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As shared bikes and cars get more exclusive, it’s time to start thinking about what happens next

Lime bikes are blowing up. Literally.

Exploding Lime Bike battery on UW campus … yikes! from r/Seattle

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This post is not about the couple of battery explosions reported in Seattle recently, but it’s hard to ignore that very visible (and rare) problem. This post is about recent pricing and service area changes by bike (Lime and Jump) and car (Car2Go and the now-defunct ReachNow) share services in Seattle, signs of trouble for the app taxi services (Lyft and Uber), and what Seattle and other cities need to start thinking about for the next phase.

I don’t have any answers. Instead, I want this post the be a place to collect your thoughts as users and to get folks thinking about the role of local governments in the future of shared mobility. Primarily, this site is focused on what comes next for bike share, though it seems worthwhile to consider the bikes within the context of the car-based services. I also want to restart conversations about public funding for bike share, which has proven to be incredibly valuable and effective at increasing the number of trips around town by bike.

But first, lets talk briefly about how we got where we are, what’s working and what isn’t.

  • 2014: Non-profit launches first 50 stations of Pronto Cycle Share downtown and in the U District just in time for dark and rainy fall and winter months.
  • 2015: Pilot Pronto system shows low ridership, and the planned station expansion schedule is delayed. A fumbled city buy-out puts the system into crisis.
  • 2016: The year starts with basically a bike share emergency. The City Council approves purchase of the system, but it quickly becomes clear that its problems are worse than previously known. SDOT then puts together an expansion plan that would replace the existing hardware with new electric bikes, but the whole concept is marred by an ethics finding against then-SDOT Director Scott Kubly. By the end of the year, the existing system is set to close, and the expansion plans are very shaky.
  • 2017: Then-Mayor Ed Murray kills bike share expansion plans, diverts money to downtown bike projects like 4th Ave bike lanes (hmmm). But before the bikes are even pulled from the streets, word reaches the U.S. about a free-floating bike share concept in China that appears ready to cross the Pacific. By summer, Spin, Lime and (later) ofo launch in Seattle. Bikes cost only $1 to ride, and ridership immediately eclipses Pronto.
  • 2018: Lime introduces 15¢ per minute e-bikes, Spin leaves town as it transitions to scooters and ofo leaves town as their China-based business begins imploding. Bike ridership in Seattle increases significantly, smashing bike counter records all over town. Uber-owned Jump joins Lime at the end of the year as the $1 pedal bikes disappear.
  • 2019: Lime and Jump increase prices to 25¢ per minute for their e-bikes, putting costs for many trips on par with app taxi car rides. Lyft is supposed to launch electric bikes in Seattle, but keeps delaying the rollout.

Meanwhile, Car2Go’s initial run of small and efficient Smart Cars has long been replaced by full-size Mercedes vehicles in part to compete with BMW’s ReachNow service. But now ReachNow has shut down, and Car2Go has started charging people near the edges of the city (including Much of West Seattle and Rainier Beach) more money. This wildly tone-deaf change screams inequity.

But it’s important to talk about the important differences between car sharing, like Car2Go and ZipCar, and app taxi services like Lyft and Uber. Car sharing is held back largely by the popularity of app taxis. But this competition is not fair or sustainable because the cost of app taxi rides are heavily subsidized by enormous amounts of misguided venture and investor capital and by the exploitation of the workers who own and drive the cars. But if Uber’s terrible IPO is a sign of things to come, it’s not hard to imagine these companies going under. Uber, for example, just lost $5.2 billion in one quarter, bringing its total losses to nearly $17 billion. And they are losing all this money while also cheating their drivers. It’s almost as though their business model is inherently bad. For some reason, people keep giving them money, but surely that can’t last forever … right?

Of course, it’s not like bike share has a great business model, either. If Uber and Lyft go under, they could take a lot of bike share services with them since they now own some of the largest bike share companies in the nation. Rising bike share prices in Seattle could be due to these companies’ efforts to recoup more of the costs to operate, though it’s still not clear how revenue lines up with costs. It’s extremely unlikely we will ever see $1 bikes again, since that price was obviously too low to make money. But how much does a ride need to cost to actually make a profit? And what happens to equitable access and ridership numbers if prices reach that point? If bike share becomes yet another service for the wealthy, then is it still a good thing? When the cost of riding a bike is the same as having a worker drive you there in a car, something is seriously wrong.

Here’s where we need to talk about benefits to society. Uber and Lyft are bad for cities. They increase traffic, which increases greenhouse gas emissions along with all the other negatives associated with increased car driving. Bike sharing is inherently good for cities. More people biking means less traffic, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and improved public health. Car sharing is somewhere in the middle, though I would argue it is good for cities because it makes it easier for people to avoid car ownership but remains parked when not in use. But car share also has a questionable business model, and charging more to park in Rainier Beach is a terrible way to try to address it.

