Pronto Cycle Share turned two years old last week, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of celebration.
At this point, the system has spent more time operating in a state of uncertainty and controversy than it has operating normally. And that uncertainty has had a huge impact on membership and ridership. After all, few people are going to invest $85 for a year pass if they are not even sure the system will exist for that year.
We’ve already reported on the series of unfortunate political and bureaucratic missteps and unforced errors that led the system to this point. Without corrective action, there’s no reason to expect this downward spiral of bad press and declining membership to fix itself.
While the city negotiates and plans for an all-new expanded and electrified system, there seem to be three options for the existing system: Shut it down in January, continue operate at a loss, or reimagine the existing system to try out new ideas. The Council needs to choose which option to pursue in coming weeks before voting on the 2017-18 budget.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold — with the strong support of Councilmember Tim Burgess — took a big step towards killing the current system Wednesday, proposing a change that would redirect the $600,000 for 2017-18 Pronto operating funds to go to biking, walking and school safety projects instead (see the discussion starting at 23:20 in this video).
“The replacement bid that has come in does not include funding for operations,” Herbold said, referring to the leading bike share expansion proposal by the Quebec-based Bewegen. So her redirect of funds would not necessarily impact a relaunched system.
But the existing Pronto system does need those funds. The new system is aiming for a spring/summer 2017 launch, but that timeline may prove too tight. If the launch slips too far into summer, the city will (wisely) hold the launch until spring 2018. Pronto was supposed to stay in operation until a new system is ready to launch.
In the meantime, people are still taking thousands of trips every week on the bikes. While that may not be enough trips to make the system financially solvent, those trips do matter. Shutting the system down in January would create a gap in service as long as a year and a half, and that could drive users away and make it harder to relaunch. It was not discussed, but warehousing the equipment will likely cost money, too.
Though Herbold did not specifically say during the meeting that she wants to kill the existing system in January, that’s what her proposal would do. Councilmember Burgess was a bit more direct.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know why we don’t shut down the system today,” Burgess said.
Councilmember Harrell also said bike share is not a high priority.
“At some point we’re adding, adding, adding — and I have some adds that I like as well — but at some point we will need to prioritize these key investments,” Harrell said.
There are two Council changes to the Mayor’s bike share budget on the table for a vote next month. One would expand the existing proviso so that any new city money headed to bike share needs City Council approval first. There seems to be little opposition to that idea, even getting support from Transportation Committee Chair Mike O’Brien.
It’s not clear, however, how much support or opposition there is for Herbold’s plan to kill the system in January by redirecting its operating funds. Unfortunately, this means there could be yet another Council showdown over Pronto when budget changes come up for a vote next month. And support on the Council is obviously weaker now than it was in the winter.
“I am ambivalent at this minute about the bike share program,” said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who supported the buyout in early 2016. She supports what she called the “two-wheeled transit system” that Seattle could have.
“On the other hand, I feel very strongly that we invested good money in Pronto, and it wasn’t utilized anywhere near as much as was advertised, as I feel we were promised,” she said. She emphasized the need for safer bike infrastructure in addition to a better bike share system. “It’s not an ‘either/or,’ it’s an ‘and.'”
Experimenting with the existing system
Then Bagshaw threw out a new idea: Instead of killing the system or having it hobble along as is, what if we use the equipment to experiment and try new ideas.
“To the extent that we can use Pronto in a way that we can capitalize on a good strategy, such as if we were to take the Pronto bikes and rather than selling them for cents on the dollar, put them at places where we have light rail and experiment with that. Try something different before we sell it.”
Though the city is likely to get a much better price for the equipment than “cents on the dollar” (SDOT’s Andrew Glass Hastings says there is “lots of interest” from prosepctive buyers), she makes a good point about trying new ideas with the equipment we have.
The city is already seeing good results from some recent system changes. The move to UW Station has led to a 400 percent increase in use, according to Hastings. Moving a station to Pier 66 has led to a 300 percent increase in use. Better use of the existing equipment can have a big effect.
