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No Federal money for Northgate bike/walk bridge, Pronto expansion

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

Well, it was worth a shot.

The Feds did not pick Seattle’s TIGER grant proposal for funding the Northgate bike/walk bridge and a “massive” Pronto Cycle Share expansion, SDOT confirmed today.

The news comes one day after Senator Patty Murray announced a $15 million TIGER grant for Tacoma LINK and $10 million to construct a new ferry terminal in Mukilteo. The Seattle grant proposal was conspicuously missing from Murray’s announcement.

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The Seattle proposal requested $25 million in Federal funds to help fill the $15 million funding gap in the Northgate bike/walk bridge project and to improve connectivity to transit by investing $10 million in a dramatically expanded bike share system. The city would match this with $5 million of its own, while Pronto’s private operator Motivate would pitch in $3 million.

Since the application, the state passed a transportation funding package that includes $10 million for the Northgate bridge project. UPDATE: The Move Seattle Levy also includes funding for the Northgate bridge, so with the TIGER grant out it’s that much more important to pass Seattle’s Prop 1.

But the city was still hoping at least for partial grant funding to help expand Pronto’s reach. Today, only 14 percent of Seattle residents live within an easy walk of a station. Under the expansion plan, 62 percent of residents would live within reach.

With the TIGER grant out of the picture for at least a year, the city still intends to move forward with an expansion. Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed 2016 budget includes $5 million for expanding Pronto. If that funding is approved by the City Council, the path forward really hinges on whether the city focuses on expanding the station area or on electric bike technology.

“Do we want to have a larger expansion with non-electric bikes, or a smaller expansion with electric bikes?” said SDOT Director Scott Kubly during a recent conversation about the city’s bike share plans.

But the Pronto funding is not a sure thing. Outgoing Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, Chair of the Transportation Committee, got in touch recently to test the waters for moving that money to fund Bike Master Plan projects instead of Pronto (there’s no official proposal yet). The Seattle Times Editorial Board made a similar argument recently.

Right now, Pronto’s service area is small (see the yellow area in the map above). It lacks stations in areas with high bike demand (like Fremont) and areas with lower income residents who have poor access to express transit service. The system does not serve many major express bus stops, and the soon-to-open UW and Capitol Hill light rail Stations are incredible opportunities to become central hubs of the bike share system.

Pronto’s existing system feels more like a pilot project than a fully-functional transportation system. And that’s OK. This is phase 1. We expected this. There is demand for an expanded system (as you can see from all the #ProntosGoneWild parked outside Fremont Brewing or on Alki), and that’s a sign of success. But we need to expand the system to keep up with the users, and that requires investment.

Do we grow slowly as the original business model suggested? Or do we revise the plan and expand more boldly with more of a focus on access for everyone? Or do we experiment with e-bike technology to expand the usefulness of a smaller system? Do we revise the pay structure to better integrate the bikes with transit? These are all good questions.

But leaving it as it is risks the system stalling out. And that’s not good for anyone.

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33 responses to “No Federal money for Northgate bike/walk bridge, Pronto expansion”

  1. Alkibkr

    Sad about not getting the grant money.

    There’s a Pronto station desert on 3rd Avenue downtown. This is the main bus corridor for south and southwest Seattle with no Pronto stations! Bring back the station that was removed when Metro created a temporary bus stop at 3rd & Pike (which is now no longer a temporary bus stop).

    I know this will rile some feathers, but I feel it could be time to help subsidize public bike transportation with a tax on private bicycles (just as we have been subsidizing buses with car tabs). I think we could generate some funds for it with a point of sale/transfer registration sticker for new / transferred adult size bicycles like what is supposedly being used in Honolulu as described in this Chicago Blog post: http://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/March-2015/Why-Bicycle-Licensing-Almost-Never-Works/
    Make it county-wide to fund county-wide bike share? It would be impossible to enforce the display of stickers, but it could bring in some serious cash, we could even slap on the tax for bikes coming in through the airport/train station. This idea came to me when Tom Rasmussen asked me if we should consider taking the $5 million from bike infrastructure funding. Nooooo!!!

    As far as e-bikes, it sounds sexy but I think it would be smarter to stay with the tried and true, because it would provide greater coverage. Coverage is what will increase ridership and improve system sustainability in the long run.

    1. William

      “but I feel it could be time to help subsidize public bike transportation with a tax on private bicycles” – Sounds like a great scheme for persuading bicycle commuters to leave their bikes at home and get back in their cars.

