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Bike share carried 209K trips in May + A look at the city’s updated permit rules

Seattle’s bike share ridership keeps climbing. Image: SDOT.

People in Seattle took more than 208,849 bike share trips in May as use of the bikes increased steeply throughout spring. In total, people took 1.4 million rides between late July and mid-June, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation (PDF).

To build on this astounding success, SDOT is updating its permit to allow four companies totaling 20,000 bikes, about double the number on the streets today. And the increase comes with some extra permit fees to vastly increase the amount of designated bike parking space in the city to help make sure bikes are parked appropriately.

The permit plan heads to the City Council Transportation Committee Tuesday. If approved, it is then scheduled to go before the full Council for a vote July 23 and would go into effect August 31. Here’s a look at what is in the new permit rules:

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Income and racial equity

All three companies have already far exceeded the low-income access rules in the expiring pilot permit, which was mostly focused on encouraging companies to include lower-income parts of the city in the service area rather than sticking only to wealthier areas. But right at launch all companies served the entire city limits, vastly exceeding the city’s rules on day one. That was fantastic, but also a sign that the city should make the equity rules a bit more specific.

For example, the new permit would require companies to make sure 20 percent of their fleets are serving “Tier 1 equity areas.” This is similar to a rule implemented by my hometown of St. Louis to make sure the companies are not just focusing redistribution efforts in wealthier and whiter parts of town.

Such a rule is probably a good idea, especially as companies add pricier options like e-assist bikes. But according to survey data, the companies are already achieving impressive racial balance among its users. In fact, the city survey found that people who identified as African American or Hispanic were slightly more likely to have ridden bike share than white respondents, though white respondents were more likely to be heavy users. This one survey should not be used as an excuse to say, “Well, we fixed transportation equity!” and consider the work finished. But it is a promising start to build on.

SDOT map highlighting areas with lower bike share use.

The bikes are seeing much lower use along the north, southeast and southwest borders of the city. But since neighboring municipalities (Shoreline, unincorporated King County, Renton, etc) don’t have bike share, the lower use could also be a symptom of being on the edge of the service area. Lacking bike infrastructure, formidable terrain and a lower density of destinations also could be factors beyond the bike share companies’ control. But it is still worth trying harder to serve these areas and working to develop bike share service agreements with Seattle’s regional neighbors. And if Seattle requires the companies to serve city border areas, the city should do its part by building long-needed bike infrastructure in those neighborhoods.

Several companies have demonstrated their abilities to provide lower-cost rates to people who qualify for government assistance. They have also created methods for unlocking bikes without a smart phone and paying for rentals without a credit card. Lime, for example, recently announced that low-income users will be able to load their accounts with cash through PayNearMe services in any CVS or 7-Eleven. Such a level of access should become the rule.

The city may also want to think of ways to make sure low-cost options remain in service as companies move more and more towards pricier electric versions and potentially away from the $1 pedal bikes that started this whole thing. Which brings us to the next point:

Different caps for different device types

Should Seattle have caps on the number of bikes at all? Would the drawbacks of too many bikes really be worse than the benefits of such ubiquitous access? Experiences in cities that had no caps, especially in Asia, resulted in widely-shared photos of massive bike piles. I understand the city’s desire to avoid that.

But the city needs to make sure not to overcorrect by placing caps that limit the success and use of these services or encourages companies to remove lower-cost (and lower-profit) bikes. Discount programs for people who qualify for government programs are good, but the absolute best way for these companies to serve low-income people is to simply be affordable from the start. $1 for a bike ride is a great price, lower than any other mode of transportation other than walking (and maybe riding your own bike, depending on your bike costs). The city should be looking for ways to keep low-cost pedal bikes in operation even as new innovations come online.

One way to achieve this is to have different caps for different device types. Let’s say ACME Bikes has 5,000 bikes in operation, which is their permit limit. But then they introduce their new more profitable and pricey rocket skates (“Caution: Not effective on road-runners“). They shouldn’t be forced to take bikes off the street in order to add their rocket skates instead. That would be a bad for bike share users. Instead, they should be able to add the skates while keeping their bikes.

