Seattle Just Canned Its Bike-Share System. What Went Wrong?

Mayor Ed Murray testing out a Pronto bike in happier times. Photo: SDOT via Seattle Transit Blog
Mayor Ed Murray testing out a Pronto bike in happier times. Photo: SDOT via Seattle Transit Blog

With Seattle’s three-year-old bike-share system, Pronto, struggling to attract riders and make ends meet, Mayor Ed Murray announced last Friday that he’s going to scrap it.

The city had been contemplating an expansion that would have roughly doubled the size of the system and added e-bikes supplied by Bewegen, a supplier with major question marks (it’s the descendant of Montreal-based Bixi, which went bankrupt in 2014). But Murray shifted course and will wind down the system, redirecting the $5 million in expansion funds to Safe Routes to School projects and other investments in safe walking and biking, reports Zach Shaner at Seattle Transit Blog.

Local bike advocates applauded the funding for safe streets, but scrapping Pronto has Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog wondering if “the well may be poisoned for bike share” in the city.

If Seattle is going to give bike-share another try, it will have to learn from this experience. The Pronto system started off small and never scaled up. The network had about 50 stations, and they were spaced too far apart and in non-contiguous areas, limiting the trips people could make.

And as Shaner noted last year at Seattle Transit Blog, the city’s mandatory helmet law was clearly a hindrance:

Though controversial within the cycling community and a guarantee of a comment flame war, there is simply no doubting the empirical reality that our rare all-ages helmet law adds a barrier to ridership and drags down performance. Seattle may have its dangers, but if Manhattan can be safe for millions without a helmet law, so can Seattle.

Again, if we value mandatory helmets over spontaneous ridership, that is a value choice we are free to make, but then we similarly must reduce our ridership expectations.

The good news is that Murray will be accelerating the city’s investment in bike infrastructure. If he uses that $5 million to fill gaps in Seattle’s bike network, people on bikes will be safer and the city will be in a better position when it takes another stab at bike-share.

More recommended reading today: City Observatory and Bike Pittsburgh remember Martin Luther King’s unfinished legacy fighting for justice in transportation. And the Frontier Group points out that even as the gas tax has produced smaller and smaller returns for transportation, federal officials have been spending ever more money on highways — crowding out funding for other national priorities.

  • Jonathan Krall

    Stunning. Based on results from other cities, all they had to do was drop their helmet law and revenue would have increased. In other cities these systems are bringing in enough to cover most of the operating costs.

    In other words, people would rather believe in helmets than have more money. Frustrating that humans form beliefs instead of opinions, but that seems to be the way it is.

  • Chip Haynes

    Angie, if you lived in Seattle you would understand that a bike share in will never work here.
    1. Topography. There are no flat areas in core area of Seattle.
    2. Weather. The peak season for outdoor activities in Seattle is basically mid-May to mid-September (unless you’re hard core cyclist who already owns his/her bike).
    No amount of scaling or helmet law elimination will ever get rid of that. It was a ridiculous idea from the start that wasted taxpayers money.

  • rohmen

    While Chicago is flat (and I’m sure it helps on a heavy bike-share bicycle), Divvy manages to keep a solid customer base through winter. Weather alone doesn’t kill these systems in most places.

  • AnoNYC

    eBikes would have eliminated the topographical obstacles.

  • JudenChino

    Uh, mandatory helmet law more than anything. That killed bikeshare in flat and sunny Melbourne and Brisbane.

    Many rainy climates have successful bike share. I think of Northern Europe in particular. My wife is from cloudy Holland and they have no problems biking in the rain. You’ll see a train of people in big colorful ponchos.

    And the hills are a cop-out too. SF anyone?!? You don’t have to bike long distances at steep grade. It’s for short trips. Paris is also very hilly and Velib is ridiculously popular. They also give time bonuses/credits for taking low elevation bikes to higher elevation locations.

  • BlueFairlane

    Too bad they couldn’t have scrapped the helmet law to see if that really would have made the difference. I suspect the larger issue had to do with the small coverage area and the limited trips a person could make using the system, but there’s no way of knowing. It’s more fun to complain about helmets, so that’s what we’ll go with.

  • Fish

    The topography is challenging but you are way off with number 2. Remind me again–does it rain in Portland, Amsterdam, Copenhagen? I moved to Seattle because the weather is mild. The only people that think bike riding in 48 degrees with a light drizzle in the middle of winter is “hard core” are from California.