      1. Rob A.

        Yeah, as well as discouraging kids and teenagers. The only way this could even remotely work is if it was a tax on new bikes at the time of purchase.

      2. Alkibkr

        Just the tea partiers. And they are probably already in their cars.

      3. Alkibkr

        The one in Honolulu is supposedly only for wheels equal to or greater than 20 inches. And the fee is $15, or $5 to transfer a bike to a new owner.

    2. Andres Salomon

      We really need to stop fighting over scraps.

      First off, bicycling licensing was tried in the 70s in Seattle. It failed, and it’s not actually going to be a sustainable source of funding for _anything_.

      Second, taking funds for Pronto from bike infrastructure ignores the massive amounts of funding still available from sources aimed at car infrastructure. If we want to encourage people to use more sustainable transportation sources, why on earth do we allocate the majority of the budget to moving vehicles? We have a proposed $394mil budget for SDOT for 2016 (*without* the Move Seattle levy passing). $127mil to go to the viaduct and seawall replacement project. $4mil to the mercer west project alone (which had $29mil in 2015). Saying that we need to raid the meager bike/ped budget is ridiculous.

      1. Andres Salomon

        I meant “moving SOV vehicles” above.

      2. Alkibkr

        It’s a one-time tax on new bikes on top of the sales tax, like the car tab is on top of the sales tax when you buy a car. Only the car tab is a recurring tax. Not sure if any bike share system is intended to be fully self sustaining (how many forms of public transportation are?), however, expanding the system is a sure bet to improve ridership.

      3. Andres Salomon

        Ah, sorry, I misunderstood. The main argument against a bike tax is that it would penalize local bike shops. The last 3 bikes I bought, 2 were online and 1 was local. The difference between buying the local bike vs online (including S&H) was around $40, so I opted to give the local shop my business. I’m not sure if something like $15 (for a total of $55 cheaper online) would’ve made a difference in my purchasing decision, but it might have.

        And I certainly agree that expanding Pronto service will increase ridership! I let my annual membership lapse because I only used it about 4 times (and that’s including Tom’s Pronto alleycat). But I would use it multiple times per week if it were near my house.

    3. A bike licensing requirement is an awful idea.

      1. One of the true virtues of bikes for transportation is that they’re cheap. A $15 registration fee like Honolulu’s is 10% of the price of a cheap used bike, the sort that might serve as affordable transportation or a good time in the dirt (my mountain bike hardly cost me more than this, for example, and it’s certainly trailworthy).

      2. So the enforcers come in, Honolulu-style, and confiscate your bike for not being registered. Where do they enforce? Popular outdoor racks. People that have nice indoor parking or lockers fly by. Enforcement is thus stacked against poorer people.

      3. It’s grossly unfair to visitors. Most visitors on bike are simply people riding from towns like Shoreline or Burien into nearby parts of Seattle. If they don’t know the local law their bike could be confiscated during the day, and they might never think anything except that it’s stolen. Say the requirement is posted on popular bike routes into town, and you happen to actually read it as you ride in. What do you do, find the nearest police station and hope that it’s open? The tax is as unfair to visitors as the enforcement — consider a visitor from Honolulu that’s already paid $15 there! Compare auto licensing, where we reciprocally accept licenses from other jurisdictions. Anything but the most careless form of reciprocal licensing (trusting anything that looks like a bike license) would be too expensive and complicated to be worth the bother, and the most careless form would be easily faked. And even this is still unfair, on the enforcement side, to people that live in places where licensing is uncommon. I don’t know about y’all, but I grew up measuring bike rides by how many towns I crossed.

      We could only make money on a mandatory licensing scheme by ignoring all the ways that it treats cyclists unfairly. We shouldn’t do that.

  2. Andy

    Spending money on a partial implementation of Pronto is a waste until we have built the facilities for people to ride Pronto bikes on. Given the lack of grant support, the City should absolutely spend that $5 million on BMP implementation, which is a substantially more immediate need than cyclesharing.

    1. Eli

      Exactly. My company is moving from a downtown office (near public transit) to a more distant SLU location. We’ll only have parking for only 25% of the employees.

      It’s going to be a nightmare when people can no longer take public transit directly to our office. If we had a network of safe, protected bike lanes from downtown to SLU (with bike share on it), hundreds of people would potentially use it every day from my company alone to get from public transit to our front door.