If there were separate caps for different device types, for example, companies could introduce e-assist bikes without sacrificing lower-cost pedal bikes. And if the city does someday allow scooters (or rocket skates), companies should also be able to introduce those without sacrificing bikes. Otherwise, company-wide caps would punish companies that have multiple products and benefit companies that focus on only one. Instead, the city should reward companies that operate low-cost pedal bikes in addition to other pricier options.

Whether to allow the electric kick scooters that are spreading all across the nation is perhaps the subject for another day. The city does not seem to want to include them in this permit at this time. But the permit should be written with the flexibility to easily allow scooters or any other innovation as they hit the market so Seattle can remain at the forefront of this on-demand transportation device movement.

E-bike speeds

E-bikes should conform to Washington State’s new e-bike legislation. That state law was written to conform with national standards and clarify what types of e-bikes should basically be treated as bicycles. Seattle should follow suit with its bike share rules so that any company with standards-conforming e-bikes can operate here.

This is not just hypothetical. Jump’s bikes are Class 1 e-bikes under the newest state law, meaning the motor is activated by the user pedaling and does not assist beyond 20 mph. But If the city were to set an assisted speed limit lower than 20, Jump would need to modify its bikes to make them slower.

But why should they need to do that? If their business model is to allow rental of a perfectly legal bike, the city shouldn’t micromanage that. Seattle’s car share permit does not limit a car’s top speed, even though the cars in service can go way beyond the fastest speed limit found anywhere in the city limits. Just because a BMW can go 120 mph doesn’t mean ReachNow users are regularly driving 120 on city streets. Likewise, just because a bike can be assisted up to 20 mph doesn’t mean users will be going the full 20 at all times regardless of the conditions. Like any bike, the vast majority of people riding e-bikes go the speed that is appropriate for the situation.

20 mph is perfectly reasonable on a city street, and many people riding non-electric bikes go that speed often. In fact, 20 mph is the slowest speed limit currently recognized by state law. And unlike with car speeding, there’s no evidence that 20 mph e-bikes are causing safety issues that need to be regulated. If it’s legal, the city should allow it. If we’re trying to replace car trips with bike trips, then don’t unnecessarily limit a bike’s legal abilities. Let companies decide what their product looks like. Lime, for example, has gone with a very easy to use and non-intimidating single speed e-bike that cuts out at 15 mph. Jump’s bike is a bit more complicated but has more power. I could see both bikes appealing more to different people. And that’s a good thing.


The city should allow companies to sell advertising on their bikes. We allow advertising on commercial taxis and public transit, both of which use city right of way. We also allow businesses to post A-frame signs in the right of way for a permit fee. So why not ads on permitted bikes? We want these bikes to succeed and be affordable, and advertising is an easy additional source of revenue to offset user fees. Maybe the city could charge an extra fee for bikes with ads and use that revenue to improve street furniture or something relevant to public beautification. But the city should not put up barriers to success for bike share, which is an incredible benefit.

Permit fees

The city is scaling up its hands-on regulation of bike share, and that costs more money. So to fund that work and keep the program cost-neutral for the city, they are proposing an increase in the permit fees. These costs would put Seattle among the most expensive cities in the country to operate a bike share service.

It’s hard to argue against increased permit fees while these companies are getting massive investments (investors led by Google just invested $335 million in Lime, for example). But why do we need this program to be cost-free to the city? These companies are carrying as many as 200,000 trips in a month at low cost to users and with zero emissions beyond the redistribution vans. Our city is willing to invest in programs that help us reach our transportation mode shift, climate change and public health goals. So why are we charging companies a quarter million dollars a year each to help us meet our goals?

The programs SDOT wants to fund sound like worthy and smart investments. It was not so long ago that Seattle was prepared to invest $5 million in a bike share system far smaller than the one we have now. It just seems weird that suddenly the city can’t invest even a small fraction of that on support and access programming. I mean, how much is 200,000 healthy, emission-free trips per month worth to the city? Surely it’s worth something.

