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Happy first birthday, Pronto! A look at use and how the bike share system can grow

Photo from opening day, courtesy of Marley.
Photo from opening day, courtesy of Marley.

Pronto Cycle Share launched one year ago today.

Since then, people have used the bikes to complete 144,000 trips, traveling 335,694 miles. That’s the equivalent of biking around the equator 13.5 times or biking to the moon and making it half way back.

That’s a whole lot of bike sharing, and puts the Seattle system about on par with the first year of use in Denver, a step behind the Bay Area system and quite a bit behind DC.

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Stephen Fesler at the Urbanist crunched the numbers a bit further this morning:

  • The average bike trip was 19.05 minutes;
  • Pronto bikes collectively traveled 335,694 miles;
  • 27,670 short-term passes were sold;
  • The average bike made 288 trips; and
  • The current ratio of bikes-to-bike station is just over 9:1.

Breaking those numbers down further, we find a mix of good and less-than-good numbers. For instance, the average bike station saw 512 customers purchase short-term passes and the network generated 935 miles of bike riding daily. Meanwhile, 144,000 trips were made on Pronto bikes throughout the year, but if you parcel that out on a per bike per month basis, that comes down to 24 trips. In context though, that’s within a range closely mimicking peer systems in Denver and San Francisco.

Additionally, that first data point in the list above suggests that the bike share system is meeting a key target — the 30-minute target. With average trip time at 19.05 minutes, most users are not exceeding the 30-minute threshold at which additional charges kick in for each half-hourly block. Bike share is predicated upon the concept of rotating bikes throughout the system as quickly and as balanced as possible. This helps realize a primary goal of ensuring that bikes remain accessible to users at most locations in the system and on demand.

Graph of weekly Pronto use as of late September, from Capitol Hill Seattle.
Graph of weekly Pronto use as of late September, from Capitol Hill Seattle.

Here’s a fun birthday video from the Pronto team:

As the Urbanist notes and as you might expect, membership levels are strongest in areas that have stations. That’s one reason why the city’s plan for a major system expansion makes sense for attracting more users.

As we have reported, Mayor Ed Murray has included a one-time investment in his proposed 2016 budget to expand Pronto. Hopefully, that investment will get some help from a pending federal TIGER grant proposal. If fully funded, Pronto stations could be within an easy walk of 62 percent of Seattle residents. Today, only 14 percent of residents can easily walk to a station.

The city is also looking into options to add electric assist to the bikes, which could make it easier for more users to use them and could maybe even take some of the workload off rebalancing staff who drive bikes to empty stations, often uphill.

The helmet law effect

City staff may also want to look into changing King County’s rare all-ages bicycle helmet law. While Pronto has done a little better than the system in Melbourne (one of the only other major systems operating under an all-ages helmet law), usage is not as strong as some similar-sized systems in cities without helmet laws.

Melbourne, a region that is larger and more dense than the Seattle region, saw only between 0.3 and 0.8 trips per bike per day in its early years (PDF). Pronto averaged 0.8 trips per bike per day across the whole year, but summer months saw use closer to 1.2 trips per bike per day.

Major systems in denser cities without helmet laws see much more use, of course. New York’s Citibike saw 5.7 trips per bike per day in June, for example. A more reasonable goal for Seattle to chase might be Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare, which seven years into operations saw 3.8 trips per bike per day in June compared to Pronto’s 1.1. Numbers will likely climb over time as more people learn to use the bikes and become members. Tripling use isn’t an easy goal, but it’s also totally achievable, especially with an expansion of the service area.

But King County’s helmet law is one likely factor holding the numbers down. The original business model assumed a reduction in use due to the helmets, and maintaining and cleaning the helmets and bins adds cost to the system other cities skip. To date, bike share systems in the US have proven remarkably safe, and there’s no evidence that helmets are needed to protect users. As reported last year, no US bike share user had died in 24 million trips, mostly in cities where few users wear helmets (I am not aware of any deaths since then, though I don’t have more recent data).

We have suggested several times that King County should ditch the helmet law for adults, or at the very least make it a secondary offense so police are not stopping and ticketing people just for choosing not to wear a helmet. That’s not a good use of police resources, but Gene Balk and the Seattle Times reports that 2,500 tickets have been given for bicycle helmets since the law went into effect in Seattle in 2003.

There are far better uses of police resources than ticketing an adult choice that is perfectly legal in nearly every other big city in the world. The question isn’t whether you think people should wear a helmet, it’s whether you think we need to actively police that choice. Most of the tickets were given by just three officers, suggesting that nearly all of the SPD force already agrees adults not wearing a bicycle helmet are a low priority.

But besides helmets, there are other challenges to bike share in Seattle, as former Puget Sound Bike Share Executive Director Holly Houser told the Wall Street Journal:

Holly Houser, Pronto’s departing executive director, acknowledged that the helmet law “can be a deterrent, because there is a perception that if you have to wear a helmet to ride a bike, then biking is dangerous.”

