On Friday afternoon, staff at the Seattle Department of Transportation working on a plan to expand Seattle’s bikeshare program and make it successful had the rug pulled out from under them. In typical Murray Administration fashion, the news came at 5:00 pm, with the press release titled “City announces $3 million in bicycle and pedestrian improvements” that actually buried the lede: “The funding for these new projects is derived from funding previously allocated to the 2017 re-launch of the city’s bike share program”. Those $3 million in funds will now be diverted to other SDOT capital projects, particularly Safe Routes-to-Schools, a program that no reasonable person would ever object to.

The release also promises to use some of the money for Downtown bike infrastructure in the form of “completing a missing link of the 4th Avenue bicycle lane and extension to Vine Street” and “accelerating design and outreach for the east/west connections in the Center City bicycle network.” Side note: we have been accelerating design and outreach for east-west bike lanes Downtown since at least the second Bush Administration and it was a concept under discussion for decades before that.

The turn-on-a-dime announcement cloaked in the guise of investments to safe streets is a big blow to bikeshare in Seattle: the plan was to sell back the current bike stations and all their bikes and start over again, with a fresh approach. Seattle’s hills would be conquered with the help of an added feature: electric-assist on all bikes.

Why Pronto Failed

The question of why the first attempt at bikeshare in Seattle failed is important. Whatever the conventional wisdom says the reason was, that will solidify and turn into the main talking point whenever bikeshare is put back on the table. If the answer is hills, rain, the fact that people in Seattle just don’t bike, or the King County helmet law, then the inertia of the idea of those problems will be hard to overcome, because they aren’t likely to change anytime soon. Those are just some of the ideas that are floating around Internet comment boards and coffee shops this weekend after the Mayor’s announcement. And it’s clear that while some of those things may have played a part (particularly the helmet law, the others minimally) they were not the reason that Pronto did not meet its ridership goals and became prey to its own debt service, requiring a bailout.

In 2012, Alta Planning, the company that became Motivate, the current operator of Pronto bikeshare, completed a study on the feasibility of launching a system in King County. They concluded that Phase I of the launch would focus on Downtown, Capitol Hill, and the University District: the neighborhoods that ended up getting stations during our initial rollout. A dense network in those neighborhoods was proposed, particularly Downtown. From the plans:

Average station spacing in European and North American bike share systems is typically between 984 feet (300 m) and 1,300 feet (400 m). This represents a station density of approximately 16 to 28 stations per square mile. This range provides access to a bike within a short walk of anywhere in the service area and provides a nearby alternative to return a bike if the destination station is full.

The proposed Downtown station plan for bikeshare in Seattle, from a 2012 plan. (Alta Planning)
The proposed Downtown station plan for bikeshare in Seattle, from a 2012 plan. (Alta Planning)

Contrast that with the system we have today: a whole segment connecting south Downtown with Capitol Hill is not present, and all of the stations are much further apart that they are in the plan.

Current Downtown stations in the Pronto network. (Pronto)
Current Downtown stations in the Pronto network. (Pronto)

The reason for that is that the 2012 plan laid out a two-part initial rollout, and Pronto never got around to its second part of Phase I. That phase would have filled in the gaps between stations, making the system much more attractive to casual users. In addition, because the rollout was expected to have a second phase, the first phase placed stations in a completely haphazard way, with the thinking that they would get moved around when the other stations were added.

In the initial plan, stations were placed over Downtown in a grid. Then they were moved around, with the following criteria in mind:

1. If there was a major transit station nearby (e.g. a light rail station or ferry terminal) then the bike share station was moved to that location.

2. Where there was no major transit station nearby, stations were moved to the most “exposed” street intersection. Exposure was measured using street functional classification to represent passing pedestrians who might use the bike share system and passing motorists that would see sponsorship at the station or on the bikes.

3. Preference was given to streets with existing or proposed bikeway improvements to represent the readiness of these streets to accommodate bike share traffic.

–Alta Planning documents, 2012

And it appears from where stations are today that essentially the same thing happened in real life. None of those criteria were clearly followed in the initial launch. There are no stations on the same block as a Link station Downtown. Some stations are on the other side of the street from the bike facilities close by, and some are tucked away on blocks where few cyclists would find them.

In short, bikeshare in Seattle was never really given a chance to be successful. 