In May, bike share ridership was about 50 percent higher than the South Lake Union and First Hill Streetcars combined, and the city is spent $6.7 million to operate those streetcars in 2017. The city is also spending tens of millions (on top of Federal dollars) to build a single train yard overpass in Sodo at the urging of freight-dependent businesses. The cost to regulate bike share and build bike parking corrals is pennies compared to these other investments.

I’m not necessarily saying the city should cancel the fee hike as proposed, but we should be questioning why this successful program is being singled out as one that must be cost-neutral. We don’t make freight companies cover all the costs of freight infrastructure, nor should we. And I do think any company making money on city right-of-way should pay for permits. But building supporting infrastructure — like bike corrals that also help people riding their own bikes — is a perfectly reasonable city investment on its own. It’s weird that a city with so much transportation investment cash is suddenly snapping the coin purse shut as soon as bike share companies have demonstrated early success. Maybe the permit can allow further expansion beyond 5,000 bikes per company to make these fees more reasonable.

Seattle should be doing everything it can to expand bike access right now. These companies are providing an amazing service that the city can build on. We should be aggressively expanding the bike network, for example. Bike share is helping bike lane investments succeed by making it much easier for more people to use the new lanes. This is a virtuous circle, and the more the city invests the better the result.

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21 responses to “Bike share carried 209K trips in May + A look at the city’s updated permit rules”

  1. Greg

    All very reasonable sounding but I think there’s one thing that’s easy to get to lose sight of-the difference between 15 and 20 mph is bigger than you might think. Because energy increases with the square of velocity, someone going 20 on a bike share has almost double the amount of energy someone going 15 has.

    Whether this 2x difference is going to end up with a lot of inexperienced people getting hurt or worse sounds likely to become an empirical question. I hope the answer is not something that advocates of fast e-bikes end up regretting…

  2. Dancing with the cars

    What problem is this solving? Data? How many injury/fatalities from speeding ebikes actually happened in 2017?

    In a world where cars don’t have speed limiting software and a Fourth Ave PBL is on hold is this really how we’re spending our time?

  3. Brock

    I need clarification on a couple things:

    1. Is SDOT proposing to increase the capped speed from 15 to 20mph?

    Personally, I support the 15mph cap considering sight distances, potential maintenance issues / mechanical failures, and the lower experience levels of bikeshare riders. However, I don’t think the bikes need to be so difficult to 15mph, like the Lime-Es, but that’s more of a technology/software issue than a regulation issue.

    2. It’s not clear to me, based on the existing information, whether 20% of the city’s population lives/works within the Tier 1 Equity Areas. From a policy perspective, are we trying to encourage more bikeshare service in equity areas in excess of the actual population percentage? Would that make sense to do?

    How will the 20% be calculated? Number of trips originating/ending in specific neighborhoods? Number of bikes available for use? If a certain equity area neighborhood just lower usage levels, will the bikeshare company just have an over-abundance of bikes just sitting there? Or will they have to discount the use of those bikes in order to encourage people to ride the bikes?

  4. Greg

    Worth noting that we’re still under 1 ride/day with 209k rides/month on 10k bikes. That’s not enough to be sustainable, which the bike companies estimate at around 3 rides/day. So, as good as this increase is, utilization will have to triple from these levels and also be sustained across winter months for this to be a long-term solution.

  5. av

    So they’re raising permit fee so that companies raise prices, since they overdid serving the low-income folk and that cannot be tolerated. Got it.

  6. asdf2

    Low income population: At this point, I think the biggest issue is not availability of bikes, but price. Lime has already started a trend of gradually replacing pedal bikes with e-bikes, which are easier to ride (especially uphill), but cost a lot more per trip. For instance, current Lime-E rates are $2.50 for a 10 minute ride and $5.00 for a 20-minute ride. While still cheap for a one-off trip, this is a lot to expect a low-income person to pay every day to get to work and back, especially since, unlike pedal bikes, every trip has to pay full price, with no bulk discounts available.

    Edge of city: as long as the service area boundary isn’t enforced like the car-sharing companies do, that effect doesn’t really matter so much – people can and do ride the bikeshare bikes to and from neighboring cities all the time (especially along the Burke-Gilman corridor), although many people might be unaware that the system allows it.

