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With Pronto in the red, city outlines takeover and expansion plan

From a City Council presentation
Images from a City Council presentation (PDF).

Story updated with comments from SDOT Chief of Active Transportation Nicole Freedman.

The city is just about ready to take over, rework and expand Pronto Cycle Share. Think of it as Pronto 2.0.

According to the new plan, 2016 will be about stabilizing the system’s financials under city control and creating the details for expanding far north and south of the current service area.

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Bike share in Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, Fremont, Wallingford, the CD, North Capitol Hill and Ravenna? Yes, please! The expansion plan map is not final, but it’s a great start.

Unfortunately, the expansion is not scheduled until 2017, as there are many details to work through including the possibility of e-assist bikes.

But first, let’s rewind to see how we got here.

Pronto launched in October 2014 under the ownership of Puget Sound Bike Share, a non-profit organization made up of regional public and and private partners.

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.

That’s a whole lot of biking, showing that Pronto was filling many gaps in the city’s transportation system. This is the central thesis for a bike share program: Transit is good at getting people to a general area, but it isn’t so good at closing the first and last miles of those trips. And if you live in the service area, it’s even more useful.

The first year has taught the city a lot about the system, it’s limitations, it’s costs and how to make it better.

In retrospect, launching right before the rainy and dark season may have taken some of the wind out the system’s startup sails. The novelty phase of a new system is an important one-time marketing opportunity to gain users and establish habits.

And creating two effectively separated satellite systems in the center city and in the U District has sapped vital station area density from both areas. The network effect of nearby stations is the lifesource of bike share stations. Many station placements are also not optimized for the highest-demand destinations like downtown transit stations. By spreading the 54 stations and 500 bikes among the two areas, the effective sizes of each system don’t quite reach the critical mass needed to be fully successful. Seattle’s a big city that has a system better suited for a small city.

Public grants guided the decision to launch in the U District along with the center city. A grant-blind strategy probably would have started centralized and then expand north to at least Fremont, Wallingford and the U District all in one go. But hindsight is 20/20. The only real solution looking forward is expansion, which the city plans to do.

Here’s a look at the financials:


The system is operating in the red, and it is insolvent without city support. The most immediate financial challenge for Pronto stems from debts assumed at launch. Essentially, the non-profit owner of the system Puget Sound Bike Share did not raise enough capital before launching, taking out loans to make it work. Servicing those loans is now sapping the budget, driving operating costs into the red. From the City Council fiscal note document:

… insufficient funds were raised for the initial equipment purchases and consequently, borrowing costs lead to ongoing debt service payments that contributed to year-end net losses. When overhead costs and debt service payments are removed, the bike share system costs and revenues are comparable with other successful bike share systems around the country. To shift the system to an operational equilibrium where costs are more in line with revenues, and then to proceed with an expansion, the City needs to acquire the portion of the assets that Pronto owns.

In other words, income that should be funding operations is going to debt service instead. So the city needs to buy that out to get the books back on track. In the process, they will also buy out the non-profit’s assets, including:

… the 26 stations currently owned by Pronto, as well as remaining assets related to helmet services, station services, bike department, deployment, rebalancing, dispatch and spare station equipment.

All of this will cost $1.4 million from the $5 million already budgeted for the system (the city already owns 28 of the stations, which were purchased using a Federal grant).

UPDATE: “[Pronto’s operations] would break even today if it were city run and there were no debt payments,” said SDOT’s Nicole Freedman. The reorganizing of the system this year would “align us with best practices around the nation” where major systems are publicly-owned. It’s a system that “works really well.”

Legislation to invest the rest of the bike share budget will go to Council later this year after the city further develops the expansion plan in more detail.

Why should Seattle own Pronto?

Good question! Much of the reason is boring behind the scenes stuff, like streamlining overhead, consolidating ownership of assets and expanding opportunities for grants available to municipalities but not non-profits.

But most importantly, the city can make value decisions that stretch beyond just the bottom line. And the perfect example is expanding bike share service to Rainier Valley.

If a singular entity or a for-profit company were to own Pronto, expanding to Rainier Valley would probably not make sense. The density of homes and destinations likely isn’t high enough to make the system profitable.

But the social value of bike share is the ability to increase access to bicycling to more people, bringing neighborhood destinations and high quality transit service within reach of more homes. Access to a working bicycle is a big impediment to biking in low-income communities. Bike share is an incredible opportunity to close that gap, providing an affordable, dependable and healthy mode of transportation for more people.

UPDATE: “Our goal is to make bike share part of the public transportation network,” said Freedman. The planned expansion budget includes $600,000 for “low-income expansion” to purchase stations in low-income areas and to fund reduced cost memberships “like OCRA Lift for bike share” to “make it one of the most equitable systems in the country.”

In other words, is bike share a business or is it public transit? I believe it should be a form of public transit, and access should be delivered with a race and social justice lens, not merely a capitalist/profit lens.

Seattle, led by Chief of Active Transportation Nicole Freedman, deserves credit for understanding this and presenting a plan to pursue social justice through bike share:


King County’s rare helmet law is holding Pronto back

But Pronto’s budget is also saddled with a very rare requirement imposed by King County’s rare all-ages helmet law. To get around this barrier, the system launched with helmet bins at every station. So not only does the system need to provide helmets, but staff need to pick them up, clean them and restock stations. This is a big undertaking, and adds tens of thousands of dollars annually to the budget — a city presentation includes a budget item of $83,000 for “Other (primarily helmets).”

But worse, it is well-known that helmet requirements diminish bike share use even though such systems consistently prove to be exceptionally safe. Getting a helmet from the bin adds a step to and otherwise streamlined process, and are you really going to unwrap and “dirty” a helmet just to bike a mile or so? Since the system added locks to the helmet bins, they also cost $2 to rent for short-term users, while pass holders can get one for free if they enter a code in a Pronto email.

The added cost of a helmet further deters low-income users or exposes them to citations for choosing not to wear a helmet, an act that is perfectly legal in nearly every other big city in the nation and the world.

There is a very simple solution: Change the law to match peer cities. Minors are still required to wear helmets, but adults can make their own choices. Helmets can still be provided at an optional cost to the user, but they shouldn’t bog down the whole system and get in the way of all its potential public health benefits (we’ve gone deep into this in previous posts like this one).

Here’s the timeline for the Pronto investments:


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126 responses to “With Pronto in the red, city outlines takeover and expansion plan”

  1. Josh

    If Seattle/King County Public Health won’t modify or repeal their helmet regulation despite a clear negative net impact on public health, perhaps Seattle-area legislators could find rare common cause with anti-nanny-state legislators from the rest of Washington and simply make bicycle equipment regulations uniform state-wide, pre-empting local helmet laws?

    It seems like a win all around — allowing local helmet laws interferes with free travel within the state, infringes on individuals’ right to make their own decisions on matters of personal safety, and drives up public health spending and transportation spending by reducing bicycle mode share.

    1. Josh

      (Not to mention, of course, race and class disparities in the enforcement of the helmet law…)

    2. Capitol Hillian

      Or just direct SPD to not ticket helmet offenders. Nullification by lack of enforcement.

      1. Josh

        Would Pronto management be willing to risk eliminating helmet kiosks and the associated costs based solely on non-enforcement?

        Seems like they’d still worry about potential liability if a rider does suffer a head injury and their attorney could show Pronto knew there was a helmet law but did nothing to aid compliance.

        Plus, as a larger civic policy issue, I’m not a fan of official contempt for the law — if it’s a bad law, get it off the books.

      2. Herb Curl

        How many tickets have been issued annually for biking w/o a helmet? Is this a real issue? How many jay-walking tickets have been issued in the past 5 years?

    3. Gary

      Pronto riders, or lack there of, is not about the helmet requirement. It’s way more about the lack of infrastructure. The bike are big and heavy and unlike my commuter bike where I can attempt to be in traffic because I can ride with it, you can’t on one of these, hence you need dedicated bike lanes to feel safe.

      In addition, you need a lot of stations, ie, at or near your bus stop, at or near your workplace, or shopping destination. What is the point if you have to walk nearly as far to the pronto stations as you would just to walk to work? And the seat better be dry, who wants to show up at work with wet pants/skirt? Hence the need for a roof over the racks.

      1. Orange

        Thanks for pointing out the infrastructure and the lack of it. I’m looking at the map and I’m seeing the two major areas, downtown and u-district, and I’m asking myself how a typical bikeshare user would get from downtown to the u-district. Well, to you and I the answer would be Eastlake/Fairview. Is there a bike lane on Eastlake/Fairview? Google maps says no. So how do people get from one chunk of the service area to the next? How could the system possibly be expanded without doing something about the elephant in the room, namely Seattle’s crap bike infrastructure? There I said it, crap infrastructure, and the main reason why bikeshare is and will fail here, until they build it.

    4. Ha ha, you think anti-nanny-state types actually stand for what they say they stand for.

    5. Law Abider

      And let’s get rid of seatbelt, motorcycle helmet and life jacket laws while we’re at it, which unnecessarily saddle car, motorcycle and boat rental businesses with extra costs.

      I mean I would of course use seatbelts, helmets and life jackets, but that’s not the point! Or something like that.

      1. Josh

        Is there compelling evidence that motorcycle helmet laws have a negative public health impact?

        Is there compelling evidence that lifejacket laws have a negative public health impact?

