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A sober look at Pronto’s finances ahead of Council meeting

Slide from February 19 presentation to Council (PDF), red markup mine.
Slide from February 19 presentation to Council (PDF), red markup mine.

The City of Seattle already cut checks in December and early 2016 totaling $305,000 to keep Pronto Cycle Share operational, Josh Feit at Publicola reports. This revelation will certainly be a topic of conversation during tomorrow’s 2 p.m. Transportation Committee meeting about the system.

These 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 utilized.” But this line did not come up significantly during the Council meeting, and it’s budgeted as “revenue” in the bike share system’s budget which puts the presented bottom line in the black.

In other words, the proposed $1.4 million is a buyout, since the city is purchasing assets (and getting a good deal as you will see below). But the $305,000 is a bailout, a cash injection to keep the system afloat.

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The use of these fees was authorized, SDOT’s Barbara Gray told Feit, because street use fees can be used for bike programming. But these funds should be properly located in the system’s figures so we get an accurate picture of the financial situation.

If you move the city’s street use fees out of “operating revenues,” then the “city owned” bottom line is more like -$110,497 instead of $129,503.

The updated budget SDOT will present tomorrow (PDF) also includes SDOT staff time to manage the system, but only at 0.25 FTE (budgeting language for 0.25 of a full-time job). Puget Sound Bike Share, on the other hand, had 2 FTE on staff. It’s worrying that the city only plans to put 13 percent as much staff time into system management. It’s going to take a lot more work than that for the system to succeed.

So if you add in more staff time (let’s say at least 1 FTE at the presented rate), then our bottom line is more like -$215,497. Of course if the city hires extra staff to raise sponsorship funds and win grants like they should, then they could more than pay for themselves and help fill this budget gap.

These more sobering numbers don’t mean bike share isn’t worth saving and expanding. But we can’t have an honest discussion about our options without having clear figures to work with. If we base decisions on fuzzy numbers now, then we’ll just be back in front of Council in a year or so when they don’t pan out.

service areasAs we wrote last week, bike share absolutely can flourish in Seattle. There were human-made mistakes in the launch (the U District satellite is too small and too far from the core, leading to dismal ridership there) and in management (the transfer from the non-profit Puget Sound Bike Share to the city was botched) that are holding it back.

Pile on the added costs for the helmet system (~$84K budgeted in 2016 alone) and reduced use due to the helmet requirement (Seattle is among the only major cities with this law, and the original business plan for Pronto estimated a 30 percent reduction in use due to the requirement), and the results really aren’t a big surprise.

But in the core of the system, ridership is healthy and ready to grow as more stations are added. Add in major planned-but-delayed bike network improvements and the system is poised to thrive.

pronto-bike-network-updatedWe haven’t given bike share a fair shot yet. The city needs to regroup and come up with a realistic plan forward based on actual usage to get the system back on its feet.

And build the Center City Bike Network already so people who don’t want to bike mixed with busy downtown traffic can use the system, too. That may be enough to close the budget gap all on its own.

Buying Pronto is a great deal

Presentation - gettingOne key piece missing from Pronto coverage so far — especially outside Seattle Bike Blog — is that the $1.4 million for Pronto is a killer deal. SDOT’s accounting suggests the city is getting $2.1 million in assets at that $1.4 million price. That’s a $690,000 discount.

Sure, the purchase comes with the caveat that the system could have operations costs going forward (depending on factors we’ve already talked about), so it’s SDOT’s job to convince the Council and Seattle residents that they can manage and expand the system effectively.

Public bicycle transit

Presentation-mapOf course, no other transportation system is asked to cover all of its own operational costs. Buses are subsidized, roads for cars are very subsidized, so why is bike share different?

Well, for one, it sort of said it would cover its costs and then didn’t. So that’s a problem of setting expectations too high.

But as we consider expanding the system, the question of subsidy needs to be front-and-center, especially when discussing equity.

SDOT’s draft expansion plan includes Rainier Valley, an area with a lower density of housing and destinations than a bike share system would typically seek out in order to recoup its operational costs or pull a profit. But if the city is going to invest in bike share, it needs to do so with a lens of access for everyone regardless of race or income. And one way to do that is to put stations in neighborhoods with low-income and diverse populations.

The SDOT plan calls for at least 20 percent of stations to be in low-income neighborhoods, in addition to outreach and low-income membership plans.

Phyllis Porter with Rainier Valley Greenways and Rainier Riders served on the Pronto equity committee and spoke to City Council about her hopes to see Pronto in Rainier Valley to connect with schools and transit (14:10 mark in this video).

For much of the neighborhood, light rail travels on MLK while far more destinations are on Rainier. Most homes are a significant walk from light rail, but within perfect bike share distance. And bike share helps meet healthy living goals that extend beyond transportation and that are worthy of investment.

So rather than trying to get Pronto to break even, perhaps we need to start talking about what goals within Pronto are worth city investment. It’s bad policy to just bail out costs that could be recouped with better management, but it’s good policy to subsidize value for people who need low-cost and healthy transportation options.

Here’s the city’s basic priorities to weigh these goals:

Presentation - density

More details on expansion

Presentation - numbersIf we doubled the number of bikes and stations, the system would see more than triple the number of trips and double the user revenue, according to SDOT analysis. That’s because of the “network effect” that occurs as you expand the service area.

Basically, adding a new station to a network does not simply add one station of value to the system because it also adds value to all the existing stations, too. With each new destination added, all other stations add one more destination to their system’s reach.