Perhaps getting around town simply costs more than people want to pay. And that’s where public subsidies come in. Public transit would be unaffordable if fares and advertising had to cover the entire cost to operate. Car infrastructure is heavily subsidized through non-user taxes like property taxes. So as private companies innovate ideas but struggle to make them pencil out, local governments should be looking at the positive and negative outcomes of each idea and start considering whether and how public subsidies might make sense to support services that are good for the city. I do not know what these subsidies should look like (Public ownership of a new bike share system? Subsidies to private bike share companies? Some other option?), but I would love to hear your thoughts.

The other benefit of public funding is that local governments can have more say over how a bike share system operates. It should also be more accountable to the public. But as we saw with Pronto, the slower pace of government can also cause serious problems compared to fast-moving private companies.

I don’t think this is something that needs to happen immediately. These bike and scooter services are still evolving constantly, and being a host to their experiments has been working well for Seattle. But as very affordable bikes fade into the past, I am left feeling like the city lost something important when the $1 bikes went away.

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43 responses to “As shared bikes and cars get more exclusive, it’s time to start thinking about what happens next”

  1. Glen Buhlmann

    It should also be pointed out that the City of Seattle required the bike share permitting fees to be high enough so that it turns a profit, even after accounting for all the staff time required to process permits, do checks on whether they companies are abiding by the terms of the permit, etc., etc. The profit goes to building sidewalks which we only need because of… *checks notes*… cars.

    I have never seen any data on how the car share permit fees measure up. My suspicion is that it does not make a profit or else the city would have been tooting its horn about how good the system was cause it was making money for something else (likely car related). Anyone have data on what it costs the city in resources to allow car shares to operate vs. what the permit fees are?

    I have the same question for Uber/Lyft. Has anyone seen data that shows what it costs the city to allow these companies to operate in the city vs. how much the companies pay in permit fees?

  2. Jeremy

    None of these options are as good for families as the thing they’re competing with: the bus. You have to carry a car seat to use a taxi (scab or union) or car share. You can’t rent a family bike in our current bikeshare fleet. The bus doesn’t have these issues.

    1. Mark H

      Maybe with kids under 5. I always find the 3 or 4 bus fares are equal or more than my Lyft ride. And the Lyft ride is faster and easier…

      1. Jeremy

        So what do you do with your car seat when you get to your destination? Do you just lug it around?

  3. Liam

    Based on the last data I saw, bike share is heavily used as a first/last mile solution to transit. Perhaps a reasonable form of public subsidy could be a bike/scooter to transit transfer, where you would get a $2.75 (for example) discount from your bike/scooter ride if it was within 2 hours of an orca tap. Of course there would be logistics of integrating orca and bike share, but that would be another good thing to do regardless.

    1. Which means the bike/scooter share VCs get access to even more data and be able to tie user-identifiable ORCA data to your Lift/Uber and other records. I’m sure they’d be glad do this. Luckily the ORCA system is so bad all these companies will be out of business before they can bring this enhancement online.

  4. Tim F

    One thing to think about that may be coming sooner rather than later is that when scooters deploy in Seattle, will some percentage of bicycles still be required. If not, I’d assume that the economics and current regulations will result in private operators favoring scooters. Scooters have compelling advantages in terms of ridership, and a lot of people who aren’t interested in bike seem willing to try them, but real world safety and durability will need to be addressed. Those are big questions, but I’m simply asking if Seattle will become just one more city trying to figure out how scooters will work out, or can we maintain a bike share element as well.

    1. Glen Buhlmann

      I’ve seen data from cities that have both indicating that scooters are used more for shorter trips and bikes for longer trips. I think they work well together when your mayor doesn’t ban one of them.

  5. Al Dimond

    Of course giving government a say in bike share is a double-edged sword. I don’t think Pronto failed (i.e. as quickly as it did) because government was slow-moving

    The big thing successful (or slower-failing) systems (public or private in various cities) have had over Pronto is stronger commitments or bigger investments. And maybe there’s nothing that could have kept Pronto alive long without a bigger or stronger commitment to get it through the very tough construction and infrastructure environment it was launched into. Probably even in today’s better environment they’d need bigger investments to achieve any success.

    … anyway, the thing that was really striking about Pronto’s decision-making wasn’t that it was slow. It’s that it wasn’t focused on success. They weren’t slow to bring bikes to Fremont and Ballard, where private bikeshare is doing relatively well today, they were actively resistant to it. They were so afraid of bringing a bike thing to places that had lots of other bike things that they missed the obvious truth that different types of bike things work well together! It was like they tried to have an equity focus (which can be a strength of public projects!) but didn’t have any resources to back it up in a positive way, so they applied it in a negative way and whiffed on their entire project.