        There is compelling actuarial evidence that mandatory helmet laws kill more people than they save, avoiding a small number of head injuries in exchange for a larger increase in deaths from both driving and complications of a sedentary lifestyle.

      2. Law Abider

        Could I get that evidence? I’d be curious to see the statistics of how many people die due to the fact that they didn’t bike because they didn’t want to wear a helmet.

      3. Josh


        Piet de Jong is an internationally-respected actuary with decades of experience in comparing the benefits and unintended consequences of regulations in many different fields. The math for helmet laws is relatively simple, and even taking helmets at the maximum efficacy of helmet proponents, and the deterrent effect of helmet laws on cycling at the low end of reasonable estimates, mandatory helmet laws have a net negative public health impact. (Or, if you don’t want to wade through the math… helmet laws save a few heads but ruin many hearts.)

      4. Law Abider

        You’re going to have to do better than a paywall research article.

        Quote some stats, some evidence, anything!

        Again, for people that die of heart disease, I don’t think having to wear a helmet is what’s stopping them from getting any kind of exercise that could mitigate their heart disease.

        It’s like people that quote the Melbourne study, which pretty much just correlate and cause-ates a helmet law with a decline in cycling over a multi year period, but doesn’t look into any other potential causes. Yet people quote this study left and right.

      5. Josh

        The full article is available for free online.

        I would welcome your insight into any flaws in the math — you could even make a name for yourself academically if you’re the first to find some.

        The paper is widely quoted because it’s both simple and rigorous. IF you assume that helmets are as effective as their most ardent supporters say, AND you assume they have the least deterrent effect on cycling found in the literature, mandatory helmet laws are still bad for public health.

      6. Law Abider

        Quick Google search just turned up more paywalls. However, I found this page that give a breakdown analysis:

        They give a good summary:

        “This paper presents a mathematical model for comparing the possible benefits of fewer head injuries as a result of helmet laws with the negative effects of less exercise due to fewer people cycling. It notes that the amount by which helmet laws reduce injuries and cycling is controversial. However, the author does not present any new data with regard to these factors or the health benefits of cycling. Instead, widely cited estimates are used as inputs to the model to arrive at the net implied benefit.”

        I have no doubt that he put a lot of effort into the mathematical model and it seems sound, but the variables require a lot of assumptions and/or cherrypicking. So there’s a fancy math equation, but he still didn’t appear to actually research (from what I can tell, correct me if I’m wrong) whether people who are at risk of dying from heart disease would (1) even ride a bicycle if helmet laws were repealed or (2) ride enough to make mitigate their heart disease. Equations don’t typically pan out well to humans, just ask an economist.

        While there are many factors for heart disease, the people that die from preventable heart disease likely make life decisions that contribute to their heart disease and lack of exercise is probably at the top of that list.

        My opinion still stands that they wouldn’t ride a bike with or without a helmet law. A helmet is such a minor deterrent compared to the other factors that deter people from riding.

      7. Tom Fucoloro

        OK, both points have been made in this thread. The general helmet law debate could go on forever, as we have seen in previous threads. Thanks for commenting, but let’s end this particular thread here. This story is specifically about bike share, and this debate can sprawl off-topic very easily. Thanks!

    6. TC

      Gary Busey –

      Gary Busey, Gary Busey, Gary Busey!

      On December 4, 1988, Busey was severely injured in a motorcycle accident (note – YES – MOTORCYCLE, but driving very slowly so similar to bicycle accident) in which he was not wearing a helmet. His skull was fractured, and doctors feared he suffered permanent brain damage. During the filming of the second season of Celebrity Rehab in 2008, Busey was referred to psychiatrist Dr. Charles Sophy. Sophy suspected that Busey’s brain injury has had a greater effect on him than realized. He described it as essentially weakening his mental “filters” and causing him to speak and act impulsively.

      Oh, and Gary Busey.


      Gary Busey

  2. Anthony

    There is no retrospect in regards to Pronto, it was a failure in the making. Changes in helmet laws aren’t going to help significantly, if at all even though I support axing the ridiculous biased nature of these.

    It comes down to people making a personal choice to get their fat asses out of the car and onto the road on their own volition and with their own style of ride. Pronto looks bad, smells bad, and holds zero promise of getting more cyclists en masse on the streets. Our politicians care more about brownie points and being able to spend your money without you the general public thinking twice about it.

    Anything else is just a sales job designed to make the unsuspecting public buy into this unfortunate program.

    1. Tim F

      Chicago. That’s a place where bike share hold zero promise to get more people biking.

      1. What’s wrong with Chicago? Last I heard Divvy was doing a whole lot better than Pronto!

  3. b

    Pronto needs most, if not all, of these changes to make a relaunch successful from my perspective:

    1.) Eliminate helmet law, even if its just an exception for Pronto users
    2.) Expand operating area
    3.) Reduce single-ride fare cost to match transit fare
    4.) Integrate with ORCA for free transfers
    5.) Build some *$^& safe bike infrastructure already!

    If we treat Pronto as an legitimate part of the transit system and accomplish a few of these things in a short enough time period, it will be worth taking on. Otherwise, I wonder how many lane miles of PBLs, curb bulbs, greenways, etc. this might might build…

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Thanks for point 5. I should have included that in my post (especially the Center City Bike Network).

    2. Gary

      #4 is key. It’s what makes that system in China work so well.

      1. jay

        Any tax lawyers here? who might be able to explain this:
        “All payments are by credit card; Wageworks and Transitchek prepaid commuter cards are not accepted, as bike sharing programs do not qualify as eligible commuting expenses under US tax law.” From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citi_Bike#Payment

        Gary, I’ve a feeling we aren’t in China anymore.

      2. Josh

        Not a tax lawyer, but I have a commuter benefit plan at work.

        CBPs allow employees to deduct qualified commuting expenses pre-tax. You can get over $250/month for parking or mass transit, but bicycling is much more limited. See https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p15b.pdf

    3. poncho

      Yeah exactly.

      And there are certain routes in Seattle where the addition of just two Pronto stations pairs, for people to ride between would be enormous, for example… UW Station to UVillage, UW Station to 520/Montlake Freeway station, UW Station to Gasworks Park, King County Water Taxi West Station terminal to Alki Beach, Capitol Hill Station to Capitol Hill Group Health & 15th Ave, Lower Queen Anne to Seattle Center Monorail Station. All last mile stuff, long walk connections or places where you can take advantage of good transit infrastructure for part of a trip then good bike infrastructure for other parts of a trip. Almost like fast on-demand human powered shuttle between busy, high trafficked points A and B.

      1. Rich Knox

        Interesting point. Maybe what we need are not dense stations, but stations that actually mirror departures and destinations. It would be nice not to have to worry about helmets, and if we’re really serious about social justice, make it easily accessible to folks who don’t have credit cards. I’m sure there’s some way of doing this, but affluent folks can use Pronto on a whim.

      2. Gary

        For “social justice” we could take EBT cards.

  4. Rich Knox

    While I agree that projects shouldn’t be looked at through a purely capitalistic/profit lens, we still need to cover costs if a project is to be sustainable. So the question here is what level of ongoing subsidy does a transportation system require. This gets to the concept of fare box recovery (i.e., the ratio between fares (user revenue here) and operating expense. According to the numbers I found in a quick web search, Metro currently has a fare box recovery ratio of just under 30%. Sound Transit is a bit over 30%. Other transit systems in the area are significantly lower. So the fare box recovery ratio for Pronto isn’t that bad.

    We also need to consider opportunity costs (i.e., would it be better to spend this money on improvements to bus service). Not sure how to call this one. I occasionally use Metro. I have never used Pronto. I usually prefer to ride my own bike. While I can think of some scenarios where Pronto would be useful, I’ve never actually gone so far as to use Pronto. Perhaps an investment in Metro would benefit a broader swath of citizens.

    There’s a footnote buried in the financials that concerns me. It appears that the plan is to shut down the current system in December 2016 and open the new system in June 2017. This means Pronto will be unavailable for 5 or 6 months. Will the user base recover from this lapse in service?

    Many proposed bicycle infrastructure projects currently being discussed seem to be based on the assumption that if you build it, they will come. We’re building bike share systems and protected bike lanes with low design speeds with the idea that they will attract people who don’t currently ride bicycles. Many people who have been bicycling around Seattle for years don’t want or need this kind of infrastructure. We ride a lot, but we don’t ride Pronto, and we don’t like the proposed Westlake cycle track. Maybe that doesn’t matter. I think the idea of attracting new people to bicycling is laudable and compelling. If this new infrastructure brings more people to bicycling, then it’s a big win. At some point, though, the proponents of this infrastructure will need to show that these investments actually have increased the number of folks bicycling and that social justice actually has been improved. At present I feel that we’ve embarked on an expensive experiment. I hope it works.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Bike share isn’t really about people who already bike everywhere. It’s about everyone else primarily, though it can come in handy for people who also own bikes, too.

      1. Eli

        “Bike share isn’t really about people who already bike everywhere. It’s about everyone else primarily, though it can come in handy for people who also own bikes, too.”

        Yes, and that’s precisely why Pronto failed.

        To reach the people who don’t already bike everywhere, you need infrastructure that doesn’t feel like a death-defying Michael Bay experience.