It’s the same principal as light rail stations, but on a much more granular level. When U Link opens next month, Capitol Hill Station does not only add value to Capitol Hill. It also adds value to Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley stations that now have one-train access to Capitol Hill. Same with UW Station.

And same with bike share. When we add Fremont to the system for example, that’s not just good for those Fremont stations. Now stations on Capitol Hill or the U District have access to Fremont and become that much more useful than they are today.

When you hear people’s feedback about Pronto, one of the most common is that there aren’t stations where the person is trying to go. Expansion is the only solution to this problem.

SDOT’s plan is to stabilize the system in 2016 and develop an expansion plan they hope to launch in 2017. Later this year, the city will put out a request for bids from operators so the city can analyze its options for expansion.

Presentation bidsThere’s still talk of an e-bike system, but that would likely limit the number of stations the city can buy.

There have been a lot of questions about SDOT Director Scott Kubly’s previous position as President of Alta Bicycle Share (which was bought out by current Pronto operator Motivate after Kubly left to join SDOT). Of course, his previous experience is either an asset to the city or a conflict of interest depending on how you look at it. His experience should help him launch a successful system here, which we need. But it also makes the funding requests look fishy, which is one reason the City Council attached a proviso to the funds during the budget process.

So the bidding process would be open to all operators. But you’d have to think Motivate has a huge head start since we already have 500 of their bikes and 54 of their stations. I guess we’ll see.

Buying Pronto is the city’s best choice

Bike share in Seattle is not a failure, and letting it die after a clearly botched year and four months is hardly good governance. Returning the bikes would put the city on the hook for $1.15 million in grant money we would have to return, according to SDOT figures (the Times Ed Board says Seattle should “give” the stations to the Eastside to avoid grant payments, but the grants are for specific geographic areas and would still need to be paid back by someone. It also seems like throwing in the towel far too early). This is not yet the sunk-cost fallacy (“throwing good money after bad”) because we haven’t fully tried to make our initial investments work. Pronto isn’t Bertha.

The biggest question for Council is not whether bike share can succeed in Seattle but whether we can trust SDOT to manage this system to success. And to be fair, part of the trouble comes because the city threw a Hail Mary with their impressive Federal TIGER grant proposal, but they didn’t get it. It was a high risk play with huge potential gains. Had they won, we would be having a much different and much more exciting conversation right now. But TIGER is just too competitive (of the 629 eligible proposals, only 39 were picked).

So now it’s on SDOT to make the case that despite these hiccups, they are ready to take on the task of bike share ownership. This rough transition hasn’t inspired confidence, but it’s a task the city should be capable of handling.

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66 responses to “A sober look at Pronto’s finances ahead of Council meeting”

  1. ronp

    Great post. Viaduct and Seawall are taking up a lot of money in the SDOT budget. I really wish we had just torn the viaduct down and rebuilt the seawall. So much better to make biking and walking easier.

    Bike share and bike lanes will make the dense areas of the city more livable and pleasant. The more riders, better overall citizen health.

    We need to modify the helmet law to just mandate them for kids/teens.

    1. Law Abider

      “We need to modify the helmet law to just mandate them for kids/teens.”

      No we don’t. If you don’t want to wear a helmet, don’t. But don’t go changing a law on a whim with no data (please don’t cite the Melbourne study) to back up changing said law.

      1. ronp

        Yes, I don’t think the law is that big a deal, but there is plenty of evidence from Copenhagen, etc, that helmet-less urban bike lane riding is perfectly safe.

        More bike riding = less heart attacks, obesity and that counteracts the brain injury/deaths.

        Also no helmet = less risky bike riding behavior.

      2. Law Abider

        The heart attack to helmet ratio study is a theory, if you read it, and doesn’t take into account the human factor. Like the fact that people at risk for heart disease typically don’t get ANY exercise, so removing the helmet factor wouldn’t really have an affect on them riding a bike.

        And I always hear the “no helmet = less risky bike riding behavior” argument. I’ve never seen any data on that, however, based on my observation, there’s not enough correlation between helmets and risky behavior to make any judgements. I will say that those without helmets tend to do other risky behavior, like wearing headphones or not using lights. And the riskiest cyclist stereotype I see is the no-helmet, headphone-wearing, brakeless, lightless, fixie hipster, who disregards all traffic laws and weaves in and out of traffic at will, but you can’t really pin that on him wearing or not wearing a helmet.

        And I’ll see your Copenhagen and raise you an Amsterdam. Nobody wears a helmet there and it’s like a free-for-all there, so again, can’t really correlate no-helmets and safeness.

        I really should start putting my anti-anti-helmet arguments in notepad to copy them at will. I feel like a broken record, but each time the record goes around once, I have to re-groove the record again.

      3. Josh

        Amsterdam, OK, where’s your evidence that Amsterdam’s lack of helmets, or helmet legislation, has a negative public health impact?

        How is it their injury and fatality rates for cyclists are dramatically lower than ours if they’re both helmetless and chaotic?

        Where’s the evidence that Amsterdam would see any benefit from promoting sedentary transportation?

      4. Law Abider

        @Josh I never claimed any of the things you stated. Amsterdam has probably 10-15% of cyclists that wear helmets, but yet they don’t bike safer than Seattle cyclists (for example). Just refuting roup’s “Also no helmet = less risky bike riding behavior.” statement.

      5. (Another) Tom

        “If you don’t want to wear a helmet, don’t.”

        So you agree it should be a choice but still support the helmet law? Something doesn’t add up.

        “I feel like a broken record”

        You sound like a broken record.