    I guess I don’t see a whole lot of positives in private “micromobility” startups, either. If Pronto showed us the ills of ineffective government action, these startups have shown us the ills of corporate action. Pricing based on attrition battles and investor hype rather than sustainable models, lack of concern for external costs, and the expansion of worker exploitation in the gig economy. The virtues of the bicycle are mostly untouched by this. If we manage the public realm wisely for the public benefit we’ll all be able to ride our own bikes just fine.

  6. Andres Salomon

    “But car share also has a questionable business model”

    I disagree with this point. Zipcar has been in business for almost 20 years. I’m not sure what kind of timeline we’re looking at to consider it sustainable, but they’ve lasted longer than many other businesses. My understanding is that they became profitable 6-7 years ago, and I’m guessing they’ve remained so (though I don’t follow their quarterly earnings reports or anything, so I can’t say for sure). They seem to have figured out a reasonable business model.

    1. Al Dimond

      Yeah… there’s the Zipcar model and then there’s the hope for the newer Car2Go model…

      Frankly I don’t think Car2Go is good for cities. It makes it easier to take a car for the kinds of trips that bikes and transit work for (trips within city limits, in places with street parking), but doesn’t help people without cars make trips that are hard without them (trips to suburban destinations with parking lots). In practice it’s a lot like the rise of app taxis, whose use mostly replaces transit trips in places where transit is necessary and popular. If it ultimately fails, as far as I’m concerned, good riddance.

      1. asdf2

        On the contrary, the Car2Go model is, so far, looking like the only sustainable business model that allows users to rent a car for the day, spontaneously, who don’t live in the most crowded downtown neighborhoods, and don’t want to spend 30 minutes riding buses each way to pick up and return the car.

        If you just look at the coverage map, Zipcar has almost no cars at all outside the densest, most crowded parts of the city. Even in places like Fremont or Wallingford, you might have 1-2 cars to choose from within a half mile radius of you, and if, they’re gone, too bad. By contrast, Car2Go has tons of cars to choose from and, even in neighborhoods such as Greenwood, Lake City, or Wedgwood, the odds are extremely good that when you’re ready to leave you can find a car when you need it.

        In many of the neighborhoods Car2Go operates, there simply around enough people who need all-day rental cars for that usage alone to justify the cost of having a car just there all day – which explains why Zipcar doesn’t operate there. Rather, it is the revenue of the short hops across town (e.g. the trips that compete with Lyft and Uber) that make up the difference, allowing rental cars in the outer neighborhoods to make economic sense.

        For better or worse, the spontaneity of Car2Go makes a much difference in the viability of giving up one’s personal car – something that I’m yet to see any other car-based service have, except for Uber and Lyft.

      2. Al Dimond

        @asdf2: Sure… but I can make spontaneous trips on my bike. All the coverage of Car2Go isn’t worth much if I can’t use it for the trips where driving in fact offers big advantages. The short, spontaneous trips it’s good at are the ones where biking and transit have a chance.

  7. asdf2

    When the micro-mobility businesses originally took off, I was expecting them to settle down into some sort of quasi-Netflix-style model where infrequent users pay by the trip while frequent users pay a monthly fee (with an automatically recurring credit card charge) for unlimited or near-unlimited rides. It was just a question of finding the right price point for subscription to maximize revenue. In other words, that a user who pays $50 for 50 rides would be more profitable to the company than a user who pays $30 for 5 rides.

    In the pedal bike world, that is indeed what happened, as Lime, Spin, and Ofo were each offering unlimited ride subscription for $30/month. Then, when the e-bikes got introduced, they weren’t included in the subscription. I kept waiting for them to offer a higher-priced monthly subscription that did, but it never happened. Even when when Jump bikes entered town to provide e-bike competition, both companies still didn’t offer any subscription options – no matter how frequently you rode, you still paid by the minute, just like an occasional rider. This was especially surprising, given that subscriptions seems like an obvious way to get customers to stick to your brand in the face of competition, rather than constantly switching back and forth depending on whose bike happens to be closer at the moment of the ride.

    The fact that neither of the companies offer this suggests that both Lime and Jump believe that the bikeshare business is more like a grocery store than Netflix – just as a grocery store cannot profitably offer customer a monthly flat-rate subscription for unlimited groceries, if Lime and Jump were able to profitably offer a monthly service for unlimited e-bike rides, they almost certainly would have done so by now.

