol Hill where you don’t need to walk more than a block away from a reliable bus and are surrounded by incredible hills and an incomplete cycling network is not going to equal success regardless of our helmet law. We need to expand the system to the areas less served by public transit and we need to do it now.

    1. Gary

      Actually, I think we need to expand Pronto to areas well served by transit. AND integrate it into the Orca system. 15 minutes free with a bus transfer, full rate after that. When I watched that video from China where they have 50,000 shared bikes that are right at the bus stop, I realized why it works so well. It’s the last mile, but you need to be connected to the other transit systems. ie the station should be at Westlake, and every other tunnel exit, not two blocks away, ok, maybe there should be a station two blocks away too if it ‘s a destination like city hall….

      But what makes transit systems work is integration. It has to feel seamless, ride a bus, get on a bike, park and walk into your office, …. ride a bus, get on a ferry, get a bike, ride to the office/stadium etc….

      So in that vein, I think they would do well to expand toward Ballard, and Fremont next. dense neighborhoods, a bicycling culture and bus transit while frequent is slow.

      1. Matt

        I definitely agree with you. I think I should have made it more clear in my comment that I was not advocating for the less dense neighborhoods to be prioritized with Pronto stations over the well serviced, dense areas of the city. I simply think that the areas less served by public transit should not also be excluded from the pronto as well. I live in Magnolia/Interbay and agree that Ballard, Fremont, CD, etc deserve Pronto any day over my neighborhood. I just hope we’re not excluded forever.

    2. Eric

      Why not just put more bike lockers in at residential bus stops? That would seem to generate a lot more bang for the buck and be more sustainable as an effort than Pronto is. Pronto seems to me to be more about toys for tourists, although I hope to be proven wrong over time.

      1. Matt

        I think Bike lockers are a fine idea but I would imagine are also a large expense. More so, it’s about flexibility. Leaving my bike at one stop and then not having it at another stop doesn’t help me much. If I take another bus home that drops me off closer to my house then I need to go all the way back to pick up my bike. Little things but they add up and I end up just driving my car like everyone else in my neighborhood.

    3. Andrew Squirrel

      “I own multiple bikes and refuse to take any one of them on the bus”
      Care to elaborate?

      As someone with many bikes that does the bike/bus thing daily I am really intrigued by this notion.
      I have no issue with putting any one of my 4 bikes on the rack, half of them are probably worth at least $2-3K. Not worried in the slightest.

      1. Matt

        I realize it’s not the most reasonable thing in the world, but I highly doubt I’m the only person that feels this way. There’s fear the rack will already be full, the possibility the driver will drive off before I get my bike, the fact someone else could steal it, it could fall off the rack and just overall intimidation that I might not be able to figure out the rack and hold up the entire bus. Pathetic? Maybe. But again I highly doubt I’m the only one that feels this way.

      2. Becka

        Yeah, I get stressed out thinking I won’t be able to load my bike quickly enough to not inconvenience an entire bus of people. Therefore I don’t count on combining biking and busing.

  17. daihard

    This is what Pronto needs to do.


    Minato Ward in Tokyo provides a bike sharing service using Bridgestone e-bikes. Each bike has an electronic lock with a keypad. You pay online, and they send you an unlock code via mail. You enter it using the keypad.

    The service is $10 a month or $1 for a 30-min ride. The prices are comparable to the Pronto’s. And e-bikes would solve the issues with hills. :)

    1. Gary

      Along with those bicycle parking garages that live underground. Totally secure bike parking is another reason I don’t ride my bike to do errands mid-day. I have it at work, but not at the market, or by my BBQ joint, or by the stadium. So I walk instead.

    2. Josh

      But electric-assist bikes would also limit where Pronto riders could go. e-bikes are illegal on sidewalks, on the BGT, Elliott Bay, and I-90 Trails, etc.

      Not clear if e-bikes are legal in cycletracks, since they aren’t yet defined in Washington law, but at least on Broadway, SDOT signs the cycletrack as a “path,” not a lane of the street, which would mean no e-bikes. (On the other hand, they mark some parts of the Broadway path with sharrows, which technically means motor vehicles are allowed to drive *along* the path there….)

      1. bill

        I thought e-bikes with a governed top speed were legal, while internal combustion assisted bikes are not.

      2. Josh

        Electric-assist bicycles are mostly regulated like bicycles, but with a few important exceptions:

        RCW 46.04.169
        Electric-assisted bicycle.

        “Electric-assisted bicycle” means a bicycle with two or three wheels, a saddle, fully operative pedals for human propulsion, and an electric motor. The electric-assisted bicycle’s electric motor must have a power output of no more than one thousand watts, be incapable of propelling the device at a speed of more than twenty miles per hour on level ground, and be incapable of further increasing the speed of the device when human power alone is used to propel the device beyond twenty miles per hour.