      6. Law Abider

        @(Another) Tom:

        Aren’t you cute! But no, it’s just that some people feel so strongly about the helmet law. If they hate helmets so much (the only valid reason for repealing the law in my opinion), they can just not wear them. Of course, they can deal with the consequences (brain damage, tickets, etc).

        And I’m like the Snopes website: it shouldn’t need to exist, but because of people believing false and ignorant information, it does. So I keep coming back with my common sense and debunking of single source and biased studies.

      7. Kirk

        Not wearing a helmet is not an option if you want to abide by the law, as I do. I would advocate to repeal the law for two reasons. Firstly, because this law must inhibit some people to not ride their bike and if they did ride then with increased ridership there is increased safety. Secondly, I believe we should let people choose how they want to live their lives.
        Given the option, I would wear a helmet when I’m commuting and when I’m speeding around on my road bike. I wouldn’t wear a helmet when I’m putzing down to the farmer’s market on a neighborhood greenway with my grocery hauler or going out in my neighborhood for a ride on my vintage three speed.

      8. Law Abider

        See, I understand exactly what you are saying, but if a simple helmet is what’s keeping someone from riding a bicycle, then I think the rest of us cyclists would be better off without them.

      9. Josh

        “Like the fact that people at risk for heart disease typically don’t get ANY exercise,”

        I’d love to know where you pulled that “fact” from…

        But the evidence from decades of peer-reviewed public health research around the world is that very modest levels of active transportation produce dramatic reductions in heart disease, even among overweight smokers with high blood lipids.

        It takes so little cycling to reduce heart disease that most people wouldn’t even think of it as “exercise,” it’s simply a bit faster than walking or driving in a city — the sort of riding you see ordinary people do in street clothes, on upright bikes, without helmets.

      10. Law Abider

        @Josh You’re right, my word choice was poor. I should have stated:

        “Like the OBSERVATION that people at risk for heart disease typically don’t get ANY exercise…”

        Again, I stand by my statement that a helmet is probably extremely low on the list of barriers preventing people with heart disease from bicycling.

      11. RossB

        How about we don’t require them with these bikes? It is pretty obvious when someone is riding one of these things, so enforcement would be easy. They are big and clunky. They aren’t the type of bikes that anyone wants to ride in heavy traffic. Meanwhile, just about everyone else buys a bike, or rents one for the afternoon. In either case, it should be pretty easy to get a helmet along with it. It just seems to be two very different uses.

        Meanwhile, the only study I know about bike share and helmet use suggests that bike injuries (even head injuries) go down as (un-helmeted) bike share use has increased.

      12. Josh

        Amsterdam has probably 10-15% of cyclists that wear helmets, but yet they don’t bike safer than Seattle cyclists

        So, their lower injury and fatality rates are just persistent coincidents, not actually a sign that they’re safer?

        A more likely explanation is that orderliness and safety aren’t as closely correlated as you assume, so their better safety numbers really do reflect better safety despite seemingly-chaotic behavior and disdain for helmets.

  2. Gordon Padelford

    Now that we’ve all had a sober look, if you support buying out Pronto please let City Council know:


  3. ninjaface

    Pronto is worth a bailout, if for no other reason than how it will look–a liberal, flourishing, supposedly bike friendly city in a temperate climate, allowing their bikeshare to go belly-up after so short a time. Especially how little it will cost as a percentage of the budget. I bet a Bertha widget costs more.

    Bikeshare should at least be given a fair chance. Expand it with more stations, but more importantly, expand and improve the infrastructure. Make it fun and safe for a novice cyclist to pedal around, by adding protected lanes that connect to other protected or separated lanes. Once there are a fair number of riders, others will follow suit. Ridership begets ridership from my experience, so there is a chance it could become at least marginally popular .

  4. Tim F

    I ran across an interesting and well-written five-year retrospective on Minneapolis’ Nice Ride system today. It provides a look at what Pronto’s future might look like.


  5. Todd

    We don’t need ’em. Cut ’em loose.

  6. Oscar p

    How does this not mention that we are buying a giant pile of debt? They are claiming we are buying a $2.1 million system for $1.4 million. If that was remotely the case, a private business, who doesn’t answer to a city council, would buy it. Their math lies don’t help their case.

  7. Dave

    I just have to ask this: I’m a “confident and competent” cyclist. Have ridden “seriously” for 45+ years. Downtown Seattle intimidates ME–with a history of nighttime cycling, pack riding, commuting in urban, rural, and suburban settings, much other stuff besides. My antennae go up an extra 6″ when I’m visiting and ride my bike through downtown. How did anyone ever get the idea that unskilled, occasional cyclists wanted to ride in the city of perpetual construction?

    1. ronp

      That is exactly why we need a protected bike lane NETWORK, better sidewalks, traffic calming, woonerfs, etc.

      I ride on 3rd Ave to get to work and it is INSANE, efficient but crazy. We need to think outside the box. Reinvent the city.

      1. Rags

        Well then, let’s spend money on the network instead of the silly wasteful Pronto.

  8. Marge Evans

    as a tax payer in Seattle for over 20 years and and a cyclist. I say, let Pronto go.
    It was a fun experiment. Our needs in this city are enormous. Homelessness, lack of affordable housing, food insecurity. etc., etc. 2003 we spent 5 million dollars on public toilets only to see them sold on e-bay for $2,500 on 2008. I don’t see Pronto being any different.

