By killing Pronto, Seattle could become the center of private bike share innovation

Photo from a Spin pilot launch in Austin during SXSW. Image from Spin.

The Pronto docks have been scrubbed from city streets. As much as I am sad to see it go and feel the system never got a fair shot at success, it’s done. Time to move on and look to the future of bike share in Seattle.

And we may not need to wait long.

“We’re very optimistic for bike share in Seattle,” said Derrick Ko, CEO of a San Fransisco-based stationless bike share startup called Spin.

Spin bikes are free-floating. Open up their mobile app to find a bike near you. Walk to it and scan the QR code on the bike to unlock the rear wheel. Bike to your destination and park it using the kickstand. Lock the wheel to end your trip. And that’s it. It’s basically Car2Go, but a bicycle.

But here’s the kicker: It only costs $1 per ride (Bluegogo is $1 for 30 min, Spin says “Ride for $1”). Dock-based bike share systems cannot touch that price.

So when is Spin going to launch in Seattle?

“As soon as possible,” said Ko, who was previously a product manager at Lyft. Spin staff recently flew out to Seattle to meet people and check out the possibilities for themselves. “For a top tier city in the US, it’s really rare to not have some form of bike share.”

They are looking to move quickly to launch at least as a pilot program with a service area in the center of the city, including at least downtown, South Lake Union, the International District and Capitol Hill.

And time is of the essence, because Spin is not the only company with their eyes on Seattle’s newly bike-share-free streets. Bluegogo, a China-based company that already has big systems in service overseas, is looking to make an entry into North America. And Seattle just made itself a promising option.

“We would be happy to bring it to the city,” said Ilya Movshovich, VP of US Operations for Bluegogo (UPDATE: Movshovich is no longer with Bluegogo). When I asked when they might start operations, Movshovich said, “When it’s less rainy and less cold would probably make more sense.”

Other companies in the business include Mobike, Ofo, Noa, LimeBike, Zagster and Social Bicycles (which powers Portland’s new Biketown system, though that system still requires parking to a bike rack).

So these companies have an incentive to be on the ground first so they can establish a user base before competitors move in. But they also see a need to work with cities to make sure the rules are clear and make sure the community understands how the system works.

Both Ko and Movshovich expressed a desire for an official city permitting process for their bikes. In Bluegogo’s case, the company learned that lesson the hard way in San Francisco, where the city threatened action and forced the company to pull their bikes from the streets. Spin had a similar, though less confrontational, experience in Austin. Both company leaders want to go about things a better way in Seattle.

“That’s not what we stand for,” said Ko of other unnamed companies’ approach to launching without permits or concern for city space. The web is chock full of stories about mountains of cheap bike share bikes left in city parks and on city sidewalks in cities with huge numbers of users and competitors like Shenzhen, China. People have started to label any private, stationless bike share system “rogue bike share,” which actually makes them sounds pretty cool.

But beware of attempts to group all these companies together. Seattle should give the industry the space to do things right in our city by creating a responsible pathway for them.

Ko’s ultimate vision for Spin in Seattle is “equitable bike share to all neighborhoods.” Spin is even trying to invest in the city through a new effort they are calling the “Spin Cities Project.” The company will seed their Seattle project with $10,000 to start and will put a portion of the bike share system’s proceeds into it. The stated mission is “to fund smart urban infrastructure, with the aim of improving the quality of life of people in cities.” From Ko via email:

The Project’s first initiative will be focused on funding bicycle safety and infrastructure in cities. Spin will be contributing a portion of ride revenue to continually fund the Project. This supports Spin’s goal to create an accessible, equitable, and environmentally-friendly mode of transport.

Spin Cities Project will be led by local advisory councils drawn from public and private sector thought leaders in each city. Spin Cities Project’s first city is Seattle, and Spin has committed $10,000 to kickstart the Project. This fund will be invested at the discretion of the advisory council.

And most of all, let’s not lose sight of the potential benefits: More people riding bikes to get around our city, filling the gaps in our transit network in a fun, healthy and congestion-reducing way.

“Riding a bike, not to sound cliche, really is good for your heart,” said Movshovich.