And to further backup Councilmember Bagshaw’s point, there is still no Pronto station within view of any downtown transit tunnel entrance (except the bus-only station at 9th and Pine). There are stations nearby, but that’s just not good enough. Many system supporters (including this blog) have been calling for stations closer to transit entrances since it launched.
But the system’s problems go much deeper than simple station moves. The existing financial model is now doomed. There are essentially two ways to access the system today: Buy an annual membership for $85 or buy a short-term pass for $8 per day. This isn’t working. The city needs to recognize that with the system’s future uncertain, many members are not going to renew.
On the other hand, one of the most consistent complaints about the system is that the cost of entry is too high. You can’t take any rides for less than $8. That price is not working, since the number of day pass users is not growing, either.
An $8 day pass makes sense for other systems where you can reasonably expect to get your money’s worth, since there are bike share stations seemingly everywhere. It’s a screaming deal in New York City or Chicago or Washington DC, for example. But Pronto’s service area is just so small, the odds are very good that much of a person’s daily itinerary is out of range.
So what if the city added a per-ride price? In addition to the existing options, imagine you could also buy a single bike share ride for about the same fare as taking transit: $2.50 for a 30-minute ride (this is what it costs to ride Portland’s Biketown bikes). Or hell, how about $1? I don’t know if this would make more money, but if marketed well it would likely get more riders. And at least some of those new riders would likely become members of the relaunched system.
And remember, the existing Pronto equipment is not defunct. The bikes, docks and kiosks all function very well. The problems are in the system.
We could also try some more experimental ideas. What if we moved a couple stations to Columbia City, connecting the business district to the light rail station? It would be rather unconventional, sure, but it could also become popular. It’s an annoyingly long walk, which makes it a perfect bike share ride. And we could learn a lot about demand there, since future expansion plans include Columbia City.
What if we moved a station to Fremont? Again, it would be unconventional to have an outlier station like that, but it’s already common to see Pronto bikes in Fremont even without a station. So give the people what they want! And really, what is there to lose by trying? It would also give Pronto users a way to take advantage of the new Westlake bikeway.
In other words, let’s make lemonade. Let’s make serious changes to the system and try out new ideas before selling it. We can maintain service continuity for users (many of whom have already paid for service beyond January), reach new users through new pricing and station locations, and learn some valuable real-world lessons for the future system.
If you have any ideas for how to get more out of the 54 stations and 500 bikes we have now, let’s hear them in the comments below.
I think Bagshaw is has the right approach – do some experiments and find out what works. In fact, we already have some data and a lot of opinions. We could do somethings right now. For example:
Using the existing equipment, reduce the service area and make it work better for the remaining areas. One such area would be Fremont – South Lake Union or perhaps SLU & Belltown. There is a huge potential for riders to go between the two areas and reduce car usage in this gridlocked area. And they are relatively flat. Another winner could be Capitol hill and First Hill. And, of course, the UW. I purposely left out downtown. The hills, the lack of infrastructure.
On paper, it’s a no-brainer to create a bike share system that would be used 10X or 100X more than what we have today.
1. Create a rapid protected bike lane from downtown to SLU/Amazon
2. Work with their new progressive transportation mgr to give all Amazon employees a great deal on Pronto membership (pennies on the dollar, U-Pass style)
–> You now have a faster, more reliable, more enjoyable means of getting the tens of thousands people from downtown public transit/light rail to those SLU jobs.
Why should Amazon get some 90% off deal for a bike share we all own and pay for? If I had a 90% off membership, I’d definitely join and use Pronto every now and then.
I’d hope Eli meant that it’d be subsidized by Amazon, not by all of us.
It’s the same thing as U-Pass. If you give 20,000 people bulk subscriptions, you can do it at a fraction of the cost because most of those people will never use it.
Also, it’s just Business 101 to jumpstart a customer by giving them a heavily discounted initial subscription while the value is untested.
Putting them *where people might actually find them* is a good start.