But Seattle’s steep hills and patchwork bike infrastructure are stronger factors than the helmet law in putting off casual riders, she says. “You combine the topography with a lack of protected bike lanes, and helmets become that much more important,” Ms. Houser says.

A connected network of comfortable and safe bike routes is the biggest missing piece to a successful bike share system in central Seattle. Expansion is smart for making the system more accessible by more people, but the existing central core will never fully success until bike routes are high quality and connected. Few people want to mix with busy traffic on Pike Street downtown or Jackson Street between the International District and Pioneer Square. Until these and many other gaps are closed, use will be limited just to those brave enough to bike in downtown traffic.

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15 responses to “Happy first birthday, Pronto! A look at use and how the bike share system can grow”

  1. When we ignore the meaningless numbers we get down to business: per-bike-per-day usage. On that, we’re behind the Bay Area (hardly an inspiring comparison), and we have yet to repeat their worst mistake with suburban “satellite” systems, which will drag our overall numbers down further when built.

    Seattle is doing the same thing the Bay Area did for roughly the same reason: because it appears to be a good fit for our urban form. A system with similar geometry to, say, Chicago’s, would put a lot of stations in dubious locations, too: on insanely steep slopes, along narrow corridors, in the middle of lakes, large parks, monotonously sparse areas, etc. Maybe some of those narrow, flat corridors along densely populated hillsides would actually make great station locations (maybe people will walk down stairs to Dexter, Westlake, Dearborn, the Burke). But we haven’t proven even that yet. There’s no proof that the best possibly managed bike-share system could either cover its expenses or represent a clear, significant benefit for Seattle transportation worthy of public funding, in the Seattle of 2015… or even the Seattle of 2025.

    The City of Seattle’s expansion proposal is essentially Chicago-shaped and ignores the urban geometry of Seattle. It promises to cover 4-5 times as many people, but it’s hard to see how that won’t require far more than 4-5 times the number of bikes — the pure network effect of expansion (the enormous increase in possible origin-destination pairs) would have to overwhelm the lower density of the expanded area to see improvements in per-bike-per-day numbers. Will it? That’s a big shot in the dark. We don’t know yet.

    If Seattle’s expansion neither falls utterly on its face (i.e. collapse in per-bike-per-day usage) nor immediately becomes an advertisement for further expansion (i.e. explosion in per-bike-per-day usage) it might provide lessons for refinement. Unused and unwanted stations could be redeployed as infill where usage is highest or to other areas with potential (say, much of Ballard).

    1. Gary

      You are confusing a “bike share” transportation system and a “bike rental” business. As a transportation system it will never ever make money. As a bike rental business, it’s probably also a loser even if we put the stations in all the high density locations.

      Better to focus on what would make this system better… better signage for those unfamiliar with where the stations are, better linkage to the transportation system via Orca cards and a transfer credit at minimum if not a free ride for 1/2hr with a bus fare. And a reasonable all day rate for tourists who just want to ride around the city for a few hours and not have click in and out of the stations.

  2. jay

    “Far out, what a day, a year, a life it is”

    Note the last paragraph.
    Wouldn’t it be better to spend whatever money they have (I sure wouldn’t bet on the TIGER* grant) on improving biking conditions? Wasn’t the original Pronto rollout (500 bikes ~ 50 stations) about 5 million? how much do they really expect to expand it with another 5 (or, even, LOL, 15)?

    “use will be limited just to those brave enough to bike in downtown traffic”
    I imagine most of those people already own their own bikes.

    For comparison, Pronto averages a bit under 400 rides per day, on a good weekday the Fremont bridge sees ten times that many, and that is a neighborhood that didn’t even rate any Pronto stations. Of course comparing Pronto’s annual average with a good day on the bridge isn’t really fair, comparing the bridge’s annual average it is a bit less than 7 times as many rides, but still just one area (albeit a big one, due the canal being a barrier and the Ballard bridge being horrible).
    Also the Fremont bridge and approaches, from Florentia to 34th is a bit less than 1000ft, the million bikes that went across in ’14 traveled about 180,000 miles just on the bridge, and since no one lives on the bridge and only a few people work on it, the fact that Pronto’s bikes only went twice as far is not really all that impressive

    * I realize that the department of transportation is a gigantic bureaucracy and the people in charge of TIGER grants, probably have know nothing about Seattle’s propensity to ignore MUTCD guidelines (which would other wise seem like a good reason to deny grants). But since there is huge competition for TIGER grants and this seems like a pretty lame proposal, I wouldn’t expect much.

