This past weekend The Seattle Times broke the news that Motivate, the current operator of Pronto bike share, is right now coming in second place in the City’s process for requesting proposals for the expansion of the system, currently scheduled to take place next summer. Coming in first is Bewegen, based out of Québec. The most notable fact being that Bewegen is proposing to roll-out a fleet of bikes for Seattle that are entirely electric-assist. The other six proposals were for mixed systems, with the electric assist portion likely to be added after launch.

Selecting a provider who will bring in an all-electric fleet would mean that the current bikes, used in the system since launch in October 2014 and purchased by the City this Spring in order to keep the Pronto system operating in the black, would not be used for the expansion.

This chart, obtained by The Seattle Times, shows how the bikeshare operators bidding for the expansion contract scored.

The director of bikeshare at the Seattle Department of Transportation (and former Olympic cyclist!), Nicole Freedman, is quoted in the Times piece in response to the decline in users for Pronto over the months since the system’s launch:

We’re striving to add more members and get more trips…the number-one thing we’re doing is moving some low-performing stations to higher-performing locations.

While there has been a small amount of station reshuffling, most notably the move of First Hill’s lonely station next to the Frye Art museum to a spot directly adjacent to Capitol Hill’s new light rail station, most of the other station moves have been lateral at best. We wrote about the move of a prominent station on Denny Way directly adjacent to the Dexter cycletrack to an out-of-the-way spot near Seattle Center. The only other station move was the relocation of the Central District’s only station at 12th Avenue and Yesler Way to the waterfront.

Meanwhile, there remains no bikeshare station on the same block as a Downtown transit tunnel entrance. Many stations are really doing their best to be as hidden as possible.

The new Pronto station at Thomas and 5th Ave N (Google Maps)
Seattle Center’s newest Pronto station is separated from bike infrastructure, amenities, and all known forms of life.

The City did recently announce that they would be relocating a station to be on the same side of Montlake Boulevard as the University of Washington Station, but no word yet on when that will happen.

Portland’s bikeshare system, now a month old, is running laps around us already. Despite being only twice the size of Pronto, Biketown saw more than five times the number of rides that Pronto did in its first month. Biketown’s system has a lot of advantages to Pronto: one-way fares (why are we not doing this?), on-bike locks that allow you to make a stop between stations or even leave your bike outside a station for an extra fee, some tricked-out features like baskets with sides. And of course, King County’s helmet law certainly isn’t helping matters.

An all electric-assist fleet could be a feature that compensates for some of what is lacking compared to other systems, but only if paired with an expansion that recognizes that station density and prime station placement are the solid bedrock on which bikeshare needs to be built. A lack of a connected bike network Downtown will continue to make that a challenge, and continued unannounced bike lane closures are certainly not enticing first-time riders.

Electric-assist fleets are fairly rare at this point in North America, and are mainly found in large, mature systems in Europe like Madrid or Copenhagen. Interestingly, one of North America’s all electric fleets is found in Birmingham, Alabama, a hilly city of around 200,000 people that boasts 13,000 bikeshare members–approximately 10 times Pronto’s membership base and an exponentially higher percentage of the population than Seattle. But it certainly doesn’t help the argument that population density is why Pronto is not succeeding.

On Tuesday, Pronto announced that this Sunday (September 4th) will be a free-ride day thanks to a corporate sponsor. Free days are a good marketing opportunity, the last one being on Bike Everywhere Day in May. But I do have to wonder how effective it will be to promote the bikeshare on the Sunday of a three-day weekend when most people are going to be out of town.

The next steps in the expansion proposal process is a review by City Council. With Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Lisa Herbold being so publicly anti-bikeshare after the buyout vote, it will be interesting to see how that segment of the process unfolds.

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the blog since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. In December 2020, Ryan started a three-month stint as editor of Seattle Bike Blog.