1. Move the station at 2nd and Lenora to the side of 2nd Ave with the bike lane?
2. Move the station near 5th and Olive off of a random pedestrian island that’s surrounded by terrible traffic and streetcar tracks?
3. Surround Seattle Center- can we get them on the campus?
It’s a shame that they screwed this up so badly that we could lose bike share all together. I seriously think if they added a few stations along the burke they could double the number of users and especially in Fremont. This really is not very difficult to figure out. I keep buying yearly memberships even though the stations are nowhere near my home or office just to help it stay in business.
At this point I’m ready for someone to put Pronto out of its misery. But, as long as we’re talking about moving stations, I’ll remind folks of some of the alternative station placement ideas that existed before Pronto’s disastrous rollout.
Here’s my comment in this very blog from August 16, 2012:
As much as I would like to promote bikeshare in Seattle I think the plan has the rollout entirely backwards. There is no “last mile” problem in downtown Seattle. Look at the map! The downtown core (First to Sixth Ave.s, Westlake to Yeslter) that has most of the bikes is:
1) 1/3 mile wide and 1 mile long
2) very high vehicle traffic
3) very high pedestrian traffic
5) well served by transit
6) eminently walkable
The business plan did a “heat mapping” exercise to identify the best area to begin a bike share program: “High demand areas were identified through a heat mapping exercise that allocated points to where people ‘live, work, shop, play, and take transit’.”
Unfortunately, they forgot to include: “and where a final destination is too far to walk yet safe to bike to”.
I have used Capitol Bikeshare in DC and absolutely love it but Seattle is nothing like DC in terms of geography. Riding a bikeshare bike from the Mall up the relatively gentile incline to Adams Morgan is not something for casual riders. A bikeshare system in downtown Seattle would inevitably become a “coasting system” involving a lot of one way rides from the Capitol Hill and Lower Queen Anne to downtown in the mornings and then from there to Pioneer Square in the evenings.
For anyone that lives in Seattle neighborhoods the problem is not getting downtown or getting around in downtown. The problem is getting CROSS TOWN and getting the last mile home from at the end of your downtown commute.
Here’s an alternative rollout for bike share that has many fewer problems and a much higher likelihood of success than a downtown rollout:
Connect the U District with Ballard
1) employment centers at the UW, UW hospital, Fremont, Ballard
2) shopping at U Village, U district, Fremont, Fed Meyers, Ballard
3) entertainment in U district, Fremont, Ballard
4) outdoor venues at Arboretum, Gasworks, Locks, Golden Gardens
5) high density housing in U district, Ballard
6) bicycle oriented clientele, employers, infrastructure in U district, Fremont, Ballard
7) THE BURKE GILMAN TRAIL!
Phase 1A) SPU, South Lake Union, Wallingford, EastLake,
We shouldn’t be trying to put inexperienced tourists on heavy bikes in downtown traffic. Instead, we should be trying to get SPU students to ride bikes to Fred Meyers instead of driving a car. (Any idea how hard it is to get anywhere from SPU without a car?) We should make it easy for the people moving into the thousands of new apartments in Ballard and the U District (feet from the BG) to get to their bus stop, school, work, the doctor, a park, the library, their favorite bar, etc. without ever getting in a car.
That’s where the last mile problem is.
Here’s an example map to get people thinking:
Yes, that’s more or less what I was thinking. It might be better to concentrate more in the south lake union area and pull from some of the fringes. Don’t know.
Definitely connect U-Village with the Husky Stadium Light Rail station. Yes you can walk it, it’s about 20 minutes, but it’s a 5 minute ride! And it makes that Light Rail station even better.
Columbia City! Heck yes! It has the culture of “urban hot spot” so a station there on the Light Rail and one at S. Hudson.
I’d re-position docks to make Husky Stadium’s link station more useful to the surrounding area and take better advantage of the relatively flat BG trail between Sand Point and Ballard.
Leave the station at 25th & Blakely, add a station on the East side of U Village around the QFC to serve neighbors, shopping, and the adjacent UW Family housing. Add a station somewhere in the UW Family Housing South of 45th or by the Center for Urban Horticulture to provide access to the park, the conference center visitors, and a portion of the Laurelhurst walkshed.