    1. William

      The Seattle city government now how has lots of money from various sources dedicated to support transportation projects with a commitment to spread it around but only vague plans when it comes to the specifics. It seems almost inconceivable that the Cascade Bike Club lobby will not be able to ensure that we spend a small fraction on the bike share effort irrespective of its merits. As a tax payer you will just have to grin and bear it

  9. Jon K.

    @Ninjaface – how would Seattle look? Like a grown up city. It’d be worse to reinforce the notion that bike share is just for liberal cities willing to loose money.

    Let them go. Repeal the helmet law. Win.

  10. William

    I would be more sympathetic to this article if it included a sober assessment of where the system is.

    “But in the core of the system, ridership is healthy …” – How can about 1 ride per day per bike be described as healthy?

    “Bike share in Seattle is not a failure … ” – Yes it is so far.

    Seattle can pour money into subsidizing bike share and almost certainly will, but until we have better bike infrastructure, can change the helmet law, have better bikes (e.g., a basket to carry things), and are willing to site bikes based on realistic estimates of projected usage rather than on fuzzy ideas of equitable distribution, it is likely to continue to be a lightly used system when compared to high-profile bike share systems elsewhere. To most objective observers that would not constitute a successful system, however much advocates like Tom keep on citing meaningless statistics like the number of times the bikes have lapped the globe.

    1. AJ

      I wholeheartedly agree…

      First comes network, then comes bike rental

  11. Drew

    The impression I get from bike share naysayers is that this is a frivolous system. Personally, I have had several occasions in the last year where a Ponto bike has saved my skin. Coming from the u district to downtown at 5 pm can be challenging and on a couple occasions when I saw that traffic wasn’t moving I opted off the bus and onto Pronto in order to make it to where I was going on time. Not only does it make lots of trips that would require cumbersome bus connections easy, bike share adds resiliency so you have options when you need them.

    Today, most people in Seattle still don’t know where Pronto stations are and until we are more familiar with them and there is a network that more closely resembles the network of places people might want to go. As Tom says, we have a nice nucleus of a network downtown, a stunted undeveloped outgrowth of the network in the u district and we need to expand upon this network to bring this system to a place where more Seattleites will have a chance to see how useful bike share can be.

  12. Pedro

    I’m conflicted on Pronto. I loath taking an anti-bike stance. Maybe Pronto will get more Seattlites on bikes, which would help the cause of improving infrastructure, etc.

    But Pronto feels like the W Seattle Monorail- a distraction from what the city really needs, an integrated system that limks everything together (One big light rail, not light rail + monorail + Street car.)

    I’d much prefer a bike lane on Rainier Ave S than a dozen Pronto station w no safe routes in Rainier Valley.

    On the balance, I’m reluctantly in favor of the city investing in Pronto.

    $10 says Rainier Valley is the last hood to get a station.

    1. Don Brubeck

      What sober look? When will SDOT and Pronto be transparent and honest? When will we see a real cost / benefit analysis for this public investment in transportation comparing it to other choices we can make in spending our limited funds? Is this a better choice than more bus capacity? Street cars? Bike infrastructure? How effective is it in reducing Seattle’s carbon emissions if the cost of bike repositioning by truck is included and bus trips uphill for all those who use it to ride one way downhill? How equitable is the system for low income people and disadvantaged neighborhoods? Could be great, but so far, we are just getting one bit of bad news after another, buried in less than full disclosure, hoping no one will notice.

    2. Don Brubeck

      You’re on. There is actually a plan to bring it to RV. I’m betting West Seattle, South Park and far north Seattle will be way behind Arab, if ever.

  13. RDPence

    Is $1.4m really a valid price to pay for what the City would be acquiring? What would the price be if this was truly an arm’s-length transaction? What figure would an objective appraiser come up with? Maybe someone should order up such an appraisal.

    1. Erik

      Exactly. I trust nobody would since nobody is stepping up to buy it if it were such a great deal. Either acknowledge it is a subsidy needing entity or not and argue on those merits. They keep bringing up this “good deal” theory.

      1. RossB

        As of this writing, every bike share system is subsidized. So no one is stepping up to buy it for the same reason no one is stepping up to buy Metro, or Sound Transit. But that doesn’t mean spending money on projects or service they provide is a bad idea.

  14. Rags

    I am a veteran Seattle cyclist. I love bikes. I want to see more. I am seeing improvement.

    Bike share is not an improvement. It is a waste of money on a flawed concept.

    The problem isn’t terrain, helmets, the city, the board, or the people. It is a fatally flawed expensive thing to do that is not worth the time or the money.

    City leaders need to face the facts. Take a hard look at the bike shares in other cities. They are all really low performing.

    More people are turned on to biking by rentals and the local bike shop. This money would be far better spent improving safety for motorists and cyclists who actually use the system all the time.

    1. RossB

      What do you consider low performing?

      DC Bike share is used by about 6,000 people a day. That isn’t huge, but it isn’t peanuts, either. Link light rail is used by around 40,000. Best I can figure, DC bike share cost around 10 million (although DC didn’t pay all of it). There were expansions, so let’s assume it is up 20 million, including operations. Link cost over 2 billion (not counting operations). It doesn’t take much math to figure out that DC bike share is a much better deal.

      You can do the same sort of math with our streetcars. Bike shares are rarely used by huge numbers of people (New York is an exception) but they don’t cost that much either. Compared to fixing a bridge, digging a tunnel, or just putting down rail on the streets it is pretty cheap. For the cost of the South Lake Union Streetcar we could have a thorough bike share network covering the city, with enough money to fund operations for the next twenty years.