And not only would these companies require no public funding, but by purchasing some kind of permit for their bikes they would actually pay the city street use fees.

It seems that no applicable street use permit exists today, so the city would need to create a new one similar to how the city created a new permit for free-floating car share like Car2Go. These permits are the city’s opportunity to shape how the systems work, including where exactly bikes can be parked in city right of way.

The city could also use the permit process to encourage systems to serve more parts of the city, including underserved areas with less population density (and, therefore, less profit potential) like Rainier Valley. When Car2Go launched, for example, the company was allowed to choose its own limited service area up to a number of cars in operation. But once they crossed that threshold, they had to open the service area to the whole city. Perhaps bike share permits could work similarly, though serving some of the hillier or more freeway-divided parts of town might be harder with bikes than with cars.

But the city needs to act fast to create if it wants to both create rules that benefit the city’s interests and create a legal landscape for these systems to get up and running successfully this summer.

“We want to go in as fast as possible,” said Ko. “But at the same time, we want to make sure we’re being as responsible as possible.”

On the flip side of all this, it’s also possible that there is no city regulation preventing a company from simply dropping bikes on the streets without obtaining permits. If a company moved in aggressively Uber-style, what’s the city going to do about it? Start confiscating bikes that people are using to get around in the vacuum of the city’s own failed system? That’s not a great look.

Other cities with publicly-funded bike share systems like San Fransisco and existing bike share operators who are part of the North American Bike Share Association (I suppose you could call them “Big Bike Share”) are prepared to fight these stationless startups in part to protect their own systems.

But Seattle doesn’t have that issue anymore, and big bike share companies like Motivate don’t have a lot of friends left here at the moment. With public bike share systems, the city has all the control. And there may be some real benefits to that. But Mayor Ed Murray abandoned his public bike share effort, so that’s a moot point.

There are still a lot of questions left to answer. How will the companies make sure users know how to responsibly park the bikes so they don’t block walkways, driveways, bus stops or doorways? Ko says it will be on Spin to make sure users know how to use the system responsibly and to address problems caused by the small percentage of people who will act irresponsibly.

The bikes will have a number people can call to report any issues, and Spin staff will respond quickly to address them. And hey, they are bikes, so anyone can pick one up and move it out of the way. Perhaps if responsible users get in the habit of fixing other people’s bad parking (or bikes moved by vandals, which is inevitable), problems can be kept in check.

The city can also set their expectations for company responsiveness to issues as a condition of their permits.

Another option, which Bluegogo was initially looking at, would be to require bikes to be parked at existing city bike racks. But that has limits both in terms of scale and could end up upsetting people who ride their own bikes.

“Why is a business using public property, I can’t park my bike anymore,” said Ko, imagining how someone who bike might feel if city bike racks get filled with private bike share bikes.

And what about helmets? King County has a very rare all-ages helmet law on the books, and Pronto installed helmet vending boxes at every station. Without stations, that’s not an option.

Ko said Spin’s plan, at least at first glance, is to include “all the necessary warning and requirements to say that you should wear a helmet.” But users will be responsible for bringing their own.

How will these bikes handle Seattle’s hills? Will the bikes be sturdy enough and customized with low enough gearing to climb up grades like Capitol Hill?

How will Seattle Parks respond when users inevitably park these bikes in city parks? The Parks Department was resistant to Pronto stations in parks, but parks are such obvious magnets for people biking. And that is a good thing.

Having no dedicated dock locations opens the door to all kinds of new opportunities and problems. Users can bike directly to the front door of their destination rather than finding a dock a block (or four) away. And people can use the bikes to go to major destinations and special events without worrying about full docks when they get there.

On the other hand, bikes could end up in uninvited places, and the rebalancing of bikes during major events could get tricky. But I am excited to see how these systems play out in Seattle. After the long, frustrating death of Pronto under mismanaged city control, let’s see if private companies really can do better. If they succeed, then Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Tim Burgess were right when they voted against the city buying Pronto, saying the private sector could fill the gap.

The city has almost nothing to lose, but it has a whole new healthy transportation option to gain.