      Bike share isn’t magic pixie dust you can just sprinkle on lagging bike cities, anymore than open source is for failing software products. It needs to be a tool to solve real and specific urban mobility problems.

      And the research that the vast majority of people won’t ride bikes on streets like Seattle’s is overwhelming and doesn’t change one iota just because you put some bike share stations out.

      1. Alkibkr

        So then why are people already using Pronto Cycle Share, despite the mostly bad infrastructure in the areas where it is currently deployed? It would get even more use if extended out into neighborhoods with calmer traffic, greenways, small commercial districts, multi-use trails. Then when the next 9 hour traffic jam hits the core of Seattle, people would have an actual escape route to get closer to their homes, families, kids in daycare, etc. instead of sitting in their car with their engine running and peeing in their travel mug.

      2. Kimberly Kinchen

        Agree that the protected lanes are needed, and I would like them yesterday. However, NYC’s experience shows that if you lay out a dense network of bike share stations even with a substandard network of PBLs and only marginal other types of bike lanes, bike share can succeed, even on fairly hostile streets (NYC’s Avenues are more hostile than cross town streets, which tend to be more prone to the kinds of back ups that let riders slip merrily along past the standstill, I always found crosstown rides surprisingly mellow, with a few exceptions.)

        Pronto probably needs to be a little more dense in its current coverage area, and then expand, whether or not the PBLs are there. I realize that doesn’t make the $5 m materialize, but we should be expanding Pronto and PBLs at the same time, even if financial constraints mean we do both at a slower rate than we like.

      3. Eli

        Relative to other cities’ implementations, I would argue that people are not using Pronto.

        In NYC, my recollection is that bike trips went up something like 30-50% after Citibike was added. They were starting from a much lower baseline, of course. What percentage of bike trips does Pronto make up for Seattle?

        In general, I think it is a bad idea to build controversial things that we don’t actually expect people to use, particularly when you want people to invest further based on the perceived performance of those things.

      4. Alkibkr

        “it is a bad idea to build controversial things that we don’t actually expect people to use”

        sounds exactly like what opponents have been saying about plans to add bike lanes to the west side of Admiral Way hill. Instead of “people” they should substitute “me”.

        What exactly is controversial about bike share? By Wiki count, there are 600 cities in the world with bike share systems, 26 of them are in the US.

      5. Ints

        “What exactly is controversial about bike share? ”
        When the city decides to operate a service like bikes share as part of their transit program, there is an obligation to provide this service equitably to all citizens/residents of the city. Without subsidies bikes share programs are notorious for being more of a gimmick catering mainly to tourists and millennials, in specific neighborhoods. Downtown, SLU, Fremont, and Ballard are some that come to mind.
        This is a challenge the mayor and city are trying to address with the expansion into areas with “vulnerable populations” instead of into areas where it is for residents with disposable income and bike share is a choice of convenience.

      6. Tim F

        Pronto works fine in SLU. My company moved down there last year, but my parking didn’t. I was pretty upset at the time. The reliability of the 66 and 70 buses at rush hour was abysmal (much better now, thanks KC Metro, SDOT and Seattle voters). Without Pronto as a backup way to get downtown or to UW transfers I was seriously looking at getting a car and a job on the Eastside. I didn’t buy a new car, and Pronto played a fairly big part in that decision. As for protected bike lanes, I’m not bringing my bike downtown, so the only reason I use them is because of Pronto. There’s actually a few streets that don’t really get that much traffic in SLU. Maybe not ‘all ages and abilities’ safe, but 25MPH traffic with a painted bike lane safe. Pronto trips aren’t 60 milers after all. I really didn’t expect it to be so useful. It’s not a 100% solution, but it really works well in combination with the bus system or for turning a ‘walkshed’ into a ‘bikeshed’. When I left work at 6:30, the Pronto station outside had two bikes left as did the one across the street. They were pretty full during the day.

        It’s all about the connections and network effects. Highways and cars don’t work too well without gas stations, mechanics and bridges. Gold-plated bike lanes aren’t great if your bike’s a few miles away in the garage. While I’m getting downtown more, I’m not biking up to Fremont until there’s both a Pronto station at the destination and a better bike lane (ok, I’m lying, I’d take Dexter if there was a Pronto station, but Westlake really sorely needs real bike infrastructure).

      7. Eli

        No matter what you do geographically, bike share is fundamentally an inequitable service when it’s only useful to what we know to be a tiny minority of risk-averse cycling enthusiasts.