        My friend who originally taught me how to do urban biking told me that he loved it because it brought back the adrenaline rushes he had while serving in Vietnam. That’s a small addressable market.

        (I know you already know/agree, just picking on you.)

    2. Gordon Padelford

      “While I agree that projects shouldn’t be looked at through a purely capitalistic/profit lens, we still need to cover costs if a project is to be sustainable. So the question here is what level of ongoing subsidy does a transportation system require. This gets to the concept of fare box recovery (i.e., the ratio between fares (user revenue here) and operating expense. According to the numbers I found in a quick web search, Metro currently has a fare box recovery ratio of just under 30%.”

      According to the City Council agenda documents, SDOT is projecting Pronto to be at 100% farebox recovery (including ad revenues) by 2018. That’s simply unheard it’s so amazing compared to public transit projects (never highway building boondoggles).

      In terms of the role it plays, it’s not really comparable to any Metro route due to the last mile connection role or simply as a highly flexible medium distance point to point network. Continuing the comparison transit, Pronto will have instant “frequency” or 0 minutes of wait time. With 1,369 daily trips by 2018 it won’t be comparable to a popular bus route to start, but with only $5 million in capital costs, and the potential for significant growth in future years with 100% farebox recovery that’s a pretty solid investment.

      In addition to what everyone has been suggesting to do “infill, expand, and build out the safe bike network,” I think it’s also critical that we acknowledge the importance of hills in Seattle as a real barrier.

      Do you remember when you first started biking around Seattle? I do, and the hills, rude drivers, and lack of bike facilitates nearly made me quite for good in the first few weeks. We live in a beautiful hilly city, but those hills also make it tough for walking and biking to be easy forms of transportation.

      E Bikes are huge in Europe (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/19/business/e-bike-sales-are-surging-in-europe.html?_r=1), but they haven’t caught on here yet in the same way. One reason is likely that they are a big upfront investment.

      Having E-Prontos would “flatten” Seattle’s hilly terrain for anyone with a Pronto membership. It could be transformational for not just the usage and success of the bike share system but for how people in Seattle perceive biking (difficult, sweaty, only for athletic people).

      1. Rich Knox

        “According to the City Council agenda documents, SDOT is projecting Pronto to be at 100% farebox recovery (including ad revenues) by 2018.”

        I don’t think the “farebox recovery” numbers I quoted for Metro and Sound Transit include ad revenue, but this is a small point. If user fees plus ads cover operating expenses, great. Realize, though, that these are projections, and Pronto hasn’t always made it’s projections in the past.

        “Do you remember when you first started biking around Seattle? I do, and the hills, rude drivers, and lack of bike facilitates nearly made me quite for good in the first few weeks.”

        Yes, Gordon, I do. I moved to Seattle in 1974 during one of the OPEC oil embargoes of that era. Bicycling seemed like a good way to get around town. Seattle drivers weren’t quite as rude then, although I don’t find them that rude today. The hills were the same, and the bicycle infrastructure was primitive. I found easier and more difficult ways to get to the top of any given hill. I adapted and got stronger. I was the fat kid in high school, and although I’ve lost weight and gotten stronger, I’m hardly an athlete. Seattle topography is within the reach of most healthy people. E-bikes make it easier, but so do motorcycles and cars.

      2. Can Seattle include electric assist bikes in Pronto’s expansion to encourage people of all ages and abilities to ride?

        Birmingham, Alabama has shown us how in the US (it’s a little embarrassing we are being out innovated by Alabama): http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2015/10/birminghams_zyp_bikeshare_prog_1.html

        Madrid, Spain has shown us how to implement such a system on a larger scale: http://www.accessiblemadrid.com/en/blog/bicimad-public-bike-rental-service-madrid

      3. Rich, you and I are already biking around Seattle (virtual high five). We’re not the target market for E-Bikes.

      4. So the city projects that bike share would break even in Seattle. I don’t think the city projected that PSBS/Pronto was going to go insolvent in a year when they did all the work to help it get off the ground, so I’m not sure why we should put a lot of stock in the projections. Let’s see some proof before we commit ourselves further.

        People in the US don’t buy bikes to get around because they aren’t sure they’ll be able to handle getting around by bike. The up-front investment isn’t greater here, and people aren’t poorer here. People are much less sure they’ll be able to handle getting around by bike, given our longer commutes, auto-dominated infrastructure, poor quality of transit fallback options, and lack of social support for cycling. This is all doubly true for e-bikes, which are substantially more expensive and depreciate more steeply (due to technology advances and battery degradation): you’re willing to buy one if you know you’re going to use it, but not if you aren’t.

        And that’s true for the city, too. Seattle simply has not proven it has what it takes to make bike-share work here. It’s not obvious that it will this decade. Many bike-share systems have been outright failures, or are in Pronto’s category of struggling systems. The clear bike-share success stories in North America have involved bigger cities with bigger, denser, more continuous urban cores than Seattle. None have all-ages helmet laws and certainly none have such steep urban cores as Seattle. All have far more fast mass transit that rewards last-mile cycling than Seattle. If I buy an e-bike and it sits unused on my balcony until the battery degrades then I’ve wasted a lot of money. If the city buys a bunch of e-bikes and they sit unused in the rain and cold until their batteries degrade then the city has wasted all our money — taken it away from programs with established, broad social benefits.

        Neither bike-share nor e-bikes have actually made significant contributions to a mass cycling culture in Seattle. Neither concept addresses the toughest obstacles a mass cycling culture faces here.

      5. d.p.

        A rare instance in which I disagree (in part) with you, Al.

        Outright failed bike-share schemes in the last decade have are amazingly few and far between, and the few true disasters tend to look like Pronto: service design by politics rather than best practices, e.g. the isolated-nodal system that briefly dotted Silicon Valley, or Australia’s quixotic helmetude.

        Meanwhile, bike shares have thrived in cities just as sprawling, middlingly-transited, or weather-challenged as Seattle (like Minneapolis), or with their own infrastructural (New York) and topographical (Montreal) challenges.

        I cannot begin to count the number of instances in which a healthy bike-share system would have been indispensable for me as a time-sensitive trip option in Seattle. During my final year there, I actively attempted to strategize a 3-day period in which I would concentrate enough errands and activities within the Pronto service gerrymander to justify a one-time splurge for access.

        I could simply never justify it. Much less at day and 3-day rates a non-negligible number of dollars higher than the industry standard. And much, much less if I were forced to rent and drag around a helmet for the duration.

        I agree with your skepticism about e-bikes as a capital outlay. I also agree with your frustration with redesigning the service area around hypothetical equity rather than provable usefulness. But the most important change would be a service area big enough and contiguous enough to enable lots of trips for lots of reasons at lots of times for lots of residents. That is how a bike-share attracts enough communal “buy-in” to be solvent.

        Pronto, meanwhile, recently still intended to put bike docks at suburban park-and-rides, to be used at most once per day by a dozen individuals for all eternity. The city can’t possibly offer a worse execution than these people have.

      6. Josh

        I don’t know how much impact it really has on personal sales or use, but Pronto could face a similar issue with e-bikes as with helmets.

        No matter how safely you ride them, e-bikes are illegal on sidewalks state-wide, and on trails closed to motorized vehicles. http://www.wsp.wa.gov/traveler/docs/equipmt/elect_bicycle.pdf

        Can Pronto successfully push compliance onto users, or do they invite liability whenever an e-bike illegally uses the sidewalks on the Aurora Bridge, or hops on the BGT?

  5. biliruben

    I think it’s about density of racks. I moved away, but visit frequently, and have been looking for an excuse to use Pronto. But the bike stations are either not where I am or not where I’m going. And the fee structure imposes the necessity of there being both.

    Greenlake just begs for a station. And Fremont. And Magnusson. And Ballard and the locks. And the beaches. I almost think they should drop ’em everywhere, but with very wide spacing and first, then infill.

    1. Tim F

      Biliruben, you had me until “very wide spacing”. You do still need to get to/from the station (walk time). I’d be ok with “somewhat” wide spacing to start, but really even our current network density is fairly sparse compared to successful systems elsewhere.

      The “number of stations within a 15-minute ride” charts on page 2 of this paper is a good measure of a well-designed system (spoiler, more than 50 is a good start):


      By all means target a bike-friendly neighborhood or two, but with a limited number of bikes and docks it’s better to have good dock density (two-block walk at most) in a few neighborhoods and gain momentum to expand to new neighborhoods. I say that as a resident of a neighborhood that will probably be among the last to get bike share docks.

    2. Gary

      Alternatively we could go the route Portland is, no fixed stations, but geo locators on the bike itself. More like the “Car to go” model.

      1. biliruben

        That would be awesome. It would make much more sense. How are they secured?

    3. J

      Fremont definitely needs Pronto stations. I see people riding Pronto bikes over the bridge frequently, and even see them locked up (against rules) outside Fremont Dock. People are obviously riding there, and I bet there would be a good amount of riders along the Burke-Gilman from the U-District as well.

  6. MikeG

    Great article, Tom.

    What impact (if any) will this have with the planned expansion of Pronto to the eastside?

  7. OtoNoOto

    As a year round cyclist and bike commuter there is no way I would support baling out Pronto. The service is very flawed and as others have stated anyone that wants to bike in Seattle owns a bike. Sure, maybe during the summer they will get some whimsical folks that want to bike around, but that will not sustain yr round. It also gives cyclists a very bad public view to support a failed program. I for one love my bike, but have not lost sight of common sense or become a bike zealist.