    This begs the question – why? While it is true that bikeshare bikes have an extremely short lifespan (a couple months from what I read online), most of that is probably due to the bikes being out in the elements all day – exposed to wind, rain, theft, and vandalism – between uses, not the marginal wear+tear put on the bike as a result of the tires spinning during actual rides. As an e-bike owner, my maintenance costs have mostly been under $0.10/mile, which translates to just $0.02/minute at the 12 mph pace typical of the Lime bikes. In practice, I would expect a Lime bike that gets ridden 10 times/day to need similar repairs and have a similar lifespan to a Lime bike that just sits there outside all day and never gets ridden at all. If it were just the short lifespans of the bikes, you would think they would welcome subscriptions, as it would provide increased revenue to pay for frequent repairs and replacements of the bikes, while adding negligible additional costs.

    When I think about the problem, the high “marginal cost per trip” ultimately manifests itself in the form of labor. Every so many miles, the battery gets low, and the only way to recharge it is to send somebody out in a van to swap the dead battery with a fresh one. Because the bikeshare companies have no way to enforce good parking, every so many trips results in a bad parking job that somebody complains about, forcing them to send somebody out there to fix. Also, every so many trips, bikes will end up in places like Magnolia or Laurelhurst which, while technically within the service area, are likely to sit idle for days on end unless a paid staff member comes out and moves it. On top of this, monthly subscribers, if a subscription existed, would face an inevitable temptation to park their bike in their backyard or living room, allowing them to effectively claim Lime’s bike as their personal bike, so long as the subscription remains active. And, of course, there’s the inevitable stream of bikes that make their way far outside the service area, forcing a staff member to drive 30 minutes or longer – each way – to chase after a single bike (with the city threatening to impound the bike if they don’t do it).

    When we, as a city, chose to embrace dockless bikeshare, I don’t think anybody appreciated how expensive it was going to be.

    Ultimately, I feel that the right sweet spot between flexibility and keeping prices down is some kind of hybrid system between docked and dockless. I imagine such a system working like this: there would be monthly subscriptions, but they would only include trips that end in “virtual docks” shown in the app. Trips ending elsewhere would still be allowed, but would incur the full pay-as-you-go rate. Unfortunately, to the equity-advocate’s disappointment, the virtual docks would probably need to be constrained to areas of heavy usage (e.g. Fremont, yes – Rainier Valley – no), but consider that at $0.25/min., Rainier Valley isn’t all that well served by the current system, anyway – riding it more than a couple times a month gets very expensive, very fast.

    1. Glen Buhlmann

      Jump does have a monthly subscription for their low income program. You pay $5/month and get up to 60min of rides a day, after that you pay half the normal per-minute rate. I think a subscription service like this would work well (but at a higher cost of course).

      I don’t see the benefit of docked systems. They still require rebalancing and inherently they don’t go where they are needed. Also SDOT would need to make the decision to allocate street or other public space for the docking stations which they proved with Pronto! they are completely incapable of doing.

      I think if the city just lowered or almost removed the permit fees it would solve a big part of the profitability problem. Right now it is $50/bike/year which makes it pretty much impossible to provide an affordable system and make a profit. We subsidize car private parking to an insane amount which the city doesn’t even try to measure. The fact that the city requires bike share permits to turn a profit makes no sense

      1. asdf2

        The low income subscription is a money loser. They’re willing to do it for the brownie points with the city and it doesn’t cost much because not that many people both qualify and are willing to go through the time and trouble to prove it.

        The fact that no subscription exists for the general public -at any price- says about about their business model and their cost structure.

    2. RossB

      “When we, as a city, chose to embrace dockless bikeshare, I don’t think anybody appreciated how expensive it was going to be.”

      Well, some did. The guy who used to comment on the Seattle Transit Blog and went by the alias of d.p. mentioned it. It costs more to handle dockless bikes. I mentioned this (after I went through the same thought process as you) but alas, folks just kind of ignored it. Because new things are cool. Bring on scooters!

      Seriously though, we should do what other cities have done, and build a docked system. Just because we did it all wrong the first time is no reason to assume we will fail again. Hire someone who knows what they are doing. Yes, it will require a subsidy, but nothing compared to subsidizing dockless electric bikes, which themselves have been subsidized by venture capital (which eventually will just run out). If companies want to charge a premium for electric dockless bikes, so be it. But the rest of us should have something similar to what other cities have: a docked bikeshare system that is reasonably priced.

  8. Joe Z

    Scooters, scooters, scooters!!!

    Compared with e-bikes they are cheaper to deploy, cheaper to maintain, and accessible to a larger number of users. They are smaller so they are less likely to obstruct the sidewalk. Every single one can be picked up, charged and redistributed every night.