        RCW 46.61.710
        Mopeds, EPAMDs, electric-assisted bicycles, motorized foot scooters — General requirements and operation.
        (3) Operation of a moped, electric personal assistive mobility device, motorized foot scooter, or an electric-assisted bicycle on a fully controlled limited access highway is unlawful. Operation of a moped, motorized foot scooter, or an electric-assisted bicycle on a sidewalk is unlawful.
        (5) Subsections (1), (2), and (4) of this section do not apply to electric-assisted bicycles. Electric-assisted bicycles and motorized foot scooters may have access to highways, other than limited access highways, of the state to the same extent as bicycles. Subject to subsection (6) of this section, electric-assisted bicycles and motorized foot scooters may be operated on a multipurpose trail or bicycle lane, but local jurisdictions may restrict or otherwise limit the access of electric-assisted bicycles and motorized foot scooters, and state agencies may regulate the use of motorized foot scooters on facilities and properties under their jurisdiction and control.

        RCW 46.20.500
        Special endorsement — Exceptions.
        (3) No driver’s license is required for operation of an electric-assisted bicycle if the operator is at least sixteen years of age. Persons under sixteen years of age may not operate an electric-assisted bicycle.

      3. Peri Hartman

        ebikes *are* allowed on bike trails, including the new separated bike ways. According to RCW Washington 16.61.710 para 5: (paraphrasing) e bikes are allowed anywhere regular bikes are allowed except sidewalks.


        I didn’t find any specific information in Seattle’s SMC (just don’t have more time to search). So, it’s possible there are some exceptions – in either direction – within the city.

      4. Josh

        If a facility is closed to “motorized vehicles,” it is closed to electric-assist bikes under RCW 46.61.710.

        The State Patrol has a quick-reference guide available at http://www.wsp.wa.gov/traveler/docs/equipmt/elect_bicycle.pdf

      5. Peri Hartman

        You’re misreading it, Josh. It clearly says they *are* allowed on multipurpose trails… They are *not* allowed on fully controlled limited access highways. That would be like a freeway. I’m pretty sure that’s reasonable :)

      6. Josh

        SDOT indicates that multi-use trails within the city are limited to non-motorized use.


        Realistically, I suspect the risk of enforcement is low unless they’re fishing for an excuse to stop you, but it’s a similar issue to helmets — does Pronto rent out an e-bike and hope the user doesn’t take it somewhere it doesn’t belong? Who gets sued if an e-bike on a sidewalk or trail hits a pedestrian?

      7. Peri Hartman

        “Indicates” isn’t a legal term. If you have the time, dig through the SMC and see if you can find a better definition.

        For now, all that we have is a non-legal interpretation of the code which doesn’t explicitly say anything about e-bikes. As best as I can tell, they are allowed everywhere non e-bikes are allowed.

      8. Josh

        Quoting verbatim from Washington State Patrol:

        They may be operated most places bicycles are allowed such as
        multipurpose trails or bicycle lanes, provided “motorized
        vehicles” are not prohibited. (RCW 46.61.710 )

        Seattle says it’s trails are open to nonmotorized use only; motorized vehicles, including e-bikes, are prohibited.

      9. Josh

        Many BGT entrances are explicitly posted “Motorized Vehicles Prohibited,” which under state law includes e-bikes.

        Seattle has previously stated that e-bikes are prohibited on BGT, e.g.,

        Q: Are electric bikes allowed on Burke-Gilman Trail?
        A: No, city officials say. They’re not allowed because the Burke-Gilman Trail is intended for people-powered transportation, Seattle Parks and Recreation Department spokeswoman Dewey Potter said. “It is a rule and not a law, and there is some expectation that people will respect their fellow pedestrians and cyclists,” she said. Motorized foot scooters also are not allowed in bicycle lanes or on park pathways intended for recreation, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. That includes the Burke-Gilman Trail. Someone busted for riding an electric-powered scooter on some public trails would likely get a $124 ticket for violating a Washington Administrative Code.”

        King County prohibits e-bikes on all the multi-use trails they manage, under KCC 7.12.295 (E), “No motorized vehicles shall be allowed on King County trails. For the purposes of this section “motorized vehicles” means any form of transportation powered by an internal combustion or electric motor. “

      10. Josh

        I don’t mean to come off as anti-e-bike, by the way, that’s just what the law currently says, they’re not allowed on sidewalks anywhere in the state, or on any paths/trails closed to motorized vehicles.

        Some restrictions make sense, in my opinion. While there are no legal speed limits on any trails in Seattle, the design speeds are often below 20 mph, especially in congested areas and for traffic climbing hills.

        e-bikes regulated to 20 mph may still make it very easy to go too fast on trails designed for lower speeds, and so far it has been easier to ban them outright than to legislate and enforce speed limits on trails.

      11. Peri Hartman

        You aren’t coming off as anti bike. But please stop quoting non legal sources. What a city web page says or a council member says is *not* the law. While law is subject to interpretation, that lies in the courts, and they will go by the RCW and SMC.