  8. Gary

    Pronto stations need “roofs”, nothing discourages me more than a wet seat, and in case no one has noticed, we live in a temperate rain forest, less the trees which were cut down 75+ years ago.

    In addition, street sign-age, so visitors can find the stations, in addition the bike “routes” from A to B.

    Imagine walking out of your hotel where you are staying while you are at some convention, seeing a Pronto station, and a clear route to some place interesting…. just follow the green paint to…

  9. Zach L

    For me, personally, the helmet thing is what kept me from getting a Pronto membership. I want to use the on-demand bikes truly on demand. I don’t want to worry about carrying around a helmet, or spending the extra time getting one from the system. Just like me swipe and ride off.

      1. Breadbaker

        I’m a Pronto charter member and usually carry a helmet, but in the winter carry it less. The time it takes me to get one from the bin and onto my head is about a minute. It’s really not a big deal once you see how it works.

    1. Becky

      I sometimes ride pronto specifically because I DON’T want to carry my own helmet. I use the bin! It works fine!

      My use case is fairly specific – I sometimes like to zoom downtown from Capitol Hill without bringing my own bike with me, and then get back up the hill some other way usually. But I love it for that use case.

  10. Dave F

    Despite its flaws, I love Pronto. I’m a daily bikeshare commuter, as its great not to worry about bringing a lock or my bike shoes to work (I have clipless peddles on my own bike). Its also great that I can ride in, but take the bus or Uber home if the weather changes or I’m working late. Yes, I own my own bike, but I use Pronto twice a day when I commute.

    Granted, I moved here from DC, whose system is much bigger and better, so I forgive Pronto for its flaws, because I know how great it can be with a little more investment. The system will grow bigger, and will grow better, but its too early to give up on it. Many people don’t know about DC’s first bikeshare system, run by Clear Channel as part of an advertising deal, that failed miserably before the city rebooted with the wildly succesful Capital Bikeshare.

    This is one of those infrastructure projects that becomes more efficient the bigger it becomes. Ironically, we need to spend more, not less, to achieve the benefits of the network effect.

  11. asdf2

    At the end the day, the operational subsidies required for Pronto are a tiny fraction of the money that would be required to operate transit or build out the bike master plan. In a sense, re-directing Pronto Money into transit would be like re-directing the bike/ped budget on the state level into highways. In the latter case, the result would be no bike/ped projects, but not discernable effect on highway construction. In the former case, the result would be no bikeshare, but no discernable effect on transit.

    I also think it’s way too early to just throw up our hands and declare bikeshare a failure. The Link Stations at Husky Stadium and Capitol Hill represent a lot of potential and haven’t even opened yet. Nor have we bothered putting down stations at such obvious points as Montlake/520, Fremont/34th, Green Lake Park, or King St. Sounder Station. And, yes, lowering the price for a single one-way trip to match transit fare would be a huge ridership boost. Today, a single one-way trip on Pronto costs as much as Uber, which is ridiculous. Please give it a fighting chance before judging it a failure.

    1. Breadbaker

      There is a Pronto station at King Street Station (the Amtrak station) and another about a block from International District Station.

      1. Josh

        True, but the Amtrak King Street Station is essentially a block away from the Sounder King Street Station — you can’t cross the tracks, you have to walk up and around the block to go the few hundred feet to the Pronto station.

  12. Todd

    I’m not really surprised. Why rent a bike when you are commuting on your own bike? And honestly, I don’t know many non-regular bikers that want to ride them. In fact none and the numbers seem to support this.

  13. If we have city officials working out how to build one of the “most equitable bike-share systems in the country” instead of working out what actually works for social justice, we’ve already lost.

    Can bike share be “equitable”? Maybe by some definition. You can guide station location choices through the lens of whether nearby residents and workers are representative of the city as a whole, by some demographic measures you care about, and thereby build an “equitable” system. But a system only provides a benefit where it’s useful, and it’s only useful where it’s used. North American bike share systems haven’t shown much usage outside of big, continuous dense areas. Bay Area Bike Share built a bunch of stations in the suburbs, probably as an attempt to tap the suburban tax base, but the system just didn’t work in the ‘burbs. The Rainier Valley and Northgate, the outer reaches of this latest expansion plan are on the whole probably no more fertile locations for bike share than Silicon Valley was. Whatever advantages they may have are canceled out by extremely steep hills and bike networks that are actually less connected.

    It’s too early to declare bike-share in Seattle a failure, though it sort of looks like Pronto’s initial leadership either built the system to fail in order to secure a public takeover, or had all the financial acumen of the old Monorail project. But it’s too early to put it in the permanent public budget, too. In order for public bike-share to be equitable it doesn’t just have to have stations in certain places, it has to provide a broad public benefit. If it can’t do that, or if it can only provide a narrow public benefit to relatively well-connected groups, then all the work in the name of equity is, in an Orwellian reversal, actually draining attention and money from effective equity work.

    1. The Monorail or Pronto control staff: People that just want to keep their jobs and not do very much to improve. A little like a city employee…. Or a contract employee. If they improve, they risk loosing funding. Business as Usual is the safest bet.

  14. Public-private partnerships rarely work.
    King County micro managed Bikestation into oblivion.
    Keep it private and for profit. It works that way. Non-profit or public take too long to adjust. It just doesn’t work well. Besides bike rental (aka sharing) is a good thing. Should the city take over Enterprise Car Rental? NO!

  15. poncho

    There’s a few problems with Pronto as a Pronto member myself, one is poor station density and locations within the zone and a lack of any stations in some of the best neighborhoods for biking (along the Burke Gilman in particular or Fremont so one could bike from Downtown via Dexter). The other problem is Pronto is being expected make money (or at least cover costs) while also be placed in locations for political reasons and not first and foremost where can it be most successful. As noble as targeting underserved communities is with Pronto, its being tasked with another difficult challenge on top of just getting enough riders in general to use it and cover its costs.

    I renewed at the one year anniversary mark (early October) and have only used it 2 times so far since renewal and quite frankly regret doing so. I tried taking it from UW to UVillage via the Burke Gilman and the closest station for UVillage is very inconvenient. That trip should be the ideal Pronto trip where transit is quite inadequate but where there is the fantastic BG trail (and now UW station). I ended up just walking back on the trail. In downtown, they are in poor inconvenient locations (away from bike lanes, out of the way then made worse with one way streets and hilly access. There is no decent bike route between downtown and Capitol Hill. These stations need to be integrated into the quality bike infrastructure so that riders can take advantage of the good bike infrastructure.

    BTW how much new bike infrastructure has opened in the current Pronto zone since Pronto started? If I’m not mistaken none (2nd Ave came just before). The kind of riders who (would) use Pronto are not comfortable riding in general traffic downtown on high speed one way avenues with little or no bike accommodations.

    1. RossB

      Yes, you are absolutely correct. The studies confirm what you say about station density: http://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NACTO_Walkable-Station-Spacing-Is-Key-For-Bike-Share_Sc.pdf

      It is crazy that the trip from the UW to the U-Village is a failure. Going out to Children’s was always a stretch (assuming a very limited roll out). But if you are going to do it, do it right. There should be at least a half dozen stations between the UW and Children’s, with at least two in the mall (on either end).

      1. Gary

        It would seem that a station at the UW exercise facility would have a fair number of users.

  16. RDPence

    Couple of questions —

    * My admittedly anecdotal observations are that Pronto riders are mostly white, mostly male, and mostly young. Has anybody acquired the data to refute or confirm that the system has some social equity problems?

    * It has been extraordinarily wet this winter. How has the weather affected Pronto ridership?

    1. Breadbaker

      The same three characteristics apply to “most” Seattle cyclists. Or drivers. I’m 59 and I use Pronto regularly, for what it’s worth to you. But on the basis you describe, we shouldn’t build any infrastructure at all.

      1. RDPence

        You totally missed my point, which is maybe we should be doing more outreach and engagement with communities of color and with the less affluent. The map above showing the proposed expansion area includes a little tail into SE Seattle. That will help engagement with people of color.

      2. RossB

        This is a paraphrased recommendation from http://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NACTO_Walkable-Station-Spacing-Is-Key-For-Bike-Share_Sc.pdf:

        To create equatable bike share systems, cities must meet the needs of low-income riders by maintaining high station density (28 stations per square mile) across all neighborhoods in the service area, including low income areas.

        As to your first point, this (http://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/transportation/bikeshare-research-growth-user-demographics-health-societal-impacts) had a fair amount to say about demographics. “Lower-income users cited the importance of saving money compared with other transportation options”, at the same time “bikeshare members tend to earn more”. Also, “Users were likely to have lower average incomes than regular cyclists, but higher than the city’s general population.” And finally, “Bikeshare users’ ethnicity often differs from that of the general population” (being more white).

        So Basically:

        Bike riders tend to be more white and more affluent. Bike share riders tend to a little less affluent. Bike share in less affluent neighborhoods can be a very useful and affordable transportation option for low income people if implemented correctly.

    2. Tim F

      The UW/U-District is effectively only 15 stations separated from the main network and it’s in an area that is incredibly well served by buses, so it gets very little use. The example expansion area in the map should do a lot to help that, especially for Pronto-ULink trips. I don’t think ULink without a network expansion can be expected to make much difference in bike share usage.

