Bike Share Deserves Public Investment


Update: At the March 1 transportation meeting, Lisa Herbold’s anti-Pronto amendment was defeated in a 1-5 vote, but Mike O’Brien’s amendment to buy out Pronto ended in a 3-3 tie with Debora Juarez and Tim Burgess joining Herbold in opposition. This means that the bill will go to the full council meeting at 2 p.m. on March 14 without recommendation and all amendments still on the table. The three members supporting the city buyout of Pronto (O’Brien, Rob Johnson and Kshama Sawant) will need to find two more supporters to pass the bill. Lorena Gonzalez, Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell were not at the transportation meeting but their votes will likely ultimately decide Pronto’s fate.

Further update (!): Deborah Juarez actually voted yes at the meeting on Tuesday, but her voice vote was recorded incorrectly. This means that the bill goes to the Full Council with a “recommendation to pass”. 

Councilmember Lisa Herbold (West Seattle) is on the fiscal conservative warpath. She is seeking to scuttle Pronto Bike Share, to sell off its assets to repay federal grants, to let the private sector fill the vacuum (or not), and to bravely defend a few on-street parking spots from bike share station encroachment. Wouldn’t want dozens of cyclists using street space that could store one single occupant vehicle! Councilmember Burgess agreed, piling on in a post that called the program “insolvent.” Councilmember O’Brien, on the other hand, supports investing $1.4 million in city funds to buy Pronto Cycle Share from Puget Sound Bike Share, the non-profit that owns it. Herbold and Burgess think they are saving the city in immediate costs and in future liabilities because they’re convinced Pronto is insolvent after just seventeen months of operation and that it will remain so.

Profitability is an unreasonable expectation for such a fledgling system with poor station placement. Build a mature system with logical station placement and robust coverage then talk about return on investment. To pull the plug and not invest needed public funds would be a imprudent knee jerk reaction. Public ownership also comes with much more control of station placement and the ability to expand the system in areas that might not be very profitable, but meet equity goals. Herbold’s own West Seattle comes to mind, as do far north neighborhoods like Bitter Lake and Lake City. A profit-seeking private bike share would not be going to these far flung neighborhoods any time soon.

Learning From Peer Cities

We need to invest in Pronto. Seattle had a mere 54 (poorly placed) stations but still managed more than 144,000 trips in its first 12 months. Not bad. More mature systems have done much better (but not in their first year). Minneapolis/Saint Paul’s Nice Ride system had 170 stations and 1,556 bikes in 2014 and saw 408,485 total trips. In its first 12 months, Nice Ride saw about 138,000 trips. Denver B-cycle had 377,229 trips in 2014 on its 84 stations and 709 bikes. In its first year (2010), Denver managed 102,159 trips, but almost doubled that total in its second year. Seattle’s first 12 months was actually better than what Minneapolis and Denver achieved. Our problem stems from unreasonable expectations and a tightwad city council trying to throw in the towel at the slightest sign of trouble.

Larger cities have another magnitude of ridership. Chicago Divvy increased their system to 475 stations and 4,750 bikes in 2014 and saw more than 3 million trips. The start-up cost of Chicago’s extensive system was $31.5 million, $25 million of which came from federal grants. That puts Seattle’s hand-wringing over much smaller investments in perspective.

New York City’s CitiBike surpassed 10 million trips in 2015 using 460 stations and 7500 bikes. CitiBike took about $50 million to initially launch, $10 million to replace Hurricane Sandy damage and another $50 million to build out. Quite the investment but it’s hard to argue with 10 million rides. Yes CitiBike’s money came from the private sector, as Herbold cites; but Seattle doesn’t have corporations stepping up right now to fill the funding gap. The option is public money or risking the death of Pronto.

Seattle needs to follow the lead of other major cities and expand its bike share network. Private investment can continue to play a big part, but the city needs to step up to invest in more stations and bikes and in improving bicycle infrastructure to allow users to travel in greater safety and comfortable. The Move Seattle levy promises to add more protected bike lanes. We have to build on that momentum by expanding bike share coverage, especially where bicycle and transit infrastructure is the strongest. There shouldn’t be a light rail station in Seattle without an adjacent Pronto station, at least once we expand the Pronto network.