  • seattleite

    A bike share system would work fine here with sufficient station density.

    Topography: riding along any of the avenues downtown is not particularly steep. Getting between them is steep, yes, but that’s equally true for every transit rider who doesn’t happen to work on 3rd Avenue. Riding along the Burke Gilman Trail is obviously flat. South Lake Union, and the lakeside routes to the draw bridges are flat: Westlake and Fairview. I used Pronto all the time to get between SLU and UW. It was faster than the 70 and took me to more destinations.

    Weather: Come on. Seattle’s weather is head and shoulders better than Chicago, and debatable to compare to NYC or DC, where their summers are deathly muggy, their winters are much colder. I’d say they beat us in November and April due to rain frequency but our Dec, Jan, Feb, July, August are all much better than theirs.

    The best evidence against your factors: they both should inhibit walking to work just as much, yet walking to work has skyrocketed in mode share recently in Seattle. Angie nailed it: the system failed due to vastly too few stations.

  • Cali_ExPat

    As a longtime bikeshare supporter (I’ve worked on 3 systems, and 2 pilots), I think Seattle is making the right choice given the helmet law is a statewide mandate. Without relief from this, their bikeshare is missing a huge pool of potential riders (75% of CaBi users in DC don’t wear helmets). Instead, the progress SDOT has made in tactical safe-streets retrofits is worthy of boosting and amplifying with this additional $5M. SDOT has a proven record of frequent, low cost improvements that benefit cyclists and pedestrians. This is the most important work they can do right now.

    Additionally, with other bikeshare vendors agitating for a piece of the action, entry into that market by private interests is inevitable. Whether someone like Zagster, or another company, the potential for operating profitably in a dense urban area remains pretty strong in Seattle. So long as SDOT and the city preserve the option of reinstating bikesharing (keeping public space for stations available, along with a favorable legal landscape), I’m sure it will be back.

  • docaaron1

    Looks like Eco-Helmet was created for this situation. https://www.ecohelmet.com/
    You might also need some pedal assist e-bikes like in Baltimore’s bike share.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    When i visited Seattle I did use Pronto a couple times, but was disappointing at the lack of stations. My partner and I ended up doing lots of walking and riding the bus instead of biking because there weren’t any bike share stations where we wanted to go. For bike sharing to work, there needs to be as many stations as there are bus stops because that’s the largest market for bike sharing; an alternative to taking public transportation.

  • I gotta say, when I used Pronto Bike Share while there in September it was good in the mostly “flat-ish” areas. But I nearly had a heart attack riding up two hills. Oh and sweat! I can understand the topography issue for sure, a heavy bike and hills does not equal a good thing. And I am in pretty good shape!

  • Chicagoan

    Why?

    The helmet law.

    The end.

  • NunyaBusiness

    One word re: the wailing about weather…Minneapolis.

  • NunyaBusiness

    Minneapolis-St. Paul has a great bike sharing program and no one has anything on them for crappy weather!

  • Maris

    Hello from London! Two points:
    1) London is a pretty rainy climate and the bike share here is doing quite well.
    2) Bike share appeals to those that have their own bikes as well as the bike-less. Bike share can be the perfect connector between the train/bus/subway and office/home.

  • Frank Kotter

    Chip, if this was true then you would find successful bike share programs with mandatory helmet use in other areas you claim doesn’t have the insurmountable problems like ‘Seattle weather’. The fact is, you don’t. Comparative analysis is important here and gives us the best look into successes and failures, much more so than looking at Seattle’s experience as though it existed on another planet altogether.

  • Joe R.

    Agree with the others about the helmet law being the primary cause. A mandatory helmet law, if enforced, would be sufficient to make me give up riding my own bike, never mind using bike share bikes. No place with a mandatory helmet law has had a successful bike share system. Requiring a helmet kills the utility of bike share. Either you would have to rent a helmet, with all the sanitary issues that entails, or carry around your own all day.

  • Mr_Gone2Rio

    Except we shut it down from November to April. Stations are bikeless when it’s 5 below and the streets are covered with snow.

  • CeeTee55

    You have a point about the weather. But regarding the topography (I’ve been to both London and Seattle) London is very flat by comparison.

    But I don’t think that means bikeshare won’t work in Seattle. Just that it may not be as popular as some other places.

