Venture-Financed Bike-Share Off to a Hot Start in Seattle

Will the companies be able to maintain safe bikes, provide good service, and stay financially viable in the long run? It's too soon to say. But in the early going, they are proving that plenty of people will use bike-share in a city where it previously flopped.

Privately-financed services LimeBike (above) and Spin are proving that people will use bike-share in Seattle, where the city-run system flopped. Photo: Seattle Bike Blog
Privately-financed services LimeBike (above) and Spin are proving that people will use bike-share in Seattle, where the city-run system flopped. Photo: Seattle Bike Blog

Earlier this year, Seattle closed down its publicly-funded bike-share system, Pronto, after it failed to gain significant ridership. With just 50 awkwardly distributed stations, the Pronto network wasn’t set up to succeed, and Seattle’s mandatory helmet law was also seen as a drag on use.

The failure of public bike-share in Seattle makes it an interesting testing ground for the privately-financed bike-share companies that are trying to make inroads in American cities. Two of those companies — LimeBike and Spin — have set up shop in the city, and more are on the way.

There are plenty of questions about whether this new bike-share business model, which is backed by Silicon Valley-style venture capital, will have legs. Will the companies be able to maintain safe bikes, provide good service, and stay financially viable in the long run? It’s too soon to say. But in the early going, they are proving that plenty of people will use bike-share in a city where it previously flopped, reports Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog:

LimeBike says its first 500 bikes saw “about 10,000 rides” in their first week of action. When added to Spin’s total the same week, Seattle’s 1,000 bike share bikes likely quadrupled Pronto’s best week ever and surpassed even Portland’s Biketown in its first week of operations in July 2016 with the same number of bikes.

This is a big deal because Portland has significantly higher biking rates, many more miles of connected bike infrastructure and is much less hilly than Seattle. So if the same number of bikes is doing the same or better here compared to there, that’s eye-opening.

Spin declined to give us a ride count for the same week, but CEO Derrick Ko said that combined with LimeBike’s reported total, the two companies “significantly bested” Biketown’s opening week ride count of 13,402.

The days of comparing these new bike share systems to Pronto are already over. We’re in all-new territory for West Coast bike share. Because unlike Biketown, the bike share companies in Seattle are not stopping at 1,000. Starting Monday, Spin and LimeBike started rolling out their next 500 bikes each. Both companies say they are adding bikes gradually all week, so Seattle’s bike share total should be up to 2,000 in a couple days.

Two more companies, VBikes and ofo, have also submitted permits to operate in Seattle and could add 1,000 each if approved. And in one month, companies will be able to increase their bike counts to 2,000 each. Then in October, caps will be lifted. That’s really the start of stage two for this new private bike share experiment in Seattle: The search for the magic number of bikes needed to best serve our city (and, of course, win riders and make money).

It’s worth noting that in this promotional phase, some rides were given away for free. The real test of these systems and their staying power hasn’t come yet.

More recommended reading today: The Dallas Morning News says the arrival of bike-share companies in Dallas should compel the city to implement long-delayed bike infrastructure improvements. And TransitCenter reports on Los Angeles Metro’s strategy to reverse declining bus ridership.

  • This is a big deal because Portland has significantly higher biking rates, many more miles of connected bike infrastructure and is much less hilly than Seattle. So if the same number of bikes is doing the same or better here compared to there, that’s eye-opening.

    What’s the surprise? If people already bike, they probably already have access to a bike too. If bike share doesn’t make biking more convenient for them, why would they use it?

  • Jacob Wilson

    I’m glad Chicago got a successful public bike share right off the bat. There’s no way affordable bike share can be profitable nor should it which means these private companies will go under as soon as their investment capital drys up.

    I also can’t imagine any of them offering a Divvy for Everyone program like we have here that’s $5 a year anyone making under 35k.

  • Greg Costikyan

    True to a degree, but there are use cases for bike owners to want to use bike share as well. E.g., I own a bike, but also have a CitiBike membership. Some reasons I use Citibike:

    1. I use a Citibike to pick up my daughter from camp, because if I used my own bike, I’d have to take the bike back home on the subway at rush hour, inconveniencing other subway riders.

    2. I have a short errand to run, and it’s easier to undock a Citibike to do it than drag my bike down and then back up the elevator.

    3. My wife has borrowed the bike, and I need to get somewhere.

    4. I have a day-long meeting someplace that does not offer secure bike storage, and I don’t want to leave my nice bike chained to a No Parking sign that long (I’ve had 5 bikes stolen over the years).

  • Right, which is exactly what I said: if bike share improves convenience over their own bike, people will use it. Sounds like you have at least four cases that fit that requirement.

  • Wilfried84

    According to Citi Bike, I’ve taken about 300 rides a year since inception, which surprises me, since I mostly ride my own bikes; I’m a fairly light user. At $1 per ride, a year’s worth of bike share in Seattle is a whole lot more expensive than an annual pass in New York.

  • Southeasterner

    At $29 per month for Spin, and similar rate expected for LimeBike, it’s about double the cost of Citi Bike and 4 times the cost of the previous Pronto bike share system in Seattle – and even more expense than $300 for 300 rides.

  • Wilfried84

    Also, how does it work with so many competing systems? Would you need a membership with each one?

  • Ashfaq Ahmed
  • If they’re membership-based, then yes. But since the bikes all have the QR code access anyway, that’s way less annoying than carrying around a handful of different cards.