One item increasing Pronto’s cost is the helmet rental system. King County has a mandatory helmet law, which behooved Pronto to invest in helmets and helmet dispensing technology. Now users can pay $2 to rent a helmet at a Pronto station. This would all be well and good if Pronto was sitting on a pile of cash and could afford the extra expense of operating a helmet rental service. However, obviously finances are tight and it’s regrettable that Pronto is being made to defend it’s profitability when it’s had some so many obstacles in its path.

Pronto Turns One: Data from the First Year
These bicyclists are rocking helmets with style, but are helmet laws a drag on Pronto’s popularity?  (Pronto Cycle Share)

Writing an exception into the helmet law for bike share users is one option. (I’d personally support getting rid of the helmet law entirely.) Much research indicates safety in numbers does more to increase bicyclist safety than mandatory helmet laws do. The problem is helmet laws discourage bicycling, trading the safety in greater numbers for a piece of armor for collisions. Since collisions happen at a greater rate with fewer bicyclists on the street, helmet laws help worsen the problem they seek to address. If King County is going to continue to impose the extra burden of helmet rental into Seattle’s bike share program, we have to accept the consequence, which is a higher cost system that is harder to market to users.

Hills To Climb

Speaking of obstacles: one argument against Pronto is that Seattle is simply too hilly to support casual bike riding. That is a cop out given the haphazard roll out of Pronto. Seattle could still have a healthy system with the right station placement and infrastructure. Major bike routes on hills should have protected bike lanes if at possible to make it more comfortable to huff it uphill. Hills are not an insurmountable obstacle and they should be the scapegoat for the under-performance of an underfunded, poorly-distributed bike share network. Pronto users did prefer downhill trips to uphill trips with about 80,000 downhill rides to 50,000 uphill rides. That doesn’t suggest uphill rides are a deal-breaker, just less popular. If a portion of users want to bike down hill and bus back up the hill, the bike share system should accommodate them. It also makes sense that in the first year downhill rides would take a larger share of trips since many users are still getting acclimated to the new system.

VMT Savings

Other cities have justified their bike share investments by highlighting the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) savings. VMT savings mean less wear and tear on the road because of the simple fact a two ton car does much more damage to a roadway than a 15 pound bike. Thus, shifting more trips to bikes from car trips on a particular street means it could need less frequent maintenance saving the city millions in maintenance costs. This has been absent from Seattle’s discussion of bike share.

Council members Herbold and Burgess are dead set on the penny-wise but pound-foolish decision to scuttle Pronto. They would be “saving” a few tax dollars now in exchange for pushing more people into motor vehicles where they do greater damage to the roadways and incur maintenance costs that dwarf the minimal investment Pronto needs. Herbold, a self-styled progressive, follows right-wing thinking that bicycling is frivolous, bike-shares are a big waste of city money, the private sector can do it better just because, and the only thing that matters is the bottom line, not the social benefits of a program. Herbold’s backup plan of waiting for Pronto to go bankrupt before buying it out is reckless. I hope cooler heads prevail at today’s 2:00 p.m. transportation committee meeting.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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Al Dimond

The claim that opposing a city takeover of bike share is “right-wing thinking” is a ridiculous, shameful smear. The city’s takeover plan makes a lot of promises about oversight, system improvements, and expansions, but doesn’t budget staff for it. This means higher-level SDOT staff and the city council are going to spend their limited, valuable time on the minute elements of operating a bike-share system. A system that has essentially nothing to do with transportation equity, no matter how it’s operated.

What else might high-level SDOT staff and the council work on? Just through the lens of transportaiton equity, the Move Seattle transit corridors will have a much broader, larger impact than anything Pronto could possibly do. Just through the lens of cycling, the city is planning and building high-quality bike routes faster than it ever has before, building the future condition for bike-share success and bike usage more generally, and would be doing so with or without Pronto. But some of the planning and implementation delays, especially the delay of downtown bike network design, point to a limitation in the available time of the council and high-level staff to deal with the complex and sometimes political issues involved (at some point in 2015 there was a comment to this effect from some high-level official on one side or the other — that they would miss the due date for choosing downtown bike network corridors because they just hadn’t had time to look at it yet). This is critical — if SDOT was sitting around twiddling their thumbs it would be different.

Otherwise in transportation there are many maintenance and basic infrastructure rebuild projects going on (in a city that certainly needs them), and many needs to coordinate with WSDOT and Sound Transit… and basically all these projects impact bike routes, and in many cases the city has dropped the ball on that. Are we going to take staffers that understand cycling and tell them to divert some of their time from these vital issues to Pronto? Is that really going to make us a great cycling city, or is it going to spread us even thinner?