      The Downtown/SLU main network in fact currently gets far more usage than the UW sub-network because it is effectively a 35 station network, and it is the network effect that drives bike share usage. Bike lanes do help, but not in the absence of a big network. The Pioneer Square stations get more traffic than you’d expect, and I think that’s largely due to the 2nd Avenue PBL. But even stations in the heart of downtown are among the most used stations in our network. And bike share among the things helping to encourage cities to build out their bike lane network.

      1. RossB

        It is quite possible that the reason why Downtown/SLU gets more usage is because it has a lot more stations close to each other. This study confirms that idea: http://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NACTO_Walkable-Station-Spacing-Is-Key-For-Bike-Share_Sc.pdf. This is not intuitive, but it makes sense when you consider how people typically use a bike share system. It is not a long term bike rental. People don’t typically ride it for miles and miles. They ride it one mile (or often less). It has to be really convenient to walk to a station to be successful, at most 1,000 feet (according to the article). That is about 3 blocks. This is achieved downtown and South Lake Union (more or less) but not in the UW. There are some obvious holes in the UW set of stations (e. g. The Ave and the Burke Gilman). There should be around a dozen stations added to the UW (and U-District) area alone.

        Likewise with Capitol Hill/First Hill. There is a huge gap between Pine and Yesler. There are only three stations between there, and they are very spread out (one is on 12th and Yesler, the other on 12th and Columbia, the third way over on Terry and Columbia). We have a brand new bike lane on Broadway, and basically no bike share on it.

      2. RDPence

        It’s easy to foresee the need for a major Pronto station at the U District Station at 43rd & Brooklyn. The station is off-campus by 2 blocks, and most campus destinations are a long walk away. Arriving on ULink, it will be very popular to take a Pronto bike to campus destinations (assuming saturation coverage of Pronto stations on campus). Most of those riders will have a flat or downhill ride. Going home, Pronto riders will head downhill again, but this time to the UW Station at Husky Station. I predict regular duty for the bike redistribution truck, hauling south to north in the U District.

      3. asdf2

        Pronto in SLU also serves a major hole in the bus network – taking Mercer St. between SLU and Seattle Center. Fortunately, the sidewalks are smooth enough and wide enough that this trip is actually safe.

  17. SLUD

    Having used the DC system numerous times, I’m a big believer in bike share. While I’m an occasional user of Pronto (and a yearly member), I have ten fairly major criticisms of the system in its current form:

    1 – Station placement is terrible. There are none near the major bus stops on 3rd avenue, and none near the ferry terminal. It should connect seamlessly to mass transit. Given its tiny service area, it’s really only useful as a last mile solution (that’s how I use it), but the time penalty of a walk to/from a station is a major deterrent.
    2 – The helmet law.
    3 – They do a terrible job on outreach. The yearly pass is not so expensive for someone who knows that they’ll be at least an occasional user, but it’s too big an upfront cost for someone who’s not sure. And the daily rates are so far from competitive with transit that no sane person would make that choice. There should be cheap/free introductory programs (with a credit card deposit to avoid theft, of course) to help people get over the initial energy barrier. I work in an office with two stations visible out the window, but almost no one uses the system because they haven’t tried it, they don’t know how it works, and they’re not willing to make the large investment to check it out. The barrier to entry is just too high for most people.
    4 – The helmet law.
    5 – The helmet law.
    6 – Wet seats. Sometimes people cover the seats of unused bikes with discarded helmet bags. This improves my view of humanity. Otherwise my butt gets wet.
    7 – Crappy front baskets. I once had my laptop bag fly out into traffic after hitting a pot hole. Thankfully traffic stopped long enough to let me pick it up. And the laptop still worked. But who designed those things?
    8 – Bike infrastructure downtown sucks. We got the chicken, now where’s the egg? (or is it the other way around?)
    9 – The helmet law.
    10 – The helmet law.

    I really don’t want to see the system abandoned, but it definitely needs to executed more intelligently.

    1. Capitol Hillian

      ditto on the terrible racks. they need to go

    2. RossB

      Here is a study confirming what you said about station density (you need to have a lot of stations very close to each other): http://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NACTO_Walkable-Station-Spacing-Is-Key-For-Bike-Share_Sc.pdf

  18. Brian Nilsen

    My wife and I recently visited Seattle and used the Pronto bikes almost exclusively to get around town. I agree that the helmet rules hindered it — I noticed that there were two models of helmets and one of them was too small to fit my head, being painfully uncomfortable even when adjusted to the largest size. I also didn’t realize that you got charged every time you took a helmet out – I thought it was a one time fee along with my three day pass. That means that you either pay an additional $2 every time you check out a bike or you have to carry a helmet around with you all the time.

    Still loved using it and found it incredibly practical for getting around town, but the helmets really are an issue.

    1. Gary

      Sounds like the helmet charges were a bigger issue than having to wear one.

      1. Brian Nilsen

        There’s that and that they’re ill-fitting helmets. And the cost it incurs on the system, for questionable benefit.

        We eventually figured out that the helmets with a small brim on the front where the ones big enough to not be painful. That meant digging through a bin of helmets to try to find one that actually fit my head.

        I don’t have much of a problem personally wearing my own helmet, but there’s a cost associated with helmets and bike share. It’s either an extra burden on the bikeshare provider or an extra charge to the consumer. There’s also evidence that it makes people more cautious of the system by making it seem more dangerous, i.e., “this is dangerous enough that they’re making me wear a helmet…I might as well just Uber it.”

        I guess in short: For me, the biggest issue was that the vast majority of the helmets just didn’t fit, but if I didn’t put on that uncomfortable hunk of plastic that dug into my scalp, with a strap that threatened to strangle me, I could face being ticketed. If I did find one, I’d have to drag it around with me everywhere or else drastically increase the cost of the bike share. But my story is anecdotal. I’ve only used bike share in two cities – Seattle and Stockholm. The bikes were very similar, as were the policies: three day rentals with 30 minute ride times. Speaking as someone who uses a bike as my primary mode of transportation in Los Angeles, and who uses a helmet for all but the quickest of rides to the local store, I found the helmet situation in Seattle to be a significant inconvenience with a significant cost. If I weren’t already someone who likes to get around by bike, I don’t know that I would have been as likely to use the bikeshare.

      2. asdf2

        When I ride Pronto, I generally just ignore the helmet law and do without. The biggest reason why is that the helmets in the bins don’t fit my head, and a helmet that doesn’t fit is no more useful in protecting one’s head than no helmet at all. I am also not willing to spend 10 minutes adjusting helmet straps for a 5-minute bike ride.

      3. Gary

        Did you have any trouble locating the stations? Being from out of town I would think would make wanting to use Pronto even worse. ie if I rent this bike, is there a station near where I want to go? ie the Aquarium, or….

    2. RossB

      The helmet law for bike share is stupid. We are the only city to do that. The system is teetering on bankruptcy, and we are making stupid, expensive experiments that are unpopular. There is little evidence to support the idea that bike helmets for bike share systems make sense — in fact the opposite: http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/06/head-injuries-didnt-rise-in-bike-share-cities-they-actually-fell/372811/

      Just out of curiosity, is there a helmet law for hover boards, or those solowheel things? What about roller skates and skateboards?

  19. RossB

    The new map they have is by far the best plan for coverage yet. It is missing only one piece: Ballard.

    Of course it would be great to cover the entire city. But there isn’t the political will to do that right now. So you want to cover as much as you can. You want to cover the most urban areas you can — the areas of contiguous high population density. The map pretty much does that. Except it leaves out Ballard.

    You also want to favor bike paths and natural connections. This does that. Except it leaves out Ballard. I know the Missing Link sucks, but every day people ride that, or (something similar) to get from Fremont to Ballard. Or they just ride inside Ballard, which is a relatively flat plateau with plenty of side streets and plenty of people and destinations. How about a nice Pronto tour of the various Breweries in Fremont and Ballard? Ya Sure Ya Betcha.

    So, get rid of the helmet law. Get rid of the electric bikes.* Just expand to the areas on this map plus Ballard.

    * Quit trying to reinvent the wheel (or wheels in this case).

    1. RossB

      I should add (now that I’ve looked at the Pronto map) that we also need to increase station density through much of the coverage area. You want an average of around 28 per square mile, even if some of the stations only hold a handful of bikes. Users shouldn’t have to walk more than a couple blocks (or three at most) to a station.

      All of this means spending more money, but that is how you build a successful system. You really can’t open a restaurant with a thousand dollars. You will be out of money within a couple months. You need to spend a bunch of money and lose more for a while before you build the customers to be successful. Likewise with this you need to make a big investment with lots of stations to be successful. Forget the electric bikes and the helmets (which no one to my knowledge is doing) and do what works in other cities.

    2. RDPence

      Good points you make, Ross, on this string. One huge improvement would be shelters for the bikes. More than once I remember walking by a Pronto station in a driving rain, wondering how anyone would want to park their butt on a saddle that’s just endured an inch of steady rainfall. It would still be wet even after a good wiping.

      1. RossB

        That seems like a really cheap thing to fix (little plastic bags over the seats if nothing else).

      2. Gary

        Shelters over the bikes, would seem to help keep the bikes in better repair as well. It would seem to be a win-win.