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catphive

Part of the problem with Pronto is the biking culture in Seattle. People here treat bicycling like an eXtreme sport. They have special bicycling clothes, bicycles with dropped handlebars and they zoom around at 25mph, right through stop lights.
Compare that to people in Europe or Japan who bicycle around in upright bikes with baskets, even in nice clothes. Most bicycle commuters in other places hardly consider it a form of exercise.
Pronto is definitely geared more towards the European model. They are built for convenience and comfort, not speed. The electric bikes would take that further.
For pronto to be successful, they have to market themselves towards people who wouldn’t otherwise ride a bike in Seattle.

pickovven

Please don’t stereotype people who bike. Using the stop light stereotype will result in edit/deleted comments. This comment section isn’t a place to complain about the behavior of a group of people. However you’re welcome to discuss how the design of our streets results in good/bad behaviors.

rossb

This was in the paper this morning: http://www.uclick.com/client/sea/fz/#_ga=1.145989620.1919311691.1459705406

Anyway, bike share systems all over North America are aimed at the casual bike rider, not the hard core ones (even the safe hard core ones, like Frazz).

dpballard

I was just as surprised by Birmingham’s numbers as you, so I tried to vet them.

13,000 appears to actually be a measure of unique system users — 24-hour passes are referred to as “24-hour memberships” in their materials — so to compare that to the annual-membership base of any other system (successful or otherwise) would be misleading. As of a couple of months ago, Birmingham’s annual-level user base hovered in the mid-500s.

In general, the more *pervasively useful* a bike share system is across an urbanized area, the more residents will “buy in” with longer-term memberships that they can see themselves using on a non-recreational basis. The bikes then gradually become an unremarkable piece of one’s daily mobility puzzle, just another arrow in the transportation quiver. It is very different psychologically from a 24-hour plunge, for which one reverts to planning and adjudicating specific trips within those hours sufficient to justify the expenditure.

It would seem that the Birmingham bikes, like Pronto, are extremely limited in geographic reach and thus unlikely to achieve the pervasive usefulness that would encourage broad buy-in. Which might be perfectly fine for that city; maybe downtown is the only really safe place to bike, or the only place with a remotely sufficient density of destinations. I will say — in concurrence with your further fault-finding over Pronto’s station placement — that Birmingham’s station density and placement looks pretty good across its limited area. But it is hard to view Birmingham as an apt comparison for any system that wishes to expand *beyond* the pervasive-usefulness limitations that have plagued Pronto’s adoption as a mobility tool.

Matt the Engineer

I’ve criticized Pronto’s pricing model before, and I’ll do it again. If I want to run somewhere for lunch I’m not going to pay $8 for a bike rental (plus $2 for the helmet!). But $2.50? Sure. Even if it’s only 1-way, I’ll have the option of taking a bus back. Or I’ll pay another $2.50. It’s still 1/2 the price of Seattle’s system.

Pronto’s pricing model is aimed at tourists and commuters. Commuters have their own bikes, and most tourists won’t rent a bike in a confusing hilly city. Aim at convenience users – lunch trips, work meetings, bar hopping – and you’ll get a lot more business.

Despite wanting to support the system and being somewhat close to a station, I’ve used it exactly once. And I didn’t bother with the helmet.

pickovven

I’m not a commuter or a tourists and I own a bike but I’m still a member. I signed up for the membership because I wanted to support the system but I was doubtful I would use it much. I figured I needed to use it about 30 times to make it worthwhile. I ended up using it way more than that so I definitely think it was worthwhile. I’ve continued to renew the membership despite the decline in quality and the lack of expansion.

I’m not sure I would’ve gotten a membership if I could’ve done a ride for $2.50. I might’ve told myself exactly what you are saying, that I’d pay for each ride if I ever wanted to use it. In other words, having a low priced ride may actual reduce membership. Without membership, I may have chosen not to use the system a bunch of times because I didn’t want to pay $2.50. In the end the low cost ride may reduce ridership and membership.