  15. Rags

    I am tired of hearing about the failed TIGER grant. Anyone who was banking on that was seriously missing something – it is a huge case of misguided wishful thinking. Those grants are highly competitive. Seattle has already received more than a fair share of those grants. There was no way it could have seriously counted on getting that grant to save Pronto with all of its readily apparent problems, which unfortunately now appear to include a serious conflict of interest by the people running SDOT.

    There seems to be more wishful thinking about the possibilities of success for this bike share model than actual serious thinking about the real prospects and the actual bottom line.

  16. btwn

    I use pronto all the time — at least 3 times/week, just to get around the city. Used it yesterday. It fills real gaps in our transportation network.

    I’ve been involved in a number of startup businesses, and can attest that sometimes promising things don’t start off very quickly.

    Startup costs for something like this are very high, and both financially and in terms of organizational inertia; so before shutting it down, I’d want to see it really get a fair go. And relatively speaking, the dollar amounts involved are pretty small.

    Note that bike share systems are successful in other cities with much worse weather than seattle (berlin/chicago/boston) — the big variable here are the hills.

    But e-bikes are just getting going, and prices are coming down fast. So with some patience and investment, i could see it taking off here.

    1. are there spots in seattle where we could consider it a success? what’s unique about those?
    2. If it works, does it benefit the city as a whole, and not just the riders individually? How? What are those benefits worth?
    3. Has anyone surveyed pronto users – tourists and residents – to see what their satisfaction is like, and barriers?
    4. Has anyone surveyed non-users?

    Finally – although I am a big believer in social equity, I think it’s misplaced at the top of a list of priorities. Job #1 is to make the system work for *someone* – and trying to make it work for everyone right off the bad will cause its failure. Better to start with a group of real believers, and broaden from there.

    1. RossB

      Bike share was worked in hilly areas as well (Montreal). The key with all of these is station density and, to a lesser extent, bike infrastructure. That is why it has failed in the U-District. There is nothing wrong with that area, but you can’t put a handful of stations and expect people to use them. There is no point. Why would you walk five blocks to ride seven?

      1. btwn

        @Rossb – thanks for the response. Montreal isn’t anywhere near as hilly as Seattle. There’s much less variation in the terrain going from neighborhood to neighborhood — under 20m, as compared with Seattle’s 80m+ to climb up to capitol hill from, say, pioneer square. It’s a big difference.

        Check out topographic-map.com, and make sure to zoom in to see the details.

        My broader point is that I haven’t yet seem anyone clearly articulate what’s working well, and actually go and find out the details about what’s not. Would

      2. RossB

        I agree. I’ve been to Montreal, and I’ve looked at the topo maps. Seattle has some very nasty hills, while Montreal has basically one (and they called it a mountain and named their city after it). But like Montreal, we have plateaus, and we have some gently sloping hills that people would avoid going up, but enjoy going down. For example, the area north of Ballard is like that. I used to bike up 8th NW after work, and it was a killer. Nothing too steep, but man, it just goes on forever. There is no way I would ride that on Pronto — I would take the bus. But that wouldn’t stop me from riding the bus, then heading east or west a few blocks, which is what Pronto is good for. Same with the U-District, or Capitol Hill, or the Central Area, or South Lake Union, or First Hill, or Fremont. Bike share isn’t about Greenwood to lower Fremont. It is about a trip in lower Fremont or a trip in Greenwood (both are which are great on a bike). To a large extent, like Montreal, the big hills don’t have that many destinations (First Hill is an exception). Halfway up Queen Anne or Phinney Ridge you don’t have much. But up on top or down below is where bike share makes sense. In other words, even if you flattened the city (more than we have flattened it) you wouldn’t get that many more bike trips.

        As far as research goes, I know of no study that suggested topography was a major factor in the success or failure of a system. This may be in part to the fact that San Fransisco (and California in general) is just getting started. But what they all say that the number one key to success is station density. The research is out there, and it is pretty clear in that regard. Other factors include bike infrastructure (people want to feel safe biking). There has been a study that connected bike share use with public transit, so it stands to reason that good public transit is also a minor factor. I’m sure when San Fransisco and some of the other super hilly cities get into the game, we will find that hills are a minor factor. But it doesn’t seem to be a factor with smaller hills like Montreal (there are plenty of places in Montreal where I would rather walk than ride a cheap bike up a relatively gently sloping hill). The biggest factors are still station density and coverage. If you draw a circle around where Pronto stations are, we have barely enough coverage, but we have grossly insufficient station density.

  17. Matthew Snyder

    The potential conflict of interest around Kubly doesn’t look great, especially with the revelation of the payments that have already been made, and frankly the revolving door aspect of it does seem to be the kind of thing we’d likely be making a stink out of if the situation were slightly different. If the city takeover passes, it’s good to see that there will be the opportunity for competitive proposals from operators.

    But I’m not sure I understand how this “proviso” that you mention would actually work. Would a bidder be required to support the existing bikes and stations moving forward? Can another operator actually do that, or does this in effect lock in Motivate as the operator for the system expansion? Could the operator scrap the existing stations and go to a docking station-free model, like the upcoming Portland rollout, or use a different bike/docking station technology? It seems like the decision to acquire or not acquire Pronto’s debt and equipment should be made in conjunction with the decision about the equipment supplier/operator for the expansion, not separately.

  18. AW

    I love the idea of a bike share system and would certainly use it if it were feasible. But from what I can see about how the stations were located and how the system is run, IT STINKS. Stations are chosen not by actually thinking about what a real network should be but based on political decisions. Is there any expectation that this will be different ? I think the state gave a pile of money for this to Bellevue – I can’t see how it would be successful there. And the operating payments and role of Kubly in this also doesn’t smell right. Finally how is the system going to even be run by going from 2 full time people to .25 people ?