        The one’s they build for Western up at Bellingham are actually very pretty as well as functional.

  20. William

    “144,000 trips traveling an estimated 335,695 miles” sounds really impressive until you realize that multiplying the 500 bikes it operates by the 450 days it has been in operation gives another large number, 225,000, meaning that each Pronto Bike is ridden on average 2 times in 3 days for a whopping average of 1.5 miles per day. This is absolutely pathetic by any objective measure. Why the heck is the city wasting money on this?

  21. RossB

    Mileage is meaningless. This is a bikeshare system. The standard measurement of the success or failure of a system is the number of trips per bikes per day. Less than one trip per bike per day is pretty bad, but not unheard of. See the chart on this article: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/transportation/bikeshare-research-growth-user-demographics-health-societal-impacts

    The reasons for the poor performance have been discussed here, and there is plenty of evidence to support those theories (poor station density, poor station coverage, experimental helmet program, etc.). This bikeshare program should be fixed, not abandoned. The city should buy them out (it is only a small amount, relative to our transportation budget) and then apply sensible solutions that have worked in other cities to fix the system.

    1. jay

      Perhaps small compared to the total transportation budget, but not so small compared to the bike plan portion of the budget. What part of the budget is this money coming from?

      I think the solutions that have worked the best in other cities is for the cities to have a much larger population than Seattle, and probably significantly higher density. That tends to mean that for a given per capita spending one will have higher station density (a key item) also, even though a small minority of the population is going the be regular uses, if your base population is large enough you sill get a significant number of users. Also being a city where people are not weird if they don’t own a car helps. These are not things Seattle is going to do by 2018, I don’t know if we’d even want to be NYC West.

  22. Law Abider

    1. Put Pronto along select existing, newbie friendly bike infrastructure, like the BGT, where higher income people are likely to use it consistently.

    2. Use money earned from potentially high usage to subsidize lower income neighborhoods with lesser infrastructure and potentially less chance of making money.

    3. Don’t repeal helmet law.

    4. ???

    5. Profit!

    1. jay

      one problem with steps 1 & 2, consistent users are likely to be annual members, there is no net money from annual memberships, public bike share survives on either tourists or government subsidy or some combination of the two.

      Step 3 is moot, there is no political will for that, and for every Frenchman who wrote a paper there are several Americans with MD. after their name who will disagree (even if they have done a study that refutes their preconceived conclusions). I think a better plan is requiring helmets for pedestrians, then everyone will already have their own helmet with them when (or if) they want to use a bike share bike. Also, that will save lives in some of the lower speed
      automobile-pedestrian collisions.

      Steps 4 & 5 are part of a JOKE.

  23. RossB

    OK, reading the document again has me worried. Very worried. From the map, which is admittedly vague, they plan on increasing the coverage area to around 20 square miles. Using the standard recommended station density of 28 per square mile, that means 560 stations. Right now there are about fifty stations, but they plan on adding only 100! That is way too few. They need around five times that many new stations! Adding only a handful is a recipe for failure. It is a symbolic exercise to tell neighborhoods “See, aren’t you happy, there is your bike share”, but it becomes practically useless for most people (as several people on this post have said). You need a lot of station density spread out over a wide area for a bike share systems to be successful.

    I fear that we will create a system that ignores all the research, then fails. People will come up with all sorts of reasons why it failed. They will talk about the rain, or the hills, or a dozen other reasons why bike share was doomed to fail here (or why bike share in general doesn’t make sense). But if this is not implemented correctly — the way all the research says you should implement it — it will fail for that reason, and that reason alone.

    1. Eli

      This is exactly the problem.

      And then you get SDOT leadership using cell phone service as a false metaphor to explain why we need to expand coverage area — which ignoring the fact that he’s really proposing to provide inadequate coverage across a broader geography, instead of actually providing the density to make it work properly in the highest-potential part of the city.

      The extent to which SDOT believes they’re right, while simultaneously ignoring the best research we have available, is disheartening.

      1. William

        Don’t blame it on SDOT. We all voted for an enormous transportation package with no clear priorities on detailed plans but instead a promise for a little bit of this and little bit of that in every neighborhood to appease every voter. SDOT is just following our bidding.

      2. RossB

        Yeah, but William, the amount of money we are talking about is peanuts. It really is in the category of “if you are going to do it, do it right”. From what I can tell, everything here is measured in the millions. Not hundreds of millions, just millions. So spend ten million and really ramp up. Add stations in all the areas. Expand that area to include Ballard. Give up the helmet thing and the electric bike thing (for now). You don’t want to be the leader when you are barely trying to survive. Try to get private sponsorship or even private donations. Again, we are talking about a very small amount of money. Play hard bull. Tell everyone you will have to go big or go home. See if Amazon wants to chip in to save this thing. If Amazon, or Paul Allen, or some other rich guy wants to chip in a few million this thing could easily be built to the standards necessary to be successful. If not, then either pay for it, or give up.

        What I don’t want to see is a continuation of the half-ass measures for which we seem to be famous for these days. We built a streetcar that gets stuck in traffic. We built a light rail line to the UW but forget to put in stations. Do it right or just forget about it.

      3. Andres Salomon

        The Pronto takeover/expansion has nothing to do with what we voted for. The money isn’t coming out of the Move Seattle levy funds; it was in the Mayor’s budget prior to the vote, and appears to be coming from other funds.

      4. William

        @RossB I think you will find that most individual SDOT projects come in at millions but which they do should be based on a careful analysis of what is actually most worthwhile. The Feds didn’t have any trouble deciding not to chip in to Pronto but that is not deterring the city from spending its matching funds. There is only so much money and there are other needs like homelessness where it is desperately needed.

        @Andreas Yes I know that this is not using Move Seattle Levy Funds (the city has not collected any yet) but nevertheless the voters repeatedly deliver a very clear message to the SDOT and the whole of city government that we are willing to support projects based on a worthy concept rather than careful planning and analysis.

      5. Andres Salomon

        @William, I disagree about how SDOT fails on worthy projects. They’re actually really good about careful planning and analysis. I could name a whole host of SDOT projects where the planning/analysis is fantastic.

        However, in those same projects, they will often capitulate to loud voices who are just stomping their feet and WANT SOMETHING NOW. Maybe that’s a loading zone in front of their store, or parking spots to remain on a street, or a politician is upset about something, or a neighborhood association doesn’t want bike lanes. Sometimes, they even seem anticipate these outcries and adjust their plans accordingly- “despite low utilization, let’s not touch parking so that we don’t have to deal with angry people.”

      6. William

        @Andreas “I could name a whole host of SDOT projects where the planning/analysis is fantastic.” – How about just a few?

      7. Andres Salomon

        @William: sure!

        NE 75th road diet. They did traffic counts, they looked at parking utilization, and they put down new striping – all in under 6 months. The review a year afterwards showed that things worked just as their analysis said it would.

        Roosevelt Way PBL. They analysed parking and did a great design*. The businesses got upset, so they analysed parking on side streets and were able to get more added (which is a double win – side streets got more narrow as parking was returned to both sides). They weren’t willing to do a road diet (which is a huge failing, in my opinion), because they wanted to leave options open for the upcoming high-capacity transit study. Their data on that says that the right travel lane will function as a de-facto bus lane. We’ll see what happens there.

        15th Ave/Cowen Pl intersection. I did design for PARK(ing) Day there. They ran with it and made it 100 times better.

        Campus Pkwy PBL. I wish the buffer was wider, and I wish that it extended all the way to The Ave, but overall it’s a great project. The way it meets up with the bridge is really well done. I was concerned about merging conflicts, but everyone goes slow and it feels pretty natural. Of course that will further change as the Roosevelt PBL goes in.. And of course for some reason they were unwilling to do a road diet there.

        Ravenna Blvd PBL. Best PBL in the city, in my opinion. Wide and comfortable. The various turns are handled really well, also. Heading west-bound on Ravenna and turning onto the 12th Ave NE bike lane, you can do it all in one signal phase without ever feeling like you’re risking your life (once you’re in the 12th Ave door zone bike lane, that’s another story). Unfortunately they didn’t have the funding to fix up the Ravenna/Green Lake Dr intersection, but the preview designs that I saw for that looked great.

        I wish I could point to some transit designs from them that I liked, but it seems like they’re still figuring that out. The various BRT (Madison, Roosevelt) plans look underwhelming, but it seems like they’re willing to sacrifice transit speed for keeping parking and general travel lanes.

        * “Great design” for the time. They still need to add protected intersections, but that’s not part of their toolkit yet.

    2. Jonathan Mark

      I think this is a compelling point which makes this plan sound highly questionable.

      From my experience periodically using the Hubway bike share system in Boston, I agree that station density is a key factor in the usefulness of bike share. One use of bike share requires two walks connecting the stations with one’s desired trip endpoints. These walks do not have to get very long before it is not worth the hassle.

      Also, I do encounter failures where the origin station is empty, the destination is full, or one of them is out of service. (Construction near a station may cause that station to disappear temporarily.) It is important to have a general feeling of assurance that another station will be close by. Dropoff anxiety is real.

      1. Gary

        “Station” availability can be solved with a phone App. Check the app, it could tell you how many bikes are docked. If it was integrated with the map app of the phone, it could locate the nearest station to you, and your destination, and give you a suggested bike friendly route.