The Financial Model of Bikeshare

An issue that is becoming conflated in this debate over reallocating funds from bikeshare into capital projects within SDOT is the issue of capital costs versus operating costs. During budget negotiations late last year, the Seattle City Council slashed the operating budget for Pronto in half, saving around $30,000 for the budget cycle. That put an end date on how long Pronto had to operate, forcing them to cease operations by the end of March. Saving money on operating costs, however relatively small the amount, is a perfectly reasonable decision for the Council to make with a system that is atrophying riders because the system is not expanding.

But the Council had already allocated funds for expanding the system, $5 million. $1.4 million of that went to purchasing the assets for Pronto, in March, after the system would have shut down due to being too debt-burdened. However, much of that money could be recouped when the bikes were resold, that money reinvested in the new system. So while the City has spent a considerable amount of money in operating costs, the capital investment that the Council originally earmarked was still on the table to create a full-scale, workable bikeshare system.

In most cities where the bikeshare system is owned by the city or municipal government, operating costs are entirely covered by revenue from memberships and daily users, and by sponsorship. In most successful models, those funds are actually more than enough to cover operating expenses and the surplus is used to reinvest in the system, expanding it, and therefore creating a positive feedback loop.

Investing $3 million in Safe Routes-to-Schools is a great investment. However, it cannot be argued in any way that by doing so we will get that money back and then some. With bikeshare, that argument can be made. Officials at SDOT working on bikeshare made it clear in public meetings on the topic that they know what a successful model looks like and how to make it work. It appears that the Mayor and several members of the City Council do not have confidence in them.

Bikeshare’s Last Stand?

The death of bikeshare in Seattle is being framed by the Mayor as a win for people who walk and bike. “While I remain optimistic about the future of bike share in Seattle, today we are focusing on a set of existing projects that will help build a safe, world-class bicycle and pedestrian network,” the press release on Friday read. Given the terrible publicity that Pronto has received over the past year, it is hard to imagine how well-placed that optimism is. There will always be capital projects to fund: SDOT’s maintenance backlog is close to a billion dollars and growing. There will always be sidewalks to construct: Move Seattle funds almost none of Seattle’s missing sidewalks. There will always be reasons to say “no” to bikeshare, and many of those reasons will be the same ones that were used by the Mayor’s office on Friday. Doing so means that we lose one more tool in our toolbelt for mobility in our city.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. I’ll take a moment upon the occasion of Pronto’s demise to ask a question I’ve long had – apologies if it’s been covered somewhere I didn’t see.

    Why didn’t the city/some private organization ever put bike share along the route it would have had the best infrastructure – the Burke-Gilman Trail? Were numbers run to show it wouldn’t be popular enough? Did social justice concerns scupper it? Or stars in the eyes of its organizers, dreaming of a whole-city network (without bike lanes… up hills…)?

    I hope we do bike share again – there must be a way it can work. But I never used Pronto once and never ever considered it, given station placement and lack of infrastructure. Best of luck to those who will have to raise it, phoenix-like, from the ashes.

  2. Don’t forget the pricing structure that scares away curious, casual users (in addition to the helmet law, and station locations). $8 (plus $2 helmet) is the lowest price point. For someone looking for a convenient, one-way trip, in the areas covered by Pronto, a ride share (Uber or Lyft) is easily competitive, and public transit beats Pronto on price every time (even a ferry or water taxi ride is cheaper). A $10 bike ride is not something that becomes a part of a portfolio of reasonable transportation options, and an $85 annual membership is a bit steep for a system that doesn’t offer an affordable way for people to get used to using it.

    • It’s a very good topic, and one I’d like to know more about: how were those pricing rates worked out? I suspect that SDOT would have come up with a completely different pricing structure that encourages one-time uses.

      • Thank you Ryan. This is the best explanation of what has taken place that I have seen. No one else has brought up that the existing system was waiting on phase 2, in an incomplete state and, crucially, about half as dense as it was planned to be. I think this fact is also the answer to the pricing question. An insufficient network of stations probably shouldn’t have been charging the same rates as a more robust system.

    • The pricing is very similar to that used by successful systems. It works in these systems because there’s no curiosity required: the value proposition of both a day pass and a longer-term pass is obvious for people spending most of their time in the core of the city. Why isn’t that so obvious in Seattle?