        This is the exact same point Dylan Ahearn made years ago: the reason we had a “bikelash” in Seattle on the last BMP is because taxpayers saw what they presumed to be tons of their own money being spent on things they could never imagine using (e.g. narrow bikes in door zones), and felt – correctly or not – that they were having to suffer them (road diets).

        We mitigated the bikelash by refocusing investments on things people felt they could actually benefit from, such as neighborhood greenways, where even people who don’t bike at all value the reduced traffic and improved walking.

        I don’t buy the network effect arguments one bit. Bike share is meant for short (<30 minute) trips. The fact that 95% of people won't use it in downtown if they don't feel safe, doesn't magically create a new untapped audience just because those same 5% can ride further.

        An honest evaluation of the worthiness of expanding Pronto would be to do survey or intercept research on people who don't ride it, and understand the root causes. Instead, we presume it's because we haven't spent millions to take the existing system everywhere with our existing infra.

        If you want a successful program, you build a minimum viable product/proof of concept that gets widely used, and the overwhelming demand is what generates political capital to expand it. This is just startup/entrepreneurship 101.

        You don't just keep expanding a relatively unsuccessful program while claiming that bringing it to more people will make it magically more valuable, because a handful of bicycle enthusiasts find it personally valuable.

      8. Alkibkr

        Well, I don’t know if I am typical, but I am a 64 year old semi-retired woman, Seattle resident since 1976 who just renewed my Pronto membership. According to my Pronto statistics I have ridden 57 miles (it does add up) and 42 trips, including uphill from 3rd avenue downtown to Terry Street on First Hill and from 2nd to 12th on Yesler, without having to dismount. I’ve never needed to go over 30 minutes to get to a station. At the current price point it’s a bargain, less than a one month bus pass. I’ve figured out the safest routes and I’m a very careful and law abiding rider. The alternative for me would be waiting for a bus that may or may not show up and then sit in it stuck in traffic, or to try to find a space for my own bike on a bus rack, aggravate my sore shoulder lifting the bike, and then find places to safely lock it up downtown. Or ride all the way downtown, which is more time consuming since I’m a slow rider. I would use bike share a lot more if it were expanded and served more destinations. I think if Marge would be a ride leader for Eli and show him some safe routes from Downtown to SLU, he would turn into a cheerleader for more bike share in Seattle. It’s been a big success in many cities that have incorporated it into their public transportation system.

        Ints, I think the millennials you think bike share has been designed for possibly would prefer to ride their own bikes faster.

    2. Eli

      Sorry, by: “tiny minority of risk-averse cycling enthusiasts.”

      I meant:
      “tiny minority of risk-comfortable cycling enthusiasts.”

      1. Molly

        Wow, Alkbkr, you rode up Yesler to 12th on a Pronto without having to dismount? You are FIT! Props to you!

  3. Marge Evans

    please no more PBLS! I just got back from WA D.C.. There are no PBLS. The bike share is massive and everyone rides and without (gasp) a helmet. I would support the expansion if Pronto provided it isn’t going to be another property tax.

    1. jt

      DC does have protected bike lanes: 15th St. NW has had a PBL between Columbia heights and downtown, right past Farragut Square, since about 2009. I should know, I rode it daily from 2010 to 2012. L and M streets have east-west PBLs. A PBL helps connect the metropolitan branch trail past Union Station. Plus they have a huge connected network of normal door zone style bike lanes, like on E street.

    2. Molly

      Marge Evans, do you ride with children or elderly folks? I do, daily. The PBLs are AWESOME for that. If you would like to ride with my family and see just how much less stressful the portions of our ride to school, office, grocery, library are where we can use PBLs, I would welcome your company.

  4. asdf2

    My gut feeling is that redirecting Pronto money to the BMP is tantamount to canceling Pronto altogether. There’s such a huge funding gap in the BMP, of which the $5 million the city is proposing for Pronto expansion would barely make a dent.

    The network effect is extremely important. There are so many trips I make that have a Pronto station at one end, but because no station exists at the other end, I’m stuck walking or waiting for the bus. Even ignoring the lack of good bike facilities downtown, Pronto is, today, failing to serve places that already have good bike facilities due to lack of the stations. For instance, there is just one station along the Burke-Gilman trail, none along the ship canal trail, none along the planned Westlake bike path, none next to the UW Link station.