      2. Andres Salomon

        Unless you can reserve a bike or a space in a dock, that solution doesn’t work. If you’re following the same commute patterns as everyone else, it’s pretty easy to imagine seeing 3 available bikes at a station, and those bikes being gone in the 5-10 mins it takes you to walk to that station. Likewise, if everyone is biking downtown in the morning, multiple spots in a station could fill up between the time you check the app and when actually arrive.

    3. Tim F

      RossB, I also worry that the system will be spread too thin and that’s a great paper, especially p2. However 28 docks per square mile (a world-class statistic) isn’t necessary in this expansion to be successful. Even 8 would be a fantastic start, but many bike shares in this country that are considered successful get by with 4 or 5 per square mile, which is what I think this would be using your estimate (100 docks/20 sq mi).

      The number of new stations and the budget is basically decided for the current expansion. My hope is that we can make the most of it, by considering a mix of population density, business density, cycling infrastructure, transit connections, geography, equity and “fare-box recovery” into account. Stabilizing the network by eliminating the overhead of the nonprofit and retiring the debt should set the stage for future rapid expansion if other cities are any guide. The Bay Area recently announced something like 700 new docks, for example.

      It would be bad if neighborhoods start to squabble and we end with a too-sparse network spread all over the city and only a few places to bike to from any one station. The example map is balancing a lot of factors including population density, business/workplace density, cycling infrastructure, a connected network, transit connections, geography, future expansion, equity, electrification. We can help improve that map during public outreach. Maybe it does need to be slightly more compact, but farther out neighborhoods I suspect take comfort in the idea that the geography is expanding even in a tough year. This expansion looks like it will make the newly Link-connected UW network a minimally useful size and add two more Burke-Gilman neighborhoods. It also seems to be making connection to Link, multi-use trails and density in Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley. It will also be twice the number of docks of the current network, so that many more potential destinations.

      1. Jonathan Mark

        Tim F, that is a good point. I hadn’t noticed that the Boston Hubway system is at a density of 5 stations per square mile according to the NACTO study referenced above, and I perceived that as adequate. The proposed Seattle expansion map does look like about 20 square miles.

        So maybe this isn’t such a bad idea then!

      2. RossB

        Good point. 28 is an aggressive target, and one that most bike shares don’t meet (although if they did, they would be more successful). You do have to be careful about statistics like this. For example, Capitol Bike Share is listed as having 4 per square mile, and it has been quite successful. If you look at the map, it sure doesn’t look like 4 per square mile (https://secure.capitalbikeshare.com/map/). So, as with similar statistics, it depends on where you draw the lines. In this case, they are obviously drawing them to include areas that have a much lower concentration of stations. If you look at the heart of their system, in DC proper, it is way more than 4 per square mile. The key is to look at the map and see if the area it claims to cover is really covered. Can you walk a few blocks to a station. For most of DC, this is obviously the case. For most of our system, it isn’t.

        There are areas with pretty good coverage in our system, like the north end of downtown and the north end of Capitol Hill. But that is about it. Even in South Lake Union there are obvious gaps (nothing on Fairview and nothing on Harrison). These are areas where we need one or two stations, nothing more. But there are also areas that are obviously lacking. South of Pine on Capitol Hill/C. D./First Hill there is practically nothing. One station in one part of Seattle U, one station on the other side of Boren, and one station way down on Yesler. I just don’t see that working at all, despite the fact that is prime for bike share. That is a relatively flat (for Seattle) plateau, with tons of people and destinations.

        It gets worse around the UW. Commenters have independently complained about the density issue. It just doesn’t work for the UW, because there aren’t enough stations. It doesn’t work for the area between the UW and Children’s. It is a about a mile between each station through there. That just won’t work (as Poncho mentioned earlier). These are early adopters who will put up with inconveniences as the kinks get worked out, but it just doesn’t work for them because they have failed to put in enough stations.

        Adhering to an arbitrary and unrealistic metric would be stupid. I agree with that. But the lack of stations within our current system is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. This is what concerns me. I agree that we need to expand, but if we don’t even add the necessary infill stations, it is bound to fail. It is hard to see how a smattering of stations in Greenwood is going to make this a huge success while we fail to add any in First Hill, Capitol Hill or the U-District.

        It is pretty easy to see how adding a couple dozen stations within our current coverage would greatly improve its functionality. That leaves about 80 for the expansion. That isn’t that many given the huge area. If you just took the southern and eastern expansion (the Central Area and Rainier Valley) a D. C. level of coverage would use up all of those. That would leave nothing for the north end of the expansion.

        Speaking of which, I think the neighborhood squabbling is inevitable. I see Ballard being left out, while other areas (closer to me) are included. Why include Maple Leaf and Northgate, but skip Ballard? That doesn’t make sense to me.

        I do fear that we will compromise, and “serve” various neighborhoods, while not having sufficient station density for them to be served well. I think there are two different ways to do this right. The first is to just ask for more money. This is just the way that a lot of businesses work. You need a certain amount of investment before it can be successful. In this case it would mean expanding, with sufficient new stations, as well as infill stations for the current coverage area.

        But if push comes to shove and we are allowed only a certain number of new stations, then I would greatly reduce the area. Do the necessary infill, then expand east and a little bit south in the Central Area. Go east to MLK, and south to Mount Baker. If you can stretch it, stretch it to Fremont, with all stations within a couple blocks of the Burke Gilman (which would reduce the need for new stations). That leaves out large parts of the city (like Ballard or Phinney Ridge) that will surely be popular for bike share, but pick those places up next (in a couple years).

  24. asdf2

    Another problem with Pronto that hasn’t gotten much mention here is the failure to include a simple basket on the bikes themselves. This is a huge deal because, if there’s the slightest thing to need to carry, and don’t happen to have a backpack with you, you can’t ride. Even Houston’s bike share system has baskets on their bikes’ handlebars, and the fact that Pronto doesn’t have the same is just incompetence.

    I guess the bungee cords were supposed to take care of this, but the reality is they are a pain to use and don’t work. Even something as simple as a water bottle or take-out food from a restaurant doesn’t work with the Pronto bungee cords.

    Unfortunately, since the bikes are already there the way they are, this could be rather expensive to fix.

    1. J

      Funny, I posted the same thing at the same time. :) I’m glad someone else agrees!

    2. dreeves

      Baskets are better for certain cases like loose goods, but worse for others (like large items wider than most baskets). I’ve used it for everything from backpacks to small suitcases that would never have fit in a basket. Also good for canvas grocery bags, etc.

      The rack+bungee arrangement is also pretty standard on bikeshare bikes worldwide (have tried paris/berlin/nyc/chicago) — and I find it’s pretty flexible and functional.

      A final note: I know this is an online discussion, but making personal accusations with words like “incompetence” isn’t helpful.

    3. Qbert

      The omission of a simple rear rack for panniers is absurd.

  25. J

    One more Pronto problem I haven’t seen anyone call out: the difficulty carrying things on them. What is with that weird bag holder on the front? If your bag doesn’t fit or you’re carrying something that isn’t the right shape or size you’re out of luck. If I buy a can of soup I can put it in the basket. I can’t put it in anything with that weird thing the Pronto bikes have.

  26. I’ve commented multiple times in the past and my company spent two weeks plus building the following interactive data analysis tools as part of the Pronto Data Challenge:

    * http://mazamascience.com/ProntoDataChallenge

    * http://willleahy.info/bikeshare

    Previous detailed comments:

    * http://seattletransitblog.com/2012/08/15/bikeshare-doesnt-yet-belong-downtown/

    * http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2015/06/08/city-proposes-massive-pronto-cycle-share-expansion/

    I could give am 45 minute, data-intensive presentation about how Seattle is unlike other cities for biking and how the Pronto rollout was doomed from the beginning but I’ll summarize with the following bullet points:

    1) Bike share needs to address a specific problem like “last mile” or “visitor transportation”. The current rollout does not know what problem it’s trying to solve other than “We want bikeshare too!”

    2) The “network effect” being used to promote density assumes that a user is more interested in station distance from point A and B than in the path between A and B. In Seattle, this is reversed. The route is all important! (Think Eastlake or the Ballard Bridge, etc. I will always get across the Ship Canal via the Locks or Fremont Bridge even if the Ballard Bridge is more direct. The BB is a horrible bike route! My point is that routes matter.)

    3) The “casual” riders that bike share is designed for need access to quiet, low-speed, low-gradient paths.

    4) Hills DO matter and Pronto is currently running a “ski lift service” for some folks in Capitol Hill who ride downhill and let Pronto cart the bikes back up. Just look at the data!

    5) Downtown Seattle has density but no “last mile” problem. Downtown has tons of transit and is eminently walkable. Plus, The geographic squeeze means that downtown streets are packed with cars, buses, construction vehicles, trolleys, etc. Biking downtown is not for the faint of heart!

    6) Seattle neighborhoods are where we have a “last mile” problem.

    7) Pronto needs metrics for determining when a station is dysfunctional (i.e. <1 visit per day) and should move those that underperform. Just adding more stations is not the solution.

    Based on these points and other information you can glean from the data browsers, it seems obvious to me that Seattle bikeshare could work if it started over with the following emphasis for station placement:

    A) Put bikes where people already like to ride: Waterfront and Myrtle Edwards, Burke Gilman, Alki, Capitol Hill, Ballard, etc..