    I have no doubt that bike share could really succeed here. But I have lots of doubt that the political environment and people running it now know how or care to make it succeed. Let it die now and try again later.

  19. ronp

    People, the SDOT budget is $400,000,000 a year (good chunk is viaduct and seawall — $130 million?).

    $1.4 million plus annual subsidies of maybe $900,000 is nothing. More stations in the right locations will fix bike share.

    Anecdotally I am seeing more Pronto bikes being used in the past month or two.

  20. Rags

    Comparing Pronto to the entire budget of SDOT is ridiculous.

    It is already wasting significant money that could be far better spent on making cycling safer all over the place for all of us.

    Spending more money on Pronto will take money away from much more valuable things that matter to the growing number of people who actually bike frequently. It won’t take a dime away from the tunnel or the sea wall.

    It is pretty sad commentary that one of your reasons for pouring good money after bad is that you finally have noticed some bikes being used. I have seen a few being used too. But mostly I see large numbers of bikes wasting on nice racks. (Downtown could really use tons more standard racks for the people who actually ride.)

    I am not aware of any bike share that has been a success. I get that some people love the concept, that a few people use the bikes. But there’s no data that show the cost benefit compared to other useful things.

    And for a city like Seattle, which is seriously behind on high priority bike improvements,

    it is a terrible waste.this Pronto

    1. ronp

      Bike share needs to be in a city for a longer time than Pronto has existed. Compared to other public transportation expenditures Pronto costs hardly anything and has real benefits (but needs a better protected bike lane NETWORK to go along with it).

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/bike-share-programs-are-expanding-worldwide-are-they-successful/2015/05/22/59c93cba-ff23-11e4-8b6c-0dcce21e223d_story.html — yes bike share needs to be monitored and evaluated annually.

      There is nothing wrong with comparing bike share cost to other infrastructure (Sound Transit 2016 budget = $1.2 billion, Metro King County = $1.4 billion), bike share is a small amount to spend to make the city more livable, friendly, and pleasant.

    2. RossB

      There are plenty of cities where bike share has been successful. New York, Chicago, Boston, Montreal, D. C.. Compared to other public transportation, it is a good value. It isn’t used by a huge numbers of people, but it doesn’t cost that much. I would say a 10 million dollar investment will get you around 10,000 riders a day, or $1,000 per daily user. It is very hard to get that kind of success out of any type of public project. Link, for example, carries around 40,000, but cost about 2 billion, or around $50,000 per user. Our streetcar is even less efficient. Even this bike share, which is horribly inefficient by bike share standards (because they didn’t make a big enough investment) is cheaper per user than both Link and the streetcar.

      It gets much trickier to figure out the overall value of a system. How much time is saved versus the alternative? In the case of mass transit, has it allowed bus restructures which have then increased frequency (and thus saved more people time). Bike share leads to more public transit use, so this would have to be measured. Do improvements in transit (and bike share) lead to fewer parking spots, and thus a change in construction? Does that lead to more affordable, more efficient housing and businesses? This is all very complicated, and probably would require making value judgements. But the long and short of it is that it has proven to be a reasonable value when applied correctly. If you have enough stations, it can be used by a fair number of people (millions a year) while not costing that much.

  21. Ballard Resident

    I used bike share in DC while on vacation. I though it was a fantastic way to see that part of the city and very convenient. Traffic wasn’t that bad and easily avoided by riding through the Mall. Not at all like riding in downtown Seattle.

    Last fall I took a trip to Denmark and was able to experience their bike infrastructure. While in Copenhagen I rode around that city with no helmet. It was fantastic. Most cycle paths/tracks are raised off the rode and are on each side of the street. I felt very safe riding there unlike I do on Seattle’s limited and badly designed infrastructure. They also have a bike share system with ebikes but it’s not well used.

    Although I work downtown I’ve never used a Pronto bike. I don’t need to since everything is within walking distance. I really can’t imagine riding around downtown on a bike. It just isn’t safe. I do commute by cycle and for me the safest route in and out of downtown is via the waterfront, although these days SDOT has made that area an even bigger mess with little thought for pedestrian and bicycle safety.

    As long as bike share stays focused on downtown, it’s doomed until the city creates a much better biking infrastructure there.

    1. RossB

      I agree, to a certain extent. I do think that focusing on just the busiest part of downtown isn’t likely to work. The big avenues are two scary and the streets are too steep.

      On the other hand, their are parts of downtown (or greater downtown) where I think they could work really well. Pioneer Square, for example, or South Lake Union. I also think that the greater Capitol Hill/C. D./First Hill area is also a very good place for bike share. The key in all of these respects is to have a bunch more stations. It would work out great for the area “covered” north of the canal (UW to Children’s) if there were enough stations, but there aren’t (there are very few in the U-District, the UW, and none at all in the U-Village).

      This is why the approach that Tom suggested might work. If you draw a circle around the area south of the canal, it is a decent sized area, with plenty of attractions, just insufficient station density (e. g. just three stations between Pine and Yesler east of I-5, despite the fact that it goes down to Yesler). Fill in those gaps and this will become a lot more successful.

  22. So Pronto can be managed with one quarter of a single staffer’s time, according to the budget. But high-level personnel like Kubly are spending time already figuring out the buyout, and Kubly promises to go over every station location? Is that really a quarter of a single staffer’s time? Or is Pronto going to borrow staff (and high-level management attention) from projects necessary to its survival, like our already-delayed downtown bike network?