    That said, the service area boundary still does matter because it affects where the companies seed their bikes, which, in turn, affects the density and availability of bikes in an area. For example, it would be a tragedy if the 145th St. Link station (when it opens) couldn’t get stocked with bikes, simply because it’s two blocks outside the Seattle city limits. As the system expands to cover more of Puget Sound, it is important that bikeshare systems be region-wide, rather than each system restricted to a small area, and the only way to cross an area boundary is to ride in an Uber.

    Bike parking – it should be a no brainer that if you’re going to have 20,000 bikes in the city, there needs to be enough space to park 20,000 bikes properly, without them getting in the way. A massive investment in more bike parking is definitely the way to go – especially in multi-family residential areas that tend to get a lot of bikeshare trips, but usually don’t have much in the way of furniture zones. Hopefully, the system will come with a way for people to request bikeshare parking on their street.

    Fees – Lime Bike had about 1,000,000 trips last year, so the new fees would represent a cost of about $0.25/trip, unless the number of trips is able to significantly increase. I can see this putting pressure on the companies to replace pedal bikes with e-bikes, in order to boost profits enough to cover the fee.

    Caps – Obviously, there needs to be some limit, but as the system expands, 20,000 might not be as big as it seems. In particular, bikes parked in Shoreline or Bellevue should not count towards Seattle’s cap (but they could count toward a cap instituted by the other city).

    Speeds – There is a good reason for a lower speed limit for shared bikes – unlike your own bike, you don’t know what shape the bike is in before you start riding it. 15 mph is a good limit. If you want to go faster, buy your own E-bike. (15 mph is also more profitable for the companies than 20 because pay by minute + slower speeds = higher cost per mile). E-scooters are not stable enough to be ridden as fast as bikes, and don’t feel comfortable beyond about 10 mph.

    1. Ja

      Good points you raise.
      Permit fee is high and counter productive to city goals.

      However, I’ve ridden escooters. 15 mph i’s no big deal. You’d be surprised at their stability.

      Jump bikes at 20mph also is fine. They are significantly better constructed than lime.

  7. Michael

    There is something crazy about the way this seems to be regulated.

    I don’t think a cap for the number of bicycles (or scooters, whatever) should be required, rather I think these private companies should be required to demonstrate some level of responsibility for these bicycles on an ongoing basis, which they don’t have now. Wherever one finds these bicycles in cities, the city government and people living in the city end up carrying many costs that these companies are glad not to have. The bikes (rather than eBikes) are almost disposable given their cost and quality. Which is why you can eventually end up with piles of them everywhere, and the companies don’t much care.

    In Washington DC after less than a year and fewer than 2,000 dockless bikes in the city, an annual park cleanup project recovered three dozen dockless bikes in Rock Creek. Not in the park, in the creek itself! Jurisdictions should be able to require companies to take care of their property, to be responsible for it.

    I can’t seem to think of an analogous situation that a city would (or should) tolerate so readily.

    1. Law Abider

      This right here. Remove the cap, but require the companies to practice a little responsibility for their bikes (both physical and financial). They are for-profit companies with tens of hundreds of millions of investment backing for goodness’ sake, and regulating them is a non-zero monetary effort on the City’s part.

  8. asdf2

    One issue that I’m surprised hasn’t appeared in Seattle’s permit framework is the issue of geofencing and city parks. Users should not be allowed to leave bikes in the middle of hiking trails or, worse, in the middle of the forest where there is no trail. Already, Ravenna Park and Discovery Park have had several bikes left there. I’m all for more bike parking at the park entrances (Discovery Park north lot currently has zero bike racks, something that absolutely should be fixed), but users should not be leaving the bikes in random places beyond the entrances. Bellevue proposed a system where if gps detects you leave a bike in the middle of a park, you pay a penalty. Seattle should consider the same, at least for the more natur-oriented parks. (Green Lake, I’m ok with a bike left almost anywhere along the trail, as long as it’s not blocking the trail).