    B) Become a "transit extender" by putting a bikes at light rail stations and along safe, "railroad grade" routes radiating from those stations.

    C) Take advantage of the income generated from tourists putting stations where tourists like to visit (see data browser) such as: Waterfront/Myrtle Edwards, Seattle Center, Alki, International District, SLU Park, UW, Fremont, Greenlake, Ballard.

    D) ONLY put bikes in areas where there are at least a couple of quiet, safe, low-gradient side streets or bike paths, i.e. not SLU.

    Seattle IS different from other cities. Geography and topography conspire to create a very dense downtown and neighborhoods that are hard to get between. Bikeshare could be successful in Seattle if it adopted the priorities above.

    1. Eli


      Might you please consider sending your comment directly to CM O’Brien? ;-)

      [email protected]

    2. Herb

      I’m glad someone mentioned ‘data.’ I would like to know what is the maximum number of potential bikeshare users based on a poll across the entire demographic of Seattle. I think we recognize that the greatest share of actual bike riders are young and male. How many of those are there? How many potential adult riders (485,000 in 2015) , living in Seattle, are there: people who would say that, if there were clean, dry bikes available at all point of interest, connected by well-marked routes, I would ride one (daily, thrice weekly, monthly, never).

    3. nettles

      Please email, call, or talk to Mike O’Brien! I am a bike commuter and lover of all things bike, but I don’t think we should bail them out. We need to look at the data and learn from our mistakes and wishful thinking. Something will work, but not Pronto as it stands today!

    4. Seattle’s neighborhoods may have last-mile problems, but which ones exactly are big and dense enough, with enough actual regional transit usage and pedestrian activity, to really make good use of bike-share if the U District isn’t?

      I respect that you’ve looked at a lot of data, but some of your conclusions are questionable. Just because people today check out Pronto bikes to take a joy-ride, then return them to the same station, doesn’t mean you can expand that market without limit. If you can do that, go into business — a bike rental kiosk for tours of Green Lake and Myrtle Edwards is hardly a suitable project for government (or grant-funded non-profits).

      Just because the launch of Pronto (particularly its timing) reeked of me-too-ism doesn’t mean you want to be too specific about its purpose. Great bike-share systems, like great transit systems, like great cities, do more than one thing at a time.

      1. Jonathan Callahan

        The U District sub-network fails because: 1) bikes don’t have baskets; 2) hills matter; 3) poor connections to transit (i.e. no Montlake station); 4) poor focus on non-student needs. (Across the country, students have not adopted bike share as much as people had expected.) The U District stations simply do not meet the needs of commuters who work at UW or UW Hospital.

        My main argument is that we must have some metrics by which we measure whether individual stations or bikeshare as a whole is “working” in Seattle. If it is to remain a taxpayer supported system then someone should be able answer this question: “What problems is bikeshare trying to solve and is it achieving its goals?” I would recommend starting with these:

        1) Bikeshare as a transit extender for comuters.
        2) Bikeshare as a tourist amenity (including cross-town tourists).

        For each specific problem, we need to define “effectiveness metrics” before hand to measure if we are achieving our goals.

        Similarly, we can have effectiveness metics for each station. Here is what I would use:

        stationSucessMetric = A*sponsorContribution + B*annualUsage + C*shortTermUsage – D*rebalancingFactor

        A, B, C and D are weighting factors.

        Thus, a station would be a success if a sponsor pays for it, whether it is used or not. A station would be access if it saw a lot of users. A station would would be less of a success if riders never returned bikes to this station.

        The main thing I’m advocating for is that someone to create some effectiveness metrics for station placement, share the results and move stations that underperform until we discover what sort of system actually does work in Seattle.

        This really shouldn’t be a controversial idea.

      2. Andres Salomon

        Bike share is not on The Ave. It’s on side streets, like 41st and on the 12th Ave NE Greenway (which no one uses because it’s not an actual greenway). Bike share is NOT ON THE AVE. Think about that. How can you expect bike share to succeed in UDistrict when you don’t put it on the biggest destination in the neighborhood?

  27. […] Pronto launched in October 2014 under the ownership of Puget Sound Bike Share, a non-profit organization made up of regional public and and private partners. Pronto riders completed 144,000 trips in the system’s first year of operation as the share filled gaps in the city’s transportation system. Here’s how Seattle Bike Blog puts it: […]

  28. Brian Wood

    102 replies, wow! Great article Tom. I am really impressed with all the substantive comments I have read. I just wanted to add a perspective that doesn’t seem to be represented here so far, that of an experienced cyclist who really appreciated the Pronto service.

    Granting that Pronto’s network was too restricted and that Seattle’s terrain is indeed hilly, I still found the system to be very useful. I lived in an apartment off 7th and Stewart this past summer, during an internship. Each day I went downstairs, carrying my helmet, plugged my green Pronto key into the Stewart Street dock and hopped on a Pronto bike. From there I rode a couple miles to work, docked my bike and didn’t give the commute another thought until 5pm when I returned. At first it took me a bit to get the hang of riding a “Dutch” bike. It isn’t designed for getting out of the saddle and hammering, but if you use the gears and let your legs spin, you would be surprised how well you can climb on a Pronto. I also used the bikes to get groceries, reach public meetings, grab a bite or just wander around a bit.

    I had my own bike and I used it a lot. I used my bike when I wanted a hard work out, or to meet people at White Center. Come to think of it, I rode my own bike almost every day, except to work. One time I decided to use my own bike to grab groceries from a somewhat distant store. I could have used Pronto, but I thought my bike would be faster. I got a flat. My return trip, sans groceries, was not fast. I actually thought of using a Pronto bike and carrying my own, but it didn’t look wise. So Pronto was my near-home solution. For $85 a year (too cheap) I never had to consider bike security or maintenance. I could manage the occasional wet saddle and it was always a nice feeling when I was out somewhere and I could see one of my stations waiting for me in case I needed it. Often, when I was cruising along on my Pronto, I would meet other experienced riders. I think they were surprised that I could keep up with them. Many of the latter riders were curious about the Pronto, as if seeing it for the first time. When I would explain my reason for using it they seemed to see that it could be useful.

    Part of my internship took place in D.C. where I had the chance to use Capital Bike Share every day for a week. Pronto’s network pales in comparison to Capital’s, but I am still a fan Seattle’s tentative foray into the bike share world. Pronto isn’t perfect, (the seats need to go higher!) but it is definitely worth saving. I love the ideas I have been reading here. I would add, more outreach! Everyone needs to try the system, rather than looking at me and wondering what it would be like. There is inertia to anything new. Pronto needs more innovation, too. I love the idea of having some of the bikes be e-bikes, or of Seattle investing in hill climb assists. I also would like to see creative ideas like a different colored bike at the waterfront that gives you a longer rental period so you can ride around the port to Alki, dock the bike, and take the ferry back. Bike infrastructure is number one, but nothing says we value bikes quite like a bike share system. Save Pronto Seattle. I for one will be renewing my membership–even if I live in Oak Harbor.

  29. Jim Smith

    The proforma estimates are, to put it nicely, completely wrong. Pronto overhead would not go away if the city acquires the program. The city will still need employees to run the program. As efficient as the city is, I’m sure they don’t have employees sitting around willing to take on more work with no extra pay. Perhaps the cost gets called something other than overhead, but the cost will still be there. Keep in mind the overhead cost is currently only for two low paid people.

    True the debt service payments would go away, but that doesn’t mean the company will start making money. The program is still unsustainable. Trading debt for grants and city subsidy is not sustainable. The program will only be sustainable if it can “make” money on it’s own from user revenue.

    The proforma presented and discussed here is creatively crafted to trick uneducated people into believing a city acquisition would solve the financial woes of this program.

    To the writer, please be realistic in what you publish. I’m neither for or against the bike sharing program, but what you shared here is grossly negligent.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I just reported that a city official and a presentation to City Council say the system would operate in the black under the city buyout plan. That is true. Our scrutiny of this system is not over, but at this time I don’t have any inside knowledge that the city is lying to the public and to the Council (or that they did their math wrong).

      1. Joyce

        I wouldn’t suggest they did their math wrong, but I do question why they have chosen to user certain numbers….i.e., numbers derived from a regression analysis of other cities’ User Revenues. Why use projections of User Revenue based on other cities when we have actual data for User Revenues from 2015 & 2016 in Seattle from which projections can be made? Actual Seattle User Revenue in Seattle decreased between 2015 & 2016, yet they’re projecting it to almost double from 2016 to 2017, and more than double from 2016 to 2018? While this makes the business case look reasonable on paper, that great of an increase seems a gross overestimation based on what we’ve actually seen in Seattle in 2015 & 2016.

  30. Herbert Curl

    “Operating in the black” means all costs are covered by user fees or bonds and not by city subsidies based on taxes or moving money around in the budget.

  31. Andres Salomon

    Folks who want to see the helmet law repealed: please help by signing this petition.

    It probably wouldn’t hurt to email folks like [email protected] and [email protected] .

  32. […] Pronto needs a bailout. […]

  33. […] 29, 2016 – SDOT asks Council to release $1.4 million from the budgeted $5 million to save Pronto. Public learns about the system’s financial […]

  34. […] payments were included in a slide we published in late January, and looking back I now see that SDOT noted it as “street use funds already […]

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