    The downtown bike network is more important to the future of cycling in Seattle than Pronto is. In fact, I’ll go further: the downtown bike network is more important to Pronto’s success in 2020 than operating Pronto between 2016 and 2019 (*)! But our high-level officials are spending their time on Pronto, without a word about the downtown bike network. I want Scott Kubly reassuring us that we’ll have a comprehensive downtown network built by 2019 or so, as promised, that this new “Center City Mobility Plan” isn’t an excuse to water down that promise. That doesn’t even seem to be on the radar.

    (*) Considering the city’s expansion plans, the same could be said of other infrastructure improvements. “Accessible Mount Baker” comes to mind, considering the city’s proposed Pronto expansion to the Rainier Valley and the total lack of a bike network connecting its commercial areas — and “Accessible Mount Baker” doesn’t even have a planned starting date!

    1. Kirk

      Interesting idea popped into my head reading your comment. If Seattle isn’t ready for Pronto right now due to a poor network (or helmet laws, etc.), would it be possible to mothball Pronto until the network could be completed?

      1. RossB

        That’s a very good question. I’ve said over and over that I would like us to do one of two things: Either buy it out and allocate enough money for it to work well, or give up (for now). Giving up for now might mean mothballing it. It might mean selling it off to another city (Bellevue). Then, at some later date, starting again. DC did this and it worked out well.

        I could easily see just waiting until the next transportation levy. That would have a lot of advantages. First, it would allow us to allocate enough money. I’m afraid that if we bail them out, then ask for a bit more money, then a bit more, there will be a lot of complaints. If we don’t ask for enough money, it will fail. I figure around 10 million is enough to get a good starter program going. Second, that kind of money is not that much compared to the overall levy (we spent about 90 times that much last time) so I doubt anyone would make a big deal about it. Third, it would give us enough time to build up our bike as well as public transportation infrastructure. Both play a secondary, but significant role in the success of bike share programs (station density and coverage area is the most important factor). We are building both right now. Not only bike improvements, but transit. Link is moving along, and the city is making improvements that may be just as big, and get here a lot faster. For example, Madison BRT could easily play a part in successful bike share plan because the entire area that is covered is close to popular destinations.

      2. Yeah, of course stopping and restarting is possible. Pronto should have the capital to be able to remove all its stuff, and even starting over from nothing launching and operating a bike share system isn’t all that expensive. Of course if there’s mothballing to be done and it’s the city doing the mothballing that’s yet another unfunded mandate. And our city’s history of keeping things around until we’re ready for them points out the risks inherent in this. The I-90 express lanes as railroad-in-waiting seem to be working fine; the original train tracks in the DSTT were never used; as for the remaining mothballed Melbourne PCC cars for the Benson Line… that history is yet to be decided.

        Speaking of history, PCC streetcars, and city buyouts… let’s think of Pronto’s situation in light of the transit company buyouts that occurred in so many cities throughout the 20th century. One great quotation comes to mind, from Marx: “… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

  23. JB

    Here is my #1 question about Pronto – why on earth don’t the bikes have locks? Yes I know the system is predicated on regular turnover of bikes, and they don’t want people locking up a bike while they go to dinner and a movie. But when you have two items to grab in the grocery store, it would be much more convenient to lock your Pronto bike outside, and then resume your trip a few minutes later. Someone at Pronto needs to take a look at this, and understand that the bikes are going to be a lot more convenient for typical urban errands if they can be secured for a few minutes.

    1. Tim F

      The Whole Foods in SLU for example has a dock across the street. You dock the bike (which locks it) and check out another one when you’re done shopping. The system is designed around a certain density of docks and grocery stores (and other retail, such as REI or downtown stores) are a great place to put the docks. Pronto mechanics and users need to be able to find the bikes, and where they find them is at docks which are at fixed locations. Portland will be deploying a “4th generation” bike share system with GPS-enabled smart bikes (as opposed to smart-docks) with on-bike locks, but that technology is very new and I don’t think it was even available when Pronto was launched.

      1. RossB

        Yeah, the fact that you want a lock shows that Pronto isn’t designed right. There should be one outside every grocery store (of the coverage area).

      2. TimF

        I agree more docks would make it much more useful. If a dock is present I’m more likely to stop and shop. When I’m commuting on my personal bike, fiddling with the lock, wearing cleats and bike clothes is all too much of a hassle vs. dock and go. Eastlake for example has almost no docks, so I stopped running short errands there.

      3. JB

        I certainly agree that there should be more docks, but it’s not possible to have a dock in every place where it might be convenient to step away from your bike for a few minutes. For that matter, there are times when you might need to lock a bike up for a few hours and just pay the cost – but isn’t that what the accelerating pay scale is for? Pronto is leaving a lot of untapped money and utility for its users by not providing locks.

  24. RossB

    I’m not sure what I would do if I was on the city council, but I know I would do one of two things:

    1) Buy this, and find the money to do it right. By my estimation that means around 10 million dollars. There should be around 100 stations between 520 and I-90, west of I-5. There should be fifty stations or so west of I-5 (South Lake Union, Lower Queen Anne and downtown). North of the ship canal, there should be around fifty, all east of I-5, in the area they roughly cover right now. Whatever money is left over should just be banked for future expansion, or small sets of stations in other areas (e. g. a set of stations along the Burke leading to Fremont). That will be much more “foot in the door” coverage, which will help lead to induced demand. The areas with heavy coverage will be popular, while the areas on the fringes (the areas with light coverage) will ask for more stations. Those will be easier to justify once the thing is working, which will be easier to show when the core areas have sufficient station density.