Add a station in the Northern U District around Ravenna Blvd. with a complimentary station around Ravenna & E Greenlake Way.
Add a station on the BG Trail around Gasworks Park, a station somewhere around 34th & Fremont Ave, one somewhere around Fred Meyer, and one over on Ballard Ave.
Add a couple of stations North of Children’s on the BG trail. Perhaps one at 65th or 7oth and one inside Magnison Park.
Add one a Seattle Pacific Univ. because the South Ship Canal Trail is decent and that’s a dozen stations.
I’d probably rob stations from the center of where’s there’s ample transit and unpleasant riding (cyclists there probably rode their own from home) but leave the stations on the periphery. That looks like about ten stations, take the other two worst performing stations and see what happens.
A couplet of stations between Link and the Columbia City business district along Ranier seems worth considering too.
I was recently in DC and you couldn’t walk two blocks without running into a bike share kisok. It was very impressive; as was the ability to rent bikes or go on a bike tour. I saw a lot of newbies/families on bikes and they seemed to be having a great time.
I agree the terrain was better than Seattle. Much flatter and lots of bike routes.
Another thing that was very different was that apparently there are traffic cameras everywhere, for both speed and signal/intersections. No one ran red lights. The traffic, even on boulevards, was progressing at a normal, slower pace. Inherently it felt better to walk there, and likely to ride a bike (sadly I didn’t have the time to do so), than in Seattle.
Divert money to improve conditions for people who bike and can this novelty trinket. Don’t waste money on another while BMP isn’t funded. This shouldn’t be a hard decision, unless you are one who is taken by silly shiny toys
Yes! I ride almost every day and Seattle bike infrastructure is lacking in so many ways. Spend the $600,000 on building out the BMP instead of wasting it on the dying bike share system.
I don’t like naysaying, but… Seattle may be too hilly for this to work in some hoods.
So if Pronto is to survive, gotta think about topography. Maybe changing locations around would help – UW to Ballard, CCity, R Beach… maybe.
And yeah, drop the price to next to nothing. It will lose money either way, at least the citizens would benefit.
But ultimately, Seattle’s hills make it very difficult to ride those heavy bikes around. Maybe bike share isn’t right for seattle?
If I could snap my fingers, transfer Pronto cash to build bike lanes in forgotten corners of the city… Rainier Ave, East Lake, Lake City, B Hill, Pioneer Sq …. I’d happily kill pronto to complete any 2 of those projects.
I know, I know, killing pronto won’t magically create money for bike lanes.
I hate to say it, I wish bike share would work here, but I think we’re deceiving ourselves.
It’s sad to see it get to this stage but the science of bike share station placement seems to be more of an art.
In my visit to Seattle I really wanted to use Pronto to get around but it had several basic mistakes that it just wasn’t worth the bother. I took transit and walked instead. Next time I’ll bring my own bike to town.
But what I saw that’s fixable are these:
The station locations seem to often be hidden away from common places. You glance at the map and it shows a station at an intersection but when you go there it’s nowhere to be seen. You spend five minutes wandering around and it’s tucked in behind a wall a half a block away.
I was staying north east of UW. After hours the buses were rare or not running anymore. A perfect situation for bike share but the last station was still not close enough. They should have stations at intervals for the entire length of the trail at least to Balinger Way and Golden Gardens Park. Also there was no indication when on the trail that on the other side of the bushes was a station.
Now with the new route on West Lake there should be stations at intervals there too.
I wasn’t able to use it to get to Fremont. It should go there. A modest sized flat place with groovy people who would be receptive to new ideas like this if they only had it.
Basically wherever there is a high quality cycle route there should be stations.
The need to rent a helmet meant I had to lug it around for a few days since I didn’t want to pay $2 each trip. It took up space and was some extra weight in my backpack. They should be free. (Ideally the law should be discarded but that’s another issue of course.)