What other issues stand before the council right now? Homelessness, a city-wide crisis echoed throughout the nation, involving many city responses and policies! Housing affordability, largely encompassed in HALA! Policing, with Federal-mandated reforms and local community demands for change! If you want to talk about equity goals, these are the things the council should be spending its time on!

Two of the great virtues of bikes are that they’re cheap and simple. Bike ownership doesn’t have to be any more expensive for the individual than Pronto membership, and can provide a lot that Pronto can’t (the ability to travel outside the system’s limits, for instance, which opens up both practical and recreational opportunities). Where public subsidies for bike ownership and maintenance are needed, they can be better targeted to equity goals through existing programs than through bike-share schemes.

There’s nothing wrong with bike-share; if it works out that’s great. But support for public bike-share isn’t a test for progressiveness, bike-friendliness, or anything else.

Truth Pursuit

I totally concur with this, and would go further and point out that there is no evidence that bike share reduces car trips, which is the only possible justification for public subsidies. And hills do matter for casual cyclists, the kind that might bike once in a while.

Al Dimond

You appear to agree that SDOT staff and the council are spread thin. They aren’t spread too thin because of Pronto! I never said that! But their plan for Pronto, which under-budgets for staff, will spread SDOT staff thinner. And the council’s insistence on direct oversight will take the council’s time and attention from more important issues.

It’s not clear the city could turn Pronto into an equity tool by any means. Pronto certainly can’t have a significant impact on equity unless it has a significant impact — unless a LOT of people use it, which hasn’t happened yet in Seattle. By global trends significant usage won’t happen without at least a significant increase in station density. Furthermore, because of Seattle’s geography, it probably can’t have a significant impact on equity unless a lot of people use it in neighborhoods that are a lot less dense, and with more wore bike routes, than any place where bike share has succeeded. For Seattle to turn bike share into an equity tool it would have to do something novel, something that’s certainly not possible without a much larger investment, and that might not be possible at all.

If the city takes this difficult and probably futile effort seriously it could spend much more high-level staff and council time than is warranted on it, delaying and weakening other efforts. If it half-asses its effort it will merely spend tens of millions of dollars ineffectively and then pat itself on the back for it. The one proven thing bike share can do for equity is to get out of the way.

If the city or other public groups want to throw a little money at bike share, well, they throw a lot of money at worse stuff. But they shouldn’t put themselves in a position to spend unlimited time and resources trying to administer it, chasing impossible dreams.

Kathy Dunn

Hello, it’s the Transportation and Sustainability Committee. Our motorized public transportation system has been streamlined (based on ridership) to the point where it doesn’t adequately serve all our neighborhoods. Even if you put buses in those neighborhoods, people won’t ride them because with Seattle traffic we have lost the expectation of reliability, frequency. Late night bus service does not attract enough ridership to to justify operation costs. People who don’t support bike share just don’t understand the transportation role it plays. Bike share is available 24/7 when local buses, even Link and Rapid Ride, don’t run. During the day there is only room for so many buses, cars, car2gos, cars for hire, etc on our city streets. Bike share has been determined in cities all over the world to fill this critical gap in transportation systems. Equity goals can be achieved with public bike share by placing stations convenient to critical social services, thrift stores, etc. Pronto bikes are fully equipped with lights, a bell, are self locking, 7 speeds specifically designed for Seattle hills. Try to safely operate and maintain a bike, even if you found it on a junk pile, for $5 per year. Maybe we should just go with the Vancouver plan and make the helmets free. Have some plastic bag liners for the cootie-phobic.

Al Dimond

Don’t be patronizing. I don’t oppose city-owned bike share because I don’t understand it. I’m not a professional expert on bike share (nor mass transit planning), but I’m reasonably well read for a layman.

The challenges you point out in operating a full-coverage transit system are real, but you gloss over the similar challenges of operating a full-coverage bike share system. When these challenges are taken into account, under a bike share system that can actually be operated, you’ll be a long walk from a bike in the same places you’d be a long walk from the bus.

The claim that bike share can be made into an effective equity tool simply by placing stations outside thrift stores might be the most naive thing I’ve ever read about bike share. Only slightly less naive is the city’s apparent claim that a loose network of stations in the Rainier Valley would amount to an effective equity tool. The difficulty of using infrastructure projects as equity tools has a long history; the history of bike share is shorter, but doesn’t to my knowledge include much encouraging precedent for the city’s plan.