    The biggest issues with scooters (conflicts with cars/pedestrians) can be solved by building more bike lanes! More users in bike lanes = more political capital to build more bike lanes.

    1. Peri Hartman

      I agree. I prefer a bike but, in other cities, the scooters are amazingly popular. I think they would be here, too. And, yes, with scooters we can increase the political demand for more bike lanes !!!

      BTW, I saw someone riding a lime scooter last week. Presumably doing some testing ?

      1. Michael

        I’ve started to see them occasionally. I assume it’s some sort of limited testing by the company prior to being able to roll them out.

    2. RossB

      Ha! This is exactly what I was talking about. We keep chasing the great new thing, without ever bothering to see what works — and doesn’t work — in other cities. Is there some reason to believe that scooters make sense for Seattle? Quite the contrary. Most cities that have scooter rentals are in small cities, just like most cities that have dockless bike share are in small cities. All the while, cities that have made an investment in a real docked system find themselves with something that works, and works well.

      Then there the hills. People think that we need to have electric bikes, because of our hills. Yet scooters are supposed to work? Seriously? I really don’t want to be there when someone takes one of them down a hill and then tries to turn the corner. Yes, I know, they have breaks, but come on. Oh, and keep in mind, supposedly a big selling point is that these appeal to people who haven’t figured out how to ride a bike! Might as well hop on a Ducati even though you’ve never been on a bike. Yeesh.

      It is time for this city to grow up. We aren’t a tiny little city anymore. We should make the investment in a real, docked bike share system.

  9. Pedro

    IMO, Pronto bikeshare was doomed from the start, for 3 reasons:
    1. Ebikes > non-Ebikes (hilly city, novice cyclists)
    2. Stationless > Docked (easier, cheaper, more widespread)
    3. Pronto was inequitable (Pronto stations were never coming to, say, South Park)

    So the future of bikeshare is electric, stationless and plentyful enough to reach all corners of town.

    Seems ripe for a public private partnership. City kicks in a contribution ($0.25 maybe) for every ride and demands certain standards are met. Companies reduce their risk, city gets a cheap, reliable service.

    1. Nope, Pronto was doomed because of a lack of money, stemming at least partly from our outdoor advertising rules. The other stuff was just fallout from that. (and the helmet issue played a part, too.)

    2. RossB

      Wrong, wrong, wrong. First of all, there are plenty of hilly cities with bike share. Second, free-floating bike share is *more* expensive than docked. If you don’t understand that, read previous comments by adf2 where it is explained quite clearly.

      Finally, there is no science whatsoever to support your theories. In contrast, NACTO has published detailed studies about bike share (https://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NACTO_Walkable-Station-Spacing-Is-Key-For-Bike-Share_Sc.pdf). Their findings, in summary: you need lots of stations. Not only do you need a good coverage area, but you need lots of stations *within* that coverage area. You can’t have, say, four stations in First Hill. You need dozens. Otherwise, you aren’t going to get many riders. At Tim wrote, the problem was a lack of investment. We failed to do what other cities have done, then, when we failed, refused to look at the science, but blamed other factors (weather, hills, fish).

  10. We should consider our recent bike share experience as another chapter of USA’s history of speculative approaches to city life, which tend not to be sustainable, and leads to unnecessarily bad results. Electric trolleys were invented in the USA and became widespread here before anywhere else, but they were financed based on land speculation, as a way to sell suburban houses, which was never sustainable. Relatedly, our concentric rings of decay and growth around our cities, up to new suburbs and the massive road infrastructure they require today, are financed based on the unsustainable assumption of future growth paying for the costs of past growth. Today, the tech sector as a whole is based on this model of offering a good product to consumers for an unsustainable price, and then crossing your fingers and hoping that they’ll stay with you or you’ll have driven everyone else out of the market when you need to raise your prices to cover your actual costs.

    I’ll share that my experience with Mexico City’s Ecobici 9 year-old system was entirely positive, with stations every block (in the tony neighborhood I was in) and lots of simple, sturdy bikes available.

    1. This, exactly.

    2. RossB

      “We should consider our recent bike share experience as another chapter of USA’s history of speculative approaches to city life, which tend not to be sustainable, and leads to unnecessarily bad results.”

      Or, we can consider this approach as yet another example of how Seattle refused to do what works in other U. S. cities, ignores the science, and then wrings its hands, assuming that it just can’t happen here.

  11. Tim F

    Other things to think about: Bewegen’s had lackluster performance since they didn’t get the Seattle contract. I can imagine a different outcome in which their bikes were chosen instead of SoBi’s. Maybe they would have been acquired by Uber instead. But rather than over-analyzing the past, I’d hope the future ecosystem has room for SoBi/Jump/Uber to compete against Lyft/Motivate, and Trek/B-Cycle and others.