  • Nate Briggs

    +1 for this. With grandkids in Seattle, I’m there all the time. The city’s topography is a challenge for any cyclist – if you’re not going straight up, you’re going straight down – and bikeshare bikes just aren’t built for the terrain. Another factor: the transit system is very competent. Much of the time, you’d wonder why you’re bothering with a bike.

  • Marco

    Yes, like the one you were supposed to have now!!! Baltimore’s supplier was the same as Seattle!

  • Dave Snyder

    Consider scrapping the mandatory helmet requirement and bike share will have a better chance.

  • kclo3

    If anything, Seattle will be another example where bike share is not strictly needed to sustain a high bicycle mode share, which has only improved over time.

  • localmile

    That will be changing though. The major problem currently is that stations are often in the way of plows and while people will ride all winter on protected bikeways, they will not on regular streets or those with just painted bike lanes.

    As the protected bikeway network expands and areas for stations that don’t interfere with plows are made available you’ll start to see a bit of the system up all year.

  • The Pronto bikes themselves appeared to be well-designed. The absurd time-limit requirement and the high pricing rate was the killer.

    If Seattle wants a functional transit alternative, they should just buy several thousand repairable bikes, add integral locks, paint ’em white, and let them be part of the landscape.

  • What were the time limit requirements?

  • HayBro

    I agree. Any E-W travel around the downtown area is a killer with these bikes. San Francisco is hilly but a different kind of hilly, with the downtown, South of Market and a number of contiguous neighborhoods accessible via flat routes. Riding to/from Seattle’s downtown is more challenging. And the helmet law contributed too, I’m sure.

  • Chicagoan

    How does having a competent transit system hinder a bike share system?

    Chicago, New York, and San Francisco have superior transit systems to Seattle, and their bike share systems are just fine.

    I buy arguments like the helmet law and the terrain, but I’m not buying this.

  • NunyaBusiness

    And yet it still is solvent enough to keep going on just 6 months a year.

  • dat

    Same with Barcelona.

  • docaaron1

    We were down at the Inner Harbor last weekend and saw a few people riding the bikes there. Looks like a nice tourist activity and a fun way to travel around the harbor area. I wonder how you lock them up safely if you want to stop and shop or go to a restaurant.

  • Chicagoan

    The same goes for many cities.

  • Not all of California is a sunny Beach Boys song.

  • You’re in good shape, but when the steepest climb around is the Manhattan Bridge, you build different muscles than those who bike up a hill every day.

  • While a bit of truth, I live up on a hill in Jackson Heights. I ride a 60 pound WorkCycle a good portion of the day. It still sucks going up the hill some days on my 20 pound bike. And in Seattle the hills are absolutely ridiculous. So to do that on a bike share bike was pure hell, not to say anything about the incredible amount of sweat that would make bicycling there tough for me (and it was pretty dry while I was there, can imagine the humidty there is usually much worse on average.)

  • Frank Kotter

    I would make the argument that for a solid bike share system in a larger metro, you NEED a strong rail/bus system as most users are unwilling to travel more that a mile or two per trip. Bikes for daily commute/shopping, trains to the airport…….

  • As I recall from early 2015, riders who didn’t want to buy a full day pass ($8-ish) were required to return the bike to a Pronto station within well under an hour.

    Little practical usability for either tourism or commute aside downtown.

  • As an aside on Seattle topography, read David Williams book “Too High and Too Steep”. I don’t bike here, but I used to do 20 mile bike commutes in the flatlands of Silicon Valley.

  • Most bike share systems require a return within 30 minutes.

  • Megan Gee

    Definitely the time limits and restrictive rules about checking bikes in and back out again would make me pause before trying a bike share run by these people again. Also the locations of the pods made it a bit difficult to go exploring, it’s the same thing here in SF. The helmet thing isn’t that big of a deal though i imagine it would put many people off. I think mostly just their complicated system, a lack of goodwill around rules, and pod locations made it tough to get off the ground.
    Oh yeah, and it was really expensive unless you were on a promo rate like we were.

  • Given all the external factors at play in Seattle (topography and helmet law), this is probably the best move, especially since the City is planning to use the money for actual infrastructure instead. Despite its LAB ranking and recent progress, there is still far too much of Seattle where actual infrastructure will do far more to making biking easier and safer than a colorful bike will.

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