    2) Just give up for now. Tell the city that you just don’t want to make the investment in bike share right now. Pronto was not a bad idea, but like the first bike share system in the country, it just wasn’t big enough. Explain that it has nothing to do with our hills or our weather (since plenty of bike share systems are very popular in areas with worse weather and similar hills). It has everything to do with how much money was available for investing. If a donor had come forward with more money, it would have worked, but no one did*. We will try again later, and allocate sufficient resources to make this successful. In the meantime, our bike paths and bike infrastructure will improve, as will our public transit. Both will help a new bike share system be successful, when it is reintroduced.

    * It is weird that no rich benefactor has come forward. Paul Allen could come up with ten million easy. That is way less than he was willing to spend on the Commons, and it is way less than was spent on the silly streetcar (which is used by fewer people per dollar than Pronto — even though Pronto is considered a failure at this point).

    1. Tim F

      The thing is, I completely agree with #2. At some point in the next few years we will do it right with more capital investment.

      As far as #2, the price difference between shutting down the current system and not shutting it down is probably less than the cost of all the meetings they’re having about whether to do it. If we toss out what we have now, we’ll just have to repeat the learning experience all over (and the vendor will have to rehire personnel such as the mechanics and re-balancing staff). The non-profit entity failed and is definitely going away, but the actual bike network is operating on par for a network of its size and not costing much if any money. Keeping it running until 2017 when it can be expanded makes way more sense than tossing it and starting from scratch four or five years down the road. Several of the biggest bike share systems in the US were this same size and getting just as many rides only a few years ago (2013, 2014).

      As for #3, there is private sponsorship money (https://www.prontocycleshare.com/partners). I’m guessing more sponsors will be announced after the takeover given the names of companies that have been mentioned during the City Council meetings.

  25. Anthony

    Ultimate failure, that seems to be the point of this blog supporting Pronto (what a horrible name, btw).\

    We go over and over this like a person checking their lottery ticket to see if they have won and full well knowing they lost, as usual.

    Dump Pronto, get people onto their own bikes and make the City Council and Mayor get their asses out of the car and onto a bike or slither into City Hall with sweat and real exercise so they know what they are actually talking about instead of spending the public’s money like they don’t care, because they love to spend YOUR money but certainly not their own.

    So, what was this good deal we’re getting then? Hmm, how much is it going to cost next year per rider since we know they ahve already doled out cash.

  26. Kathy Dunn

    I noticed a substantial number of the people at the City Council meeting on 19 February who were commenting in favor of not closing down Pronto were older women.

    I am one of those older women, a Pronto annual keyholder, who testified in favor of keeping Pronto going.

    In 1996 upon returning to Seattle from living overseas 15 years and finding how bad Seattle traffic had become, I quickly discovered that the most efficient way to get around Seattle was by a combination of bike and bus. However, I have noticed that after 20 years of doing this, lifting that bike multiple times per day on and off those poorly designed bus racks is getting more difficult and even painful. Sometimes all the racks are full and your only choice is to lock your bike to something at the bus stop hoping it will be there when you return. The racks are definitely not designed to be used by anyone with shoulder issues, and they will never meet the demand for moving bikes around the city at the mode share levels we would like to see for bicycles.

    Now Sound Transit is talking about limited space on Link for bikes once the two new stations open and ridership grows. ST is considering banning oversized bikes (cargo, etc) outright on light rail. ST is having difficulty meeting bicycle parking demands near their stations. Metro doesn’t seem at all interested in having bike parking at their Rapid Ride stops.

    For these reasons, we need bike share stations in Seattle. It is not bike rental, get your head off that notion. It is on-demand non motorized transportation connecting the missing links in our motorized public transportation systems. Its limited launch has been mildly successful, with a better farebox recovery than any of our other forms of public transportation. It is needed to meet bike transportation demand in the city, not only for tourists, but also for citizens like me who own a bike, but are slow riders, and may not want to ride their bike all the way downtown or lift their bike on and off the bus. Personal bikes are great for getting around within our far flung neighborhoods where bike share may never be implemented. They are great for the athletic cyclists who think nothing of biking 40 miles each way to get to central Seattle, have a safe place at their office or destination to store their bike, and those who have no problem quickly lifting their lightweight (and probably expensive) bikes on and off the bus racks or hanging them overhead on the light rail hooks. But you will never get enough people doing that in the city to bring the bike transportation mode share levels up to where we need them to justify the bike infrastructure we keep demanding.

    Killing Pronto will be a very shortsighted move for those who have any interest at all in increasing bike mode share, improving bike infrastructure in Seattle and reducing our carbon footprint. Those Pronto vans emissions are nothing compared to the many people leaving their cars home because they now have a convenient and active transportation option to get around town.

    Keep it going until it can be expanded at the earliest opportunity, or we will lose the enormous amount of effort it took to get the system launched, and and there will be an uphill battle getting support to start a new bike share system from scratch.

  27. […] at least it should be. With so much of our coverage of Pronto focusing on problems with management and reasons ridership fell short of projections, […]

  28. […] that goes foul. Then instead of trying again, you quit because you didn’t hit a home run. As we have reported, Pronto’s limited size and split system was doomed to come up short. The answer isn’t […]

  29. […] this is the second major piece of SDOT’s projected Pronto budget that has needed scrutiny. As we reported back in February, SDOT’s initial budget showed the system in the black for 2016 under city ownership. But it […]

  30. […] already reported on the series of unfortunate political and bureaucratic missteps and unforced errors that led the system to this point. Without […]

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