    With recent improvements in battery and electric motor technology, it makes no sense to assume that future transportation systems in the US should be a car shaped and sized monoculture. Electric motors are efficient over a far wider performance envelope. They work in one-wheels and electric skateboards as well as buses and trains (and apartment elevators). Sure, building cities to be denser, more walkable and human paced can be done with traditional buses, trains, pedal bikes and multi-family housing. But over all we’re still tending to budget for a car-centric suburban future that will be cut short by a climate crisis. It will be easier to offer an electrified bike or scooter or moped or golf cart ride as an option addition to bus, walk or live downtown. The rate at which car use needs to decline if we are to address the climate crisis will be quite a shock for most of this country. If we even manage slow the reconstruction and new construction of highways, there should be plenty of money available to get more people on bikes and bike-like contraptions in creative as well as traditional ways.

  12. […] Seattle Bike Blog notes that Uber, Lyft, and “bike share” are all getting more exclusive, and what that might mean going forward. […]

  13. bryan willman

    “Perhaps getting around town simply costs more than people want to pay. ”


    And that cost will NOT be made smaller (on the whole) by turning it into a public service or subsidized service. Why are the “edges” of the city neglected? Because there’s not enough money there. A public option may redistribute some of the cost (in money), but will likely not lower the total social cost and will be subject to huge edge effects at city boundaries, etc.

    If we someday stop trying to cram every job and thus every person into 10 or 20 cities and instead spread out the industries, jobs, etc. geographically, these issues would be greatly reduced.

    But through recent human history the forces of aggolomeration have been stunning, and the costs and social fatique that come with them as well.

    (Example – so the money fairy brings funding for “free e-bikes” – what will happen? We’ll be forced to either track people or make them pay, just like for buses, because free fast transport is a facilitator of crime. It’s a *VERY* small number of people – but the poison effect that means a handful of people who rob somebody, run a block, hop on a bus for 5 blocks, and hop off, create a huge problem. Even though 99.995% of the people who hop on/hop off that same bus are normal citizens.)

  14. NickS

    Not something I’d normally bring up on Seattle Bike Blog, but since we’re discussing car share, app taxis, and the like, I haven’t seen any mention of King County’s pilot Via for Transit app taxi (well, more a shared taxi / shuttle to/from the light rail stops) — https://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/transportation/metro/programs-projects/innovation-technology/innovative-mobility/on-demand/via-to-transit.aspx.

    It’s a public/private partnership to help solve the last mile problem for access to light rail in SE Seattle. It suffers from many of the same ecological problems as the other app taxi services (I don’t understand why the vehicles aren’t electric), but it does address many of the affordability and equity issues with the mainstream app taxi services; one taps the Orca card in the shuttle for payment, and that charge includes a transfer to light rail. It won’t take you from your door, unless you happen to live next to a pick-up/drop off point, but the points are fairly tightly spaced every block or two.

    Unfortunately, in my testing, it’s been quite unreliable. I’ve tried the service three times; the first, a few days after launch, I was informed the service was too busy to respond to my request and to try again later. The second attempt worked fine, though the operator was new to driving and made a highly illegal and unsafe u-turn on Rainier Ave to double back and pick up a second passenger on the way to the station. The third attempt, this morning, I was initially told the driver would be there in 3 minutes. As soon as I booked the pick-up, it immediately changed to being 18 minutes. 1 out of 3 trips working as expected are not great odds if you’re hoping to make it to work or an appointment on time.

    That said, I’m excited for the service as it could be a great way for my parents on their next visit to get to the light rail station about a mile away (the reason I’ve been testing the service). One of them suffers from arthritis which would make the mile walk a burden. They won’t be in a rush, so pick-up delays are not a big deal for them.

  15. Tim F

    Via reminds me that a similar shuttle bus company, Chariot, recently shut down. Their CEO moved to Zagster, another e-bike share company that Seattle briefly considered for Pronto. There’s also a Spin connection. That was one of the first wave of dockless pedal bike companies in Seattle after Pronto ended. I think a lot of these companies don’t necessarily have the answers to what’s next either. But they can experiment more rapidly and cheaply with bikes and scooters than with buses. This era of micro- and shared- mobility makes me think of PalmOS, Blackberry pagers or the early MP3 players that predated modern touch-screen phones.


  16. bryan willman

    At least on the surface Via looks like a brilliant idea.

    And than I wonder, why couldn’t versions of lime/ofo/jump etc. work for that?