I’m just speculating but the reason I’m speculating is because most cities I know of use basically the same model we have and the system works. The biggest problem with Pronto isn’t the pricing. It’s the network.

rossb

I agree completely. I would like it if they adopted a cheaper one time usage fee just so people would stop thinking this has anything to do with the success or failure of the system. Adopt the exact same fare schedule as Niketown. Add the baskets with sides. Paint them all the exact same colors. Get rid of the silly helmet law (just add a clause excusing bike share bikes).

Do all that, and watch Niketown still kick our butt, because they have a better network. This is the key: http://nacto.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NACTO_Walkable-Station-Spacing-Is-Key-For-Bike-Share_Sc.pdf

Matt the Engineer

Don’t get me wrong – the network issues and lack of stations are a huge driving factor for success or failure. But I guess we’ll just have to disagree on the cost model. I think it’s hard to convince most people to shell out $85+tax up front for something they don’t know if they’ll use. That’s amazingly cheap compared to the $8 per ride, but it’s still a barrier to entry.

It’s like Zipcar vs. Car2Go. I don’t know many people with a Zipcar membership – it’s like $100 a year. But I know a lot of people that use Car2Go, since they started off with free lifetime memberships.

rossb

Well when you put it like that … 🙂

Maybe they should go with the “three easy payments” model so successful on late night TV.

dseater

$8 per ride isn’t entirely accurate, it’s $8 per day for unlimited 30 minute rides. I agree that it’s not very intuitive, and if you only want to make a single trip that day then the price is way too high.

NE Seattle Greenways

Zipcar vs Car2Go is also a vastly different comparison due to (guess what?) station location/density. In Boston (Somerville), I used Zipcar all the time because the density there meant there was a station within 200ft of my house. When I moved to Seattle (Ravenna), I kept my membership but discovered that the stations required a 1+ mi bike ride to get there; and a lot of what I used the service for was pickup trucks or vans. The nearest truck or vans were in UDistrict, a 3mi bike ride (shorter if I went over some big hills). After a few years, I let my membership expire because I was never using it.

Meanwhile, I often see Car2Gos parked outside of my house. So in the choice between the two services, there’s no comparison. Yearly membership fees aren’t even really a factor.

rossb

>> Pronto’s pricing model is aimed at tourists and commuters.

No, Pronto’s pricing model is aimed at regular users who live here. They are gouging tourists. Biketown charges $12 a month for an annual membership, whereas Pronto charges $8 a month. Quite reasonable, by my book (compare this to transit options). I’m sure that Biketown gets a lot more people to try their system (with their much cheaper one time use cost) which, I would imagine, leads to a lot more permanent users. But ultimately, you want to have lots of annual memberships. The breakeven point for Niketown is five (one way) trips a day. That is pretty tiny. The breakeven point with Pronto is once a month.

In comparison, the breakeven point for most monthly bus passes is about 35 uses. Tourists, meanwhile, don’t get much of a break, if they happen to want to combine a bus ride with a train ride. The transfers aren’t good on the other system, so you would have to buy an ORCA card, which costs $5.

rossb

I would add that I would sign up tomorrow if I thought it was the least bit useful to me. Again, $8 a month isn’t bad at all. But it isn’t (not enough stations in too few neighborhoods).

dpballard

I twisted myself into knots trying to justify a Pronto experiment. Like, Ballard was way outside of the service area, but I was in LQA or headed to the I.D. all the time. I was constantly craving a better way home from Pike/Pine at night without the transfer penalty.

Ultimately, Pronto’s poor station placement and gerrymandered service area (not to mention the helmet-law thing) failed me. I could never justify the purchase, short-term or long, neither for spontaneous cross-downtown journeys nor as a single leg of habitual 2-leg trips. Even competing with the unreliability of Metro across similar vectors, Pronto’s implementation wasn’t good enough to win out.

Even before I moved back to Boston, I knew the bike share here would be more routinely useful, even overlaid (symbiotically and/or competitively) over a transit system exponentially better than Seattle’s. But even I was surprised to hit the 100-trip mark on Hubway in 4 months.