  9. Jeremy

    How does this permit fee compare to what car2go/reach now/zipcar pay? They take street parking space that would otherwise be generating revenue on turnover. (And they also tend to be parked well, but occasionally are parked very poorly.

    I would also like to see more encouragement for cheaper bikes. North of Ballard most of the bikes are ebikes. This means even a short ride is much more expensive. Perhaps a lower permit fee for manual bikes to encourage them.

    1. asdf2

      I’m not sure what the Car2Go/ReachNow permit fee is, but I’d imagine it’s quite a bit higher on a per-vehicle basis because these are cars, not bikes we’re talking about, which means they take up a lot more space. The fees the companies pay the city also include parking at parking meters and residential parking zones. I vaguely recall it’s something on the other of $1,500 per car per year, which is a bit higher (but same order of magnitude) as what the bikeshare companies would be paying when you aggregate across the entire fleet.

  10. Sean R-M

    I think the $50 fee is too high for pedal bikes which rent for $1. It will encourage the bike share companies to have only ebikes which can generate more revenue. It would make sense to have a lower permit fee for the regular pedal bikes . Also why does 1.5 FTE cost $370k ? that seems pretty pricey

    1. asdf2

      The cost of an FTE is always quite a bit higher than the gross salary they report on their W2. There’s also office space, equipment, health insurance and other benefits, employer share of social security taxes, recruitment, and reimbursement of expenses if the person has to drive around the city to verify compliance. I read somewhere online that the total cost for a company to hire an employee can be as much as double the employee’s salary. (Maybe less for minimum-wage workers who get minimum to no benefits).

  11. Fish

    Nicely done, Seattle…while you’re busy coming up with ways to fine soccer moms on ebikes, I’m going to forego my cargo ebike purchase and drive my 1 yr old daughter instead in a car. What’s the point of doing a pilot when you already have the data that you need? Bikes have been able to go faster than 15mph long before the invention of the ebike–did I miss the story where they are paralyzing and killing pedestrians in massive numbers? I’m sorry but I’m not going to spend thousands on a ebike only to have the pilot program cancelled and have to bike on an unsafe road with cars. My daughter’s safety is more important to me. Every day I see cars breaking the law…where is the enforcement on Bell as cars go straight the entire time? Or how about the drivers in Magnolia that continue to make illegal right turns across the PBL at a red light? Who do I call for that enforcement??

    1. asdf2

      The 15 mph limit is a business decision made by Lime, in order to help keep prices down:
      1) It reduces the risk of an accident by people who don’t know what they’re doing, hence the company’s insurance bill
      2) Since slower riding is more energy-efficient, a slower speed limit means longer batter life, which means fewer people needed to roam around in vans to keep the batteries charged.

      There is absolutely nothing stopping you from buying your own electric bike and riding it at 20 mph, when conditions allow it to be done safely. Under the law, bikes that go up to 20 mph are allowed on most trails.

      1. Fish

        We are talking about different stories. The city is planning on doing a test on allowing all ebikes on several selected trails and enforcing a 15mph speed limit on ALL bikes. Cars can go 15 over on parallel roads though obviously. Complete waste of time and resources. City should be paying people to bike over their car and not punishing them.

  12. […] Seattle Times and Seattle Bike Blog look at proposed changes to the city’s bike share […]

  13. Andrew Hanhardt

    Imagine, for a moment, putting this energy into something useful or actually productive?

    This is such a sad wasteful group. The endless justifications for the lanes, construction and the cutesy human interest drivel…

    It would be easier to swallow this drivel if it didn’t come from the mouths of the coddled, privileged and spoiled.

    Almost daily, us disabled folks,(sorry, but we STILL exist) are tripping over and dodging orange, green and yellow garbage that’s been haphazardly strewn about.

    Please don’t be surprised to see this orange, yellow and green garbage repurposed, recycled and, dare I suggest, hammered into mobiles ala Calder? Hmmmmm… Greenlake sculpture anyone?

  14. […] bike share companies have been operating under a pilot program with huge success. SDOT presented a report on the pilot to the Seattle City Council Transportation & […]

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