    I know a person who works for lime, and he commented one day that after the “novelty” period wore off, they started to see a lot of uses that were in repeating patterns. (If you rode one from the train to your house, and then rode it back the next day, and did this 2 days a week every week, that makes a lot of sense, if it’s not too costly, and there’s always a bike there.)

    I think Tim F is spot on – it’s really early days….

  17. Tom, one thing missing in your summary is how we ended up with Pronto funded the way it was (memberships, per/ride, and small public/private partnerships).

    Before VCs and all their magical-unicorn-fairy-dust “business models”, the way bike share had been funded for years internationally was via outdoor advertisement. In exchange for the right to advertise (kiosks, subways, buses, etc) companies would develop, deploy, and maintain these docked bike shares via pre-negotiated plan and SLA.The docking was the best solution at the time and worked well for years and years and may have worked in Seattle had we been able to launch with a big enough system. (When Velib launched stations in the city core were no more than 1000m apart).

    But Seattle has restrictions on outdoor advertising, thoughtfully designed to reduce visual clutter, that made this kind of funding impossible. Lacking a big pile of cash, Pronto launched (as the weather turned. Oops) with a shoestring system and budget, hoping to scale later when the ride money started rolling in. It never did and the city was left holding the bag.

    But instead of trying to find a way around our advertising rules (limited ad zones, an ad approval board, or other options), we just threw up our hands, scrapped the existing system (which may have had to happen anyway since technology was evolving so rapidly), and gave the entire thing to the VCs.

    These nice people were willing to develop and deploy “dockless” bike share for basically nothing. Well nothing aside from our citizens’ user data and any sort of control over what the region says is an important system for serving the “last mile.” The city gets rid of the Pronto albatross and replaces with cheap bikes, seemingly everywhere. And no helmets.* Whee! What a deal.

    The catch? Well, there is this matter of the data they collect that we have no idea how they’re using. And when they have enough of that (ORCA integration, anyone?), they’ll likely either raise prices or threaten to leave the market (unless they can roll out some cheaper-to-operate vehicles). Oh wait, this is happening already.

    Don’t get me wrong — I love not seeing the visual pollution of ads everywhere. But in the case of private bike share, we still ended up with visual — and physical — pollution in the form of the bikes everywhere. And because of the “business model,” WE (the citizens of the region) have become the advertisement AND the product (in the form of all our data being harvested).

    I guess this could still be some sort of “win” if we retained any control at all. If this was truly a system — a transparent, negotiated public/private partnership with shared risk and reward — such a system would allow the planners to do what they do: plan. But what planning can be done if this awesome “last mile” program is not only out of our control, but beyond our imagination? (seriously, we have NO IDEA what the end game is for these companies. Because they don’t have to tell us)

    Logically — we’re practical Seattle people after all — we think, “of course Jump and Lime (and Lyft is coming, right? Right?) will be here next year and the year after and so on. In some form. Right?”

    Reality: we honestly have no idea whether the bikes (or scooters or pogo sticks or whatever) will be around next year. The money in play here (VCs, Uber/Lyft market valuations, etcs) is so huge and the cost of bike/scooter share per city so small (to them), they could turn off the bikes tomorrow and walk away with barely a write-down on next year’s SEC forms.

    *The helmet ordinance didn’t help the Pronto cause. They’re expensive. They added cost to every ride. And they weren’t cool — don’t underestimate this one for a system trying to sell itself as the next wave in transportation. Then magically, *poof* helmets became a non-issue once the VCs rolled out their system. Funny how that worked.

    1. RossB

      Well said. I personally think both the helmet issue as well as the advertising issue were relatively minor problems. The big issue was lack of funding. Yes, money can come from advertising, but it can also just come from the city. Bike share systems are not that expensive. For the price of just one part of the ridiculous streetcar line, we could have an outstanding bike share system.

  18. pgolay

    Of course we’ll never not need to get around cities, but it does seem like, long term, a big part of the solution will be to remove, as much as possible, the need. That means real, coherent, compact neighborhoods with local employment, local commerce and services, local parks etc. Just like a real city!

    1. Sam

      Sounds like Seattle 30+ years ago..

  19. RossB

    Excellent article. I especially liked the bullet point summary of what went down. You forgot an item though:

    * Cities across the country laugh at Seattle for doing it wrong (again).

    It is pretty bad to not only be a late adopter, but implement the plan so poorly. But hand it to Seattle to do it once again. Most cities would start by saying “Hey, let’s copy what has worked for other cities”, or maybe “Look at that, it turns out there is a lot of science about this whole bike share thing. How about we adopt best practices.” But not Seattle. Nope.