Pronto could still become a highly useful piece of Seattle’s mobility puzzle. But it needs to stop defending the failure of its first incarnation. And it most certainly needs to avoid those who ask it to reinvent the wheel as it expands (multi-hour trip windows or whatever), when it really just needs to adopt the best practices of successful cities that it has thus far eschewed.

rossb

Adopt the best practices of successful cities that it has thus far eschewed? What a crazy concept. You aren’t from around here, are you? 🙂

RDPence

Did I read this right? Riders can buy a one-month pass for $8? That should be part of their marketing.

RDPence

I still don’t understand the high cost-per-ride and the short rental time. It’s not as if there are riders waiting for your bike to return! Make the rental period 1 – 2 hours, and the cost should be equivalent to a bus fare. Join the ORCA consortium so riders can use their ORCA card to ride.

rossb

I’m not sure if that would make much difference though. Very few people want to use this for an hour or more (I can’t imagine using it for that). At that point it is highly likely that you would save time by taking public transportation (bus or train).

Most people sign up for a yearly pass (which is quite reasonable). I think lowering the price for a ride might get people to try it out, though. So there is that. I just think that folks will try it, notice the lack of stations, and then simply not use it.

rossb

>> Despite being only twice the size of Pronto, Biketown saw more than five
times the number of rides that Pronto did in its first month.

This suggests that like a lot of things (e. g. population density and transit) popularity grows exponentially, rather than linearly. Double the number of stations and you more than double the number of trips.

This makes sense logically. These aren’t coffee shops. Each trip involves two stations. It is about the total combination of such trips, not the total number of stations which is important. I’m too lazy to do the math, but obviously the number of combinations goes up way faster than the number of new stations (it involves factorials, which go up really fast).

Of course there is more to it than that. Put the new stations right next to each other, and there is little value in them. The opposite is true, but not as obvious. Ride share only makes sense for short trips. Your map is a great example of the problem. Obviously the station is at a bad spot, so imagine if it moves to Mercer and 5th. Now imagine you are at the EMP and trying to get to Queen Anne Avenue Thomas, a few blocks west. Move the station and you have to walk north several blocks, ride west, then south to the nearest station to your destination, then walk another block (you got lucky on the tail end). My guess is there are very few people that will do this. I would just walk. By the time you’ve unlocked your bike (and put on your helmet) I’m within spitting distance of the destination. The idea of moving stations is just robbing Peter to pay Paul. You haven’t increased the combinations, but worse yet, you haven’t achieved the kind of density in any neighborhood that allows a rider to actually save time by using this.

I think people have a tough time grasping this because bike sharing is very different than bike rental. Most people who rent a bike go out of there way to the shop, and then bike around town all day. They deal with the hassle of locking the bike up every time they stop, as well as returning to the shop at the end of the day. But bike share is meant to be trivially easy to use. You should be able to walk straight towards your destination, and then find a bike station right along the way (hopefully within a block or two). You would never rent a bike to make a trip of a few blocks, but that is precisely what bike share is designed to do. For longer trips, folks tend to take public transportation (bus or train).

Station density gets even more important when you consider the possibility of an empty station (when picking up a bike) or a full one (when dropping it off). You need a backup, which is why it is good to have a station nearby. The studies confirm this. Station density is by far the most important factor for success.

Looking at Portland’s system, it appears that west of the river, there is good station density. East of the river there isn’t. I am curious as to how one side of the system fairs with the other. My guess is the west side is carrying most of the load.

rossb

Interesting — thanks for that (confirming what we would guess). It wouldn’t surprise me if they do a lot of fill in for the east side, and watch the numbers climb a bunch. Then expand and fill on both sides and next thing you know, they have an extremely successful system.

As far as the article — yeah, you did. The network is the most important thing (as you and others have made clear). I think it is easy to get lost in side issues (which, as you said, don’t help). The helmet law seems especially irritating (yet another step in what should be a trivial transaction).