      12. Josh

        While they only cite the same RCWs I’ve already quoted, Washington Bikes is well-versed on bike legislation in the state.

        “In the State of Washington, it is illegal to use Electric Bikes on Sidewalks. Localities may choose to ban Electric Bikes on Trails as well (electric bikes are banned on trails in King County).”

        – See more at: http://wabikes.org/growing-bicycling/washington-bike-laws/illegal-to-use-electric-bikes-on-sidewalks/#sthash.JgnkRVb7.dpuf

      13. daihard

        From the conversation here, I assume Washington State currently has no laws that govern the top speed of e-bikes. That’s really too bad if that’s one of the reasons e-bikes are not allowed on MUPs and bike paths here. In the Netherlands, the e-bikes that can only go up to 25 km/h are allowed in bike lanes. We could implement a system similar to that.

      14. Josh

        Washington does limit the speed of electric-assist bikes, it actually goes a little bit further than the Federal definition:

        RCW 46.04.169
        Electric-assisted bicycle.

        “Electric-assisted bicycle” means a bicycle with two or three wheels, a saddle, fully operative pedals for human propulsion, and an electric motor. The electric-assisted bicycle’s electric motor must have a power output of no more than one thousand watts, be incapable of propelling the device at a speed of more than twenty miles per hour on level ground, and be incapable of further increasing the speed of the device when human power alone is used to propel the device beyond twenty miles per hour.

        Federal consumer-product rules say electric-only speed can’t exceed 20 mph, Washington adds the restriction that there can’t be any electric assist when pedaling above 20 mph.

      15. daihard

        Thanks, Josh. If that’s the case, I see no reason that e-bikes should be prohibited on MUPs, bike paths and cycletracks. One can ride at or near 20 MPH without electric assist, if not with ease. I will write to SDOT.

      16. Josh

        The issue for e-bikes on trails is that the 20 mph top speed of e-bikes is higher than the safe speed of many trails and even some bike lanes.

        We don’t have an equivalent of the slower 25 km/h class of e-bikes. That’s a speed that would be much more comfortable for sharing with pedestrians and more vulnerable people on bikes.

      17. daihard

        Nevermind, Josh. Here’s what happened in my brain when I wrote the last reply.

        First, whatever drink I was on, it got me to run the conversion the other way around – turning 20 MPH into 13 km/h.

        Second, then I somehow got my sense back and wrote the part where one can do 20 MPH manually, completely contradicting what I’d written a minute earlier.

        So… I agree, 20 MPH (32 km/h) is probably a bit too fast for the governed top speed of e-bikes if they are to be allowed on bike paths.

      18. Josh

        Speaking of the Netherlands, CROW reports the Dutch Cyclist’s Union has convinced the government to experiment with allowing cyclists riding faster than 30 km/h to ride in the street instead of on the cycletrack. (Average cycletrack speed is 18.5 km/h.)

        Speed differentials in urban areas were making the cycletracks feel hostile for slower and more vulnerable people on bikes, so it’s a win/win for both groups — the faster riders prefer the street in urban areas, and the remaining riders feel more comfortable without less speed differential on the path.

      19. Cheif

        The issue with e bikes is not their dubious legality on mup’s, it’s that nine times out of ten they’re being ridden like crap by 50-somethings who have no idea of proper etiquette or safety, using the excuse that they need the e assist cuz they’re getting older and hills. Age and hills have nothing to do with passing me six inches off my elbow without calling out, or passing me in intersections on the side I’m signaling my turn.

  18. Brian

    It would be great if we could get a folding helmet approved in the US. I know there are some models out there — Carrera, Morpher, Pango — but I’m not sure these are available in the US market because of the rigidity of the helmet standards in the US. The Carrera model in particular looks cool (though it doesn’t really get too much smaller). I’m no fan of mandatory helmet laws and am uncertain of the efficacy of helmets for the type of riding done on Pronto bikes. But I am all in favor of increasing the options available to people that want to wear helmets and of lowering barriers to riding. A folding or collapsible helmet would give the BYO folks out there a less cumbersome option than lugging around the status quo. This would be nice for Pronto situations and also just my daily rideabouts.

  19. Brett

    I wonder if they looked into sponsored helmets, i.e. plastering helmets with brands and getting companies to either buy the helmets outright or at least subsidize them. Maybe they couldn’t given the existing sponsors of the bikes and stations…

    Also, I wonder if they looked at developing their own low-cost helmets? I guess they risk liability issues going this route.

    1. Josh

      Standards-compliant helmets are available for $5-6, they won’t save much by rolling their own.

  20. […] Seattle plans to take over and expand the city’s less-than-successful bikeshare system, while adding e-bikes to address the many hills in the area. Although if they really want it to succeed, they should consider repealing the city’s mandatory helmet law. […]

  21. […] Bellwether Housing and Capitol Hill Housing, held dozena of membership and community events, and devised a unique solution for free bike helmets […]

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