    Sigh. Just look at Boston, for example (a city roughly the size of Seattle). It costs $100 a year for unlimited rides (as long as each ride is under 45 minutes). If I lived in Beantown, I would have a membership, even if I rarely used it. No, I can’t just leave the bike anywhere. Nor is it electric. They are cheap bikes, that you park into docks. There are a lot of docks. Everywhere. Docks near other docks. Docks that spread out across the city. It isn’t perfect. They could add more docks, and increase use even more (I know because the science is pretty conclusive). So did Seattle adopt that model? Did we have lots of docks, spreading out over the city?

    Of course not. Our “pilot” program was terrible. Not only was coverage weak, but there simply weren’t enough docks. They supposedly covered First Hill, for example, yet there half mile distances between docks! If a dock was full, you were hosed. If you happen to be a few blocks away, there was no point. The whole idea of bike share is that you have lots of bikes available, very close to where you are. Yet Seattle failed to come even close to that.

    So then we figured that a private company would come up with a great solution. First it was cheap bikes. Then electric bikes. Now they want scooters. While it is easy to see how Uber and Lyft “are heavily subsidized by enormous amounts of misguided venture and investor capital and by the exploitation of the workers”, the exact same thing happens with bike shares! All bike share requires moving bikes. They contract that out, the same way Uber contracts out the rides. Except now the folks have to switch out batteries. The bikes are expensive, and since they can end up anywhere, they are thrashed more often. Since there are no docks, simply moving them is more expensive. That is the part of this that folks seem to ignore. This model — so new, so fresh — is actually more expensive than the old bike share! Of course it is. With docks, you know where every single one of your bikes are. Patterns emerge, and you deal with them. Like commuting to the same place every day, you figure out how best to get there.

    With free-floating bikes, a single pickup could be anywhere. It could be down a dead end street, in some unusual part of town, or worse yet, in the lake. Even when it is parked just the way it is supposed to be, it takes longer to move it. Instead of five bikes, all together, in the dock ready to be moved, you have them spread out, around the block.

    So, anyway, you asked for a suggestion. Here it is: Do what other cities do. This means spending money, subsidizing cheap bikes in docks. Lots of docks.

  20. AJ

    The future of app taxis, Via, and the -sharing companies is dying badly needed deaths. Whether it is kiosks, parking spots, or just dumping private property on sidewalks, all of these “services” save Via abuse the public square for private profit. Screw that and screw them. They’ll eventually be run out of town “on a rail”, and we’ll all be better off for it.

    Via is best compared to the Hopelink/SVT/First Transit run services and bus routes throughout the region. Subpar service, subpar timeliness, no customer service to speak of and horrendous driver quality shows us these types of public-private partnerships provide an unacceptably poor quality of service per public dollar. The sooner they are shut down and replaced by Metro/ST services the better.

    This type of artificially “flexible” service comes at a huge on street negative impact to our quality of life. If these companies want to continue, we need to make them buy real estate. Park their car shares in their garage. Put their scooters and bikes somewhere on their dime. If that’s financially unfeasible, then the business model itself is unfeasible and needs to be shut down.

    1. …and keep in mind that *subsidy* could be in the form of something other than straight cash. Advertising rights. Naming rights. Healthcare tie-ins. Whatever. As long as we’re giving away our citizens’ data and advertising for Lime and Jump, the region ought to at least get something out of it (a real “system” controlled by the region).

      1. I meant to comment on the “advertising” part more directly — the inability to sell advertising was actually a HUGE issue. Because it meant they didn’t have funding source to immediately build out the system. As far as I know, the original intent with Pronto wasn’t to require a huge city subsidy. Because if it was, they shouldn’t have launched until they had it.

        Docked bike share doesn’t work on a limited basis. It needs to launch pretty much ready to go for the bulk of your urban core. Slowly scaling up as you get more money doesn’t work. You need a revenue stream (ads or something) or a public subsidy or magical unicorn dust (VCs). Pronto didn’t have any of those.

        For what it’s worth, I actually a huge* city/region/sound transit subsidy is the right way to do bike share. But if you’re not going to have that AND you can’t have advertising, you’re doomed.

        *not really huge. Look at what we’re spending on the streetcar

  21. Private bike share is infeasible long-term. It’s just not profitable. Bike share needs to go back to docked stations and be operated as short-trip public transit. The whole dockless thing is too expensive to manage, which should be obvious from the implosion of Ofo and the other big players. Systems like Boston’s Blue Bikes (neé Hubway) that are municipally owned are the only ones that will make it through this shakeout *and* be priced equitably.

  22. David A

    keep it simple, bike share systems, free bikes etc have never worked..even in Amsterdam. More busses,-Their flexible, relatively cheap infrastructure, can employ city workers so the public has control over the system and budget. Nice to see someone pointing out the real downside to lyft and uber.

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