UPDATE: Looks like Spin already has at least one councilmember interested:

Here’s a promo video from Bluegogo to give you a feel for how it works:

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24 Responses to By killing Pronto, Seattle could become the center of private bike share innovation

  1. DOUG. says:

    Any bike share system in Seattle that doesn’t include the Burke-Gilman Trail from U-Village to Golden Gardens is a stupid bike share system.

  2. Michael from Arlington VA says:

    Sure, well why not.

    Private bike share is an attempt to make a profit with a system approach that replaces expensive infrastructure (docking stations) with reliance on an app and otherwise available spots to park bikes in cities. This has been successful so far mostly in China. (The Economist had an article last week.)

    You also lose, one assumes, (expensive) redistribution of bicycles back to places that are the most popular points of origin for bicycle trips within a particular jurisdiction. If nothing else, docking stations group bicycles for retrieval to be moved in bulk to locations that are running short of bikes during a day. A private company can’t make money with some truck wandering about the city picking up bikes by the ones and twos to ferry to high demand locations.

    American cities usually have strong traffic patterns even for cycling that mean without some ferrying of bikes to counter uneven demand, people in certain areas will not have bikes to ride. With Seattle’s hills, the situation is probably even more like that.

    Good luck!

    • Ben P says:

      We just need to implement a pricing scheme that factors in where it was picked up from and where it was dropped off at. So maybe riding from the top of Queen Ann to South Lake Union on a monday morning would cost $10 while riding from SLU to QA at the same time would make you $3.

      • Southeasterner says:

        I think you just nailed the problem. In both cases the bus is $2.75.

        With cars and transit heavily subsidized it’s a hard market to compete in for a private bike operator.

  3. Peri Hartman says:

    At first, the concept sounds good. It seems to work well for car2go, why can’t it work for bikes. Maybe it can. A few concerns.

    1. As Micheal, above, points out, there may be a distribution problem.

    2. What kind of gearing will they have – adequate for climbing hills?

    3. Will there be adequate maintenance? If the derailleurs, cassette, chain aren’t working well, the bikes will be miserable to ride.

    The city needs to be prudent in assessing this. If it fails, what will that say to the public about bike share in Seattle? Will we have the opportunity for a third chance?

    • William says:

      Will we have the opportunity for a third chance? – Sure, if somebody thinks they can make money from it.

    • Al Dimond says:

      The maintenance question is particularly relevant here — poorly maintained bikes have problems going both uphill and downhill, especially in the rain! And all these climbs, descents, frequent dampness, and lousy pavement, wear out components faster than in other cities. Especially for bikes parked outdoors!

      I think there’s some potential for a private company operating bike-share in many cities (i.e. a company that can leverage software development work across many cities) to get users to do some of the “work” for them:

      1. Modeling. Keep track of what system demand typically looks like throughout the day and week, and determine ideal distributions of bikes for different times of the day and week. The ideal distributions just before morning rush hour and just before evening rush hour will be distinctive, with bikes concentrated around housing and jobs respectively; most other times you’d just want good overall coverage.

      2. Incentives. Make trips that bring the system closer to ideal cheaper, possibly even free. If it’s particularly bad, consider giving system credits, making rides cheaper-than-free, if they deliver bikes to areas that particularly need them.

      3. Gamification and community building. Award different kinds of points for helping balance the system in different ways (riding net-uphill, delivering to high-need areas, retrieving bikes that haven’t been moved in a long time), along with other sorts of general usage stuff (number of trips, miles traveled, city coverage, number of different bikes used). Track them with leaderboards and “achievement” badges. Maybe let users that build up ridiculous numbers of credits trade them in for branded stuff. Hold social events for top users and balancers. People with some community feeling toward the system might be willing to go on “quests” to pick up bikes that haven’t been moved in a while, verify the condition of bikes reported broken, etc.

      I don’t know much about Spin’s plans in particular, but that all sounds like stuff an app-culture bikeshare startup would do.

      • Matt Tilghman-Havens says:

        +1. These are really terrific ideas, Al. I could definitely see them helping a private system.

        This should work. And it can’t happen soon enough.

        Thanks for the detailed article, Tom.