    Bike-share is just one of those things that’s inherently go big or go home. Declaring the thing a failure because a small pilot project isn’t getting enough riders is just giving up. Once you give up, it will be almost impossible to restart the system later, regardless of what infrastructure improvements are made in the meantime.

  5. Some cities where bike share is used significantly more than it is here (on the metric that matters, per-bike-per-day usage) have seen some support for ongoing operational subsidy.

    There’s a critical consequence of this: ongoing operational subsidy also means ongoing capital subsidy. No future expansions funded by operational profits, no equipment refreshes funded by operational profits. If that’s the road we’re going down, Pronto needs better and more realistic planning than it’s had so far.

    The more realistic bit is important. It wouldn’t be fair to pin Pronto’s unimpressive usage so far just on planning. There may be no possible bike share system that would be used enough to profit in today’s Seattle (which, by global standards, is a small and sparsely-populated city); we at least started in the busiest parts of town. If we’re going to put public money into expansion we need a realistic understanding of how efficient the system is and how much benefit it provides, and estimates of how various expansion plans would effect these things. These estimates can’t be perfect — they come from models based on someone’s understanding of general phenomena in a very detailed world — but they could give us a first-order understanding of how to evaluate various expansion plans. And we really should have various expansion plans.

  6. Gary

    Even if we built out Pronto to serve mainly tourists and millennials that would be ok.. Yes the poor are never served well by anything, and yes, we should work to correct that.

    However by building out more stations, you’ll get more voters onto bikes to realize that the bicycle master plan needs to be paid for. So when they are asked for the money they’ll realize why.

    On campaign issues: IMO the “Safe streets to Walk or Bike to School” is the number one issue that people get behind. And these kids are the next generation voters. It’s probably too late to convince the boomer generation to get out of their cars before they die of diseases due to inactivity, but it’s not too late for this generation of young people. First with the large student loan debt and high rents they are strapped for cash. So transit, bicycling et.al. make sense to them.

    On Pronto expansion, without a critical mass of stations it doesn’t work. You need to be able to go the long distance on the bus/rail and the last mile on a bicycle. If the stations aren’t in the places where people live like Freemont and Ballard, you can’t use it. And guess what? Those locations are full of the same young people who would ride those bikes if they could.

    Yes your own bike is faster, but locking it up is a pain. Things get stolen etc. If it rains, a 5 mile ride in the rain requires serious gear. A 1/2 to 1 mile ride, not so much. You can get by with normal Seattle wear, gortex jacket, jeans etc.

  7. […] Seattle Bike Blog reports the feds passed up the opportunity to back the Seattle proposal requesting $25 million in federal funds to help fill the $15 million funding gap in the Northgate […]

  8. Mark

    Spending any public money on bike share is a waste – period.

    There are many ways to fully populate a city with a high quality public bicycle system and not spend a dime of precious public funds. I know, I have worked out many of them and presented the city with a standing offer to help implement them. I have attended several RFP info meetings for different cities where the city was offering nothing more than use of real estate to the bike share proposers and the line of takers was out the door. Our city simply has no interest in exploring other options other than to continually flush money to the current incarnation of BIXI/ALTA/PRONTO. One of the most expensive systems on the planet and one which bike share experts themselves are starting to say may already be outdated.

    The current Pronto system was implemented partially using state grant money that was intended for bike/ped improvements. It was one of the largest $$ items on the list of grant awardees and the only one that could have been gotten for free from the private sector. Over 100 other projects across the state were denied – true cement pouring bike/foot infrastructure projects that could ONLY be created with public money.

    Put the 5 million in the budget toward bike infrastructure, or maybe better yet let it replace the lost funding for all the desperate social projects that were begging for scraps at the last city council budget meeting. Really, watch the video – 60 groups spoke over the 3 hours and it was heartbreaking to hear people ask for 50,000 to keep supplying food to people in need and then listen to Cascade pitch for 5 million for bike share!

  9. […] Link gets $15m from USDOT. But Feds pass over Northgate Bridge and Pronto […]

  10. […] week of bad news; first with the destruction of a bike station by a rogue driver and then with the Feds declining a TIGER grant. (The Northgate Pedestrian and Bike Bridge also lost out on […]

  11. […] in the process of taking ownership of Pronto from the non-profit Puget Sound Bike Share. The city did not win a big Federal grant for a “massive” expansion of the system, but the 2016 budget would […]

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