  3. Alkibkr

    We’ve put the stations where infrastructure is crap, now let’s put some where infrastructure is good and riding not so scary (multi use trail destinations, neighborhood commercial districts with relatively flat terrain and quieter side streets parallel to arterials). Combined with stations at selected RR and Link stops, this could go a long way to improving our public transportation system and reducing car use and parking demand in neighborhoods. As long as membership stays relatively cheap (less than a one month bus pass). I’m afraid if they try to go electric, coverage will be too low and rental fees might have to be discouragingly high.

  4. Matthew Snyder

    I’m more interested in Portland’s experiment with bike share next summer. The model just seems better to me: no docking stations, just public bike parking infrastructure. Bike share bikes can be locked up to any public bike rack in the service area. It’s the car2go model instead of the Zipcar model, essentially. Let the bikes end up where people want to ride them, instead out building out expensive and proprietary docking stations in places someone decided were appropriate. Add public bike parking infrastructure in areas where demand is high, rather than adding more proprietary docking stations to already-crowded sidewalks. The pricing structure in Portland seems more sensible to me, too.

    I guess I don’t really see the arguments in favor of the docking station model, unless there really are insurmountable technical problems with the free-floating system. Am I missing something?

    1. RTK

      Thanks for this information. I just read the FAQs for the planned Portland Bike Share. I hope it works well, makes a lot of sense to me.

    2. Portland’s system looks really sensible. It should make it more convenient to arrive in a popular place via bike-share (whether that’s downtown on a weekday or some special event) by eliminating uncertainty over finding docking space. And it should reduce operational costs, since rebalancing only has to address bike availability, not docking space availability. That might lower the threshold for usage necessary for financial sustainability.

      But without heavy system usage these benefits don’t matter as much: docking space is less contested and rebalancing less of a burden. It doesn’t look like something that will drive lots of usage by itself. It’s something we should consider when all our equipment needs to be replaced, but as with e-bikes, if we can’t get our system performing well without it the point is moot.

    3. Gary

      The key to a floating bike parking system is those locks. They need to be able to be unlocked over the air, that’s batteries etc. Be interesting if they make that work as it seems like it would distribute the bikes better.

  5. RDPence

    “no US bike share user had died in 24 million trips” The better data would be how many *head injuries* have occurred to US bike share riders during that period.

    I’m still interested in the economic and demographic data on Pronto users. My perception is that they are mostly well-off white folks, but I’d like to be proved wrong.

    1. Andres Salomon

      There was a study last year that showed a reduction in the total number of head injuries in cities with bike share.


    2. Andres Salomon

      Look at graph (b) here: https://twitter.com/NEGreenways/status/655552146620874752
      That was published in response to the original study, showing that the overall number of both injuries AND head injuries dropped dramatically in bike share cities (but not in cities without bike share).

      Helmets are a distraction when it comes to real discussions about bicycle safety.

  6. Bike share works great in some places, and can help make dense apartment living better with less need for car parking, and it’s attractive to tourists, but I would like more information.

    Bike share is promoted as healthy, sustainable transportation. That’s why we subsidize it. So: What is Pronto’s carbon footprint?

    These are bikes with sag wagons. Many people are riding them downhill from Capitol hill, and taking the bus uphill, requiring a truck to reposition a bike for their next ride down the hill. Bus + truck = two motor vehicles required for one short bike ride. What is the mileage, fossil fuel use, traffic impact and labor cost for service and repositioning trucks compared to the bike mileage? What is the public health cost/benefit to this kind of use?

    How will this change if the system goes to e-assist bikes? It will be easier and less exercise benefit to ride on an electric bike, it may reduce the use of trucks, and it will preclude Portland’s model of dockless system and introduce a quantum leap in capital cost, maintenance cost and potential glitches, and limit expansion because of greater capital and operating cost per bike. What is the net cost/benefit?

    Except in dense bikeable areas like U District, and maybe in West Seattle between the three Junction along the fairly flat California Ave SW corridor, it seems like putting resources into safe routes is needed before putting much more into bike share, to make it succeed.

    It would be helpful if Pronto would be more forthcoming and transparent with its data, to help Seattle make good choices. City of Seattle needs to pay attention to its experience with taking over the electric streetcar lines from private companies back in early 20th c, and its experience building non-functioning but really cool high tech streetcar lines in early 21st c. No rose colored glasses, please.

    1. Marley

      You’re in luck (partly.) They just released all of their data for people to analyze. http://www.prontocycleshare.com/datachallenge

    2. Gary

      Bike share is not about reducing the carbon footprint, it’s about moving more people with the resources we have, the limited road space, the limited bus lanes etc.

      A well done bike share system can make the bus/train more efficient for people to move by letting them travel the last mile via bike vs having more stops which slows those other systems down.

  7. […] Despite several challenges we’ll highlight in this post, people using Pronto completed 144,000 trips traveling an estimated 335,695 miles or the equivalent of 13.5 times around the equator in just one year. […]

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