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  6. Tim F says:

    One thing I realized over the weekend gives me hope that one of these systems might have an inherent advantage over Pronto. The minimum Pronto dock size was about 14 bikes, even though many stations didn’t require that number. The cost of a dock limited the network size, not the number of bikes. Seattle’s uneven density worked against it compared to NYC, DC and Chicago, and the same number of bikes probably could have served two or three times as many destinations if the minimum dock size had been smaller.

    Even if the city required fixed location “virtual docks” like Portland’s BikeTown system, or if the vendor encouraged them so the users could have some predictability in where they could find the bikes, the minimum size could be a lot lower. A library or community center might average three or four bikes docked. (enough to serve many times more users as people arrive and leave throughout the day). A stadium or transit center might have a much larger stockpile of docked bikes during events or for the daily ebb and flow of commuters.

  7. Breadbaker says:

    I don’t know why it can’t succeed at a much lower level than you’re positing here. If you ever look at the Car2Go app, the first thing you’ll note is that it has all kinds of holes in coverage depending on time and place. It doesn’t fail because someone can’t get a car when they want it where they want it. You can’t take all the Cars2Go to a Seahawks game; there’s no reason you should expect these bikes to be available.

    I’m more concerned about the choice of bikes and the maintenance than the coverage. The coverage issue will be data-driven and they’ll either figure it out or they’ll fail and perhaps the next group will learn from their mistakes.

  8. Steve says:

    No thank you. I don’t want to see our city leaders spend one second thinking about permitting a bike share or dealing talking about it after the way the well was poisoned by them and Pronto. The unfortunate reality is we tried bike share and it failed for now, it is going to need to be 3-5 years before there will be any political capital to go after it again. All the people who are riding bikes but didn’t use pronto are sitting here watching a scared SDOT afraid to implement the MBP because they burned their capital on this.
    It set back bike safety and construction for years because the council, SDOT, and the Mayor gave Jason Rantz and co. prime ammunition with Pronto and Kubly for the last year.

    Plus a drawn out permit process is just another opportunity for Murray to act like he is doing something on bikes. No, go build the MBP projects and get us a connected downtown, then come back to bike share. Who wants bikes that are randomly parked around downtown when there is one bike path in downtown that doesn’t connect outside of it? That was even identified as one of the reasons Pronto didn’t succeed, that must be fixed first.

    • Matt Tilghman-Havens says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. If it’s a simple system with reliable, working bikes, I’m confident people will use it. People ride bikes all over this city without use of dedicated bike infrastructure. More will ride when we have it, but ease of use and adequate station density (if stations end up being a thing in the new system) will remove the primary obstacles that stood in the way of Pronto succeeding.

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  10. JTown says:

    Do any of the private “dockless” (or small dock?) bike share systems mentioned provide e-assist bikes?

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  13. Kody says:

    Very interesting developments happening in Seattle.
    We here at VeloMetro are watching with keen eyes, as we too would like to launch our take on “dockless bike share” in Seattle. We have developed a dockless bike sharing network using electric-assist, fully enclosed trikes. Similar to car2go, our members pay for use by the minute.
    Learn more here: http://www.rideveemo.com

    • Peri Hartman says:

      Too tempting, have to comment on this. These trikes look really cool and I’d love to try one. On the other hand, they are rather large and probably should not be used or parked on the sidewalk. Many of Seattle’s sidewalks are only 6′ wide and often that’s encumbered by signs, utility poles, shrubs, … Bringing these trikes here would open up some discussion on what is a bike versus a scooter. But, bring them !

      • Kody says:

        Bikes aren’t allowed on the sidewalks typically. Just roads and bike lanes.

        Pretty clear cut on the scooter vs ebike differences. Pedals and power limits.

    • Chad N. says:

      Yes – Please bring VeloMetro to Seattle!

      Based on the photos, these vehicles look too large to park in bike racks or on sidewalks. Will need to use on-street motorcycle or car parking spaces.

      The City of Seattle already has a program for this. Car2Go pays the city an annual fee for members to use metered on-street parking spots for free. VeloMetro use could also park their vehicles anywhere legal for cars to park.

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