The station (and the bus loop) near UW is not visible when you get out of the light rail station. It should be right outside the exit as the first thing you see.
Increasing the numbers of high quality AAA routes throughout the city should happen anyway but if more existed it would help Pronto.
Please kill bikeshare, please stop wasting millions of dollars.
Alki ( One kiosk at Lincoln Park, one at the beach, one at the passenger ferry dock)
Greenlake (one on each side of the lake).
Golden Gardens (One at the locks, one at the beach).
Magnusson (one at U-village one at the park – maybe Mathews beach too).
Think safe, flat routes, and drop a kiosk on either end, and maybe in the middle.
Or even better, figure out a way to do away with the kiosks entirely. I been dying to find any excuse to use the system. And I have completely failed. I’ve never gotten on a Pronto bike, because the kiosks aren’t ever, EVER where both am and want to go.
Experiment with the existing 54 stations?
We know, because it’s already been tested in many cities, that small satellite systems always fail, no matter how convincing the argument for them. Maybe they always fail because they’ve always been half-hearted: not big or dense enough to make it. Half-hearted experimentation is sure to fail. 54 stations is enough to do one real experiment, and then… test that experiment over the winter before tearing it down?
The other option is to kill Pronto early and put its operational funds toward infrastructure. Ordinarily I’d jump up and down for something like this, but what are we going to do with that money during the few rainy months between now and the new system’s launch? Do we have the staff to use extra money? Do we have plans ready that just need funding? $600,000 isn’t going to buy us a connected network by Spring 2017. $600,000 might be enough to fix the worst spots along one important bike route in the new system’s service area. I can imagine $600,000 building one good bike route between the International District and Downtown, for example, but only if we find the will to make room for it, and we haven’t done that yet.
I fit one of the ideal markets for the existing bike share and I have never once used it.
I work downtown. I have been a biker downtown for a decade and am familiar with biking downtown. I don’t mind biking on hills. I walk and take transit around downtown for errands and appointments and wouldn’t mind getting around faster. I was excited about Pronto and took time to attend a marketing talk during the business plan development.
And I have never once ridden it. If I bike downtown, I have my reflective yellow safety vest on. I wear comfortable clothes for when I have to bike my heart out to not get overrun by traffic behind me or when I have to power up a steep section. And all the preparation helps me get into the right zone for being safe, alert, and ultimate stay alive. It is worth it for when I am commuting across Seattle. I am not going to go through all that to take bike share 0.5 miles across downtown.
It really boggles my mind that we could think bike share would work on our abysmally unsafe downtown streets. Why was downtown the center of the program? Bike share downtown needed to come after we fix the state of our downtown streets.
I like all the ideas here about moving our current bike share to places where people are biking the most currently. I see more bikers in Capitol Hill, the U District, Fremont, and Ballard than in downtown. People bike currently where they feel safe. Bike share will be the same.
I like the idea of the future system being electric assist. People riding bike share don’t want to sweat a lot. But they still won’t ride an electric assist on unsafe streets.
I’d like to see the same consideration of the economics for automobiles as for bikes. Talk about supporting something that is financially draining and a major health issue as well. We isolate and call out bikes. But cars? Not so much. To drivers, it’s as if at birth everyone came out of the womb driving a car and they are a essential to maintaining our very existence!
They could save a lot of money by not worrying about supplying STUPID helmets to comply with the horribly unnecessary and moronic helmet law.
I know people think this is just a side issue and not a big driver, but that helmet law is an blanket institutional barrier that both actively and passively discourages ridership of ALL bikes in Seattle.
Helmet laws are death for bike share.
I totally agree. It’s a huge hassle to carry a bike helmet everywhere you go. I don’t have to wear a helmet while I jog. Why should it be any different when I potter around on bike?
I have to agree with Al on this. There’s not a whole lot to be learned from fiddling with a too-small network, especially if you’re judging it against best-in-class systems many times larger. Maybe you could move a couple stations to Fremont and Wallingford or the Southeast to experiment with future station location, but I think the effects of winter, electrification, the number and density of stations and the “uncertainty” effect discouraging new members will make it hard to learn much of anything that hasn’t been demonstrated in other cities.
I really hope the network is able to re-launch by summer 2017. You’ll lose some institutional momentum waiting for 2018. A 100+ dock network should be enough to gain decent usage. By 2018, a 100 dock launch will still be an also-ran system, electric or not (many systems are expanding by more than that amount). Hopefully if there’s that kind of delay it’s in the interest of getting enough private or public budget for something like 200 docks (learning from BikeTown and Vancouver to go big, as they learned from us). That size network would require far less “experimentation” to avoid mistakes.
This also reminds me of working at Apple when Steve Jobs returned as CEO.
At the time, the company had so utterly failed in so many different areas. One of the first thing Steve did was to kill most of the company’s projects — most of which were failing — and focus on ensuring that a small number were delivered really, really well. And he did.
Similarly, SDOT has utterly failed to deliver viable bike infrastructure projects. It’s not clear why they they should be granted the distraction of mismanaging a bikeshare system until after they’ve proven they can actually do their core infrastructure mission correctly.
A related question is: why is Scott Kubly seems so irrationally obsessed with getting bike share in Seattle in the absence of first building supportive infrastructure?
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Maybe it was a mistake to salvage the existing system if they don’t know what to do with it. If they were going to put money down, the should have had some short term fixes on day one to keep it going until the replacement is ready.
I hope they put together a replacement system… I like having pronto available. On the other hand, if they held off a couple of years and finished the downtown bike network first, that wouldn’t be such a tragedy.
I think the overall goal should be to make biking more safe and convenient.
For data visualization junkies:
Mazama Science built an interactive databrowser based on Pronto’s first year ridership data. Things are certainly different now with the extension of Link and movement of a few stations but it would be nice to see this kind of analysis using more recent data.
“Imagine you could also buy a single bike share ride for about the same fare as taking transit: $2.50 for a 30-minute ride.”
Think about it: there’s a bus, there’s a bike, each one costs $2.50. It’s cold, it’s raining, and we don’t have a comprehensive system of protected bike lanes.
It’s REALLY HARD to imagine a casual, infrequent cyclist picking Pronto over Metro.
A $2.50 / 30-minute option might draw a very modest increase in usage by tourists during the summer months – in the few areas of the city where our terrain and crappy roads/traffic aren’t a deterrent. And you’d probably see an increase in use by hipsters who are willing to spend a few bucks for the cheap thrill riding down from Capitol Hill – with the system never recouping the cost of redistributing those bikes.
There’s simply no way Pronto is going to survive on its own, or even with any modest/reasonable subsidy.
If your bus ride gave you 20 minutes on Pronto it would help boost ridership.
If you paid people to ride pronto you’d get more trips, but that still doesn’t make it a good idea.
$2.50 for a short ride might make a big difference. First, we only have about 100 wet pavement days a year. Out of that, the rain is intermittent. There are plenty of days when riding is reasonably dry.
But the real issue is convenience. Imagine waiting for a bus from uptown to downtown. Header wait time plus ride time will probably be 30 minutes. On average, you can walk it faster. 5-10 minutes by bike. I’m sure there are plenty of examples like this.
A thing they could try is what the Dutch national train company did with their OV Fiets bike system. The bike system brings costumers to their train stations.
Have bike share stations next to every light rail station and then bike share stations on either side of them at a 15 minute ride distance. Then make that street between the two a neighbourhood greenway.
Be able to rent a Pronto with your Orca card and transfer to the light rail. Make a Pronto ride part of the transit ride so there’s no second charge. Cost wise to the customer it should be no different than if you walked or took a bus to the light rail.
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This was another boondoggle. Seattle rain is not for renting out bicycles to visitors. People living here have their rain gear and bikes and don’t need rideshare. Kill it and cut our losses. Whoever was responsible for the bailout in the first place ought to be fired. I believe that would be the current SDOT Director.
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