      Maybe in part because people just can’t see themselves making some legs of their trip on bike (whether due to terrain or safety issues, even on the sidewalk)? Maybe in part because fewer people spend most of their time in the core of the city? A lot of commenters talk about how their initial subscription wasn’t worth the small number of rides they took after arriving downtown on the express bus or ferry — well, I’m sure plenty of people taking trains, buses, and ferries downtown in NYC and Boston come to the same conclusion, and don’t renew. But in those cities someone else, for whom the value proposition is obvious, signs up to replace them! Whether that’s another commuter that runs a wide variety of errands or someone that lives close to work.

  3. The mayor’s office is implying that we can’t have these SRTS projects AND bike share which is not true. The city has money (and grants) for both. It’s just a matter of priorities.

    In some ways it’s good that the Pronto v2 had the brakes put on it. The city had been planning to roll out the same type of low density network that they did for Pronto Phase I. As Packer (and Alta) notes, the three main reasons Pronto failed are:
    1. Station network not dense enough
    2. King County helmet law
    3. Station placement (near transit, etc)

    The city’si plan for Pronto v2 was not changing #1, showing that staff have learned nothing from Pronto’s failure. There were no plans to change #2. So the best we could’ve hoped for would be a crappy sparse network with better-placed stations. But even that is unlikely since with Pronto the city showed repeatedly that they were willing to let everything and anything take priority over good station placement. So investing in this would’ve been a waste of money since it was certain it would fail again.

    If the city does take a 2nd kick at the bike share can (I hope we do), we absolutely must not fail again. 2 bike share failures will certainly mean no bike share for at least 10 years.

    So hopefully Murray and Kubly (remember that guy that we hired cause he was so good at rolling out bike share and building bicycle infrastructure) are working on a repeal of the King County helmet law or at least an exclusion for Seattle and getting enough money allocated and sponsorships lined up to do a successful bike share launch soon.

    Of course Murray won’t do anything good for the city in an election year so we’ll have to wait until at least after the election.

    • In my conversations with SDOT staff, it was clear that they did intend to fix #1.

      Probably the final nail in the coffin was the Bewegen map, made by someone from outside the city, as a concept plan, which showed sparse station density and stations heading up the Counterbalance. SDOT never got a chance to present their map, which I hope would have happened at the first council meeting discussing the Bewegen proposal. Maybe Mike O’Brien will invite them anyway.

      • OK, so what if SDOT had responded with a denser map — a map showing the station density associated with success in other cities? It would have necessarily shown a lot less coverage. Hardly more than Pronto’s. Even I know that’s bad politics, following promises of a city-wide network.

        There’s a (political) way out: if runs at a little operational surplus, then that surplus is put toward some little feel-good projects in parts of the city that paid for the planning and infrastructure but didn’t get coverage. But that’s a gamble, and it could take a while to pay off.

        • Then they also would have had to show council the timeline to get to the station coverage area that the city would be happy with, assuming *very conservative* ridership assumptions. And we would have had a debate about it. The operational surplus should clearly go to providing coverage in areas that encourage equity, yes, but also just to grow the system.

          • What is this timeline based on? “Very conservative ridership assumptions” don’t get you an operational surplus. So is the timeline based on assumed repeated capital infusions that haven’t been approved yet? That isn’t how executive agencies make projections!

            That means it’s a gamble, and it’s hard to blame our politicians for not making it. That’s not to say bike-share is bad or useless. It’s just not useful enough to enough people, in Seattle, right now for anyone to stick their neck out for it.

        • Actually, you should go back and look at the proposals from the other operators for the reboot. Motivate, who was not chosen because the city was chasing the all electric dream, had infinite density and better coverage. That proposal, like Portland’s new system, used gps enabled bikes with built in locks to allow users the option of locking up away from stations. If there is any silver lining to this fiasco it is that we should have gone with that proposal. All electric would be great in an environment where a city was willing to invest massive capital to get a great network in place, but that is obviously not what we are working with today.

          • We didn’t cover the Motivate proposal as much because it wasn’t selected. In addition, we were preparing to cover the Bewegen proposal as it headed to council. The Bewegen proposal also included the ability to have stopovers outside stations. It was limited because of the e-bikes but Motivate had some ebikes in their proposal so it would have been an issue regardless.

      • (I mean, the stations going up the counterbalance weren’t even the craziest stations on the Bewegen map. That map was so bad it was reassuring; it couldn’t have been the final plan because parts of it weren’t even buildable. But it did illustrate something: a rough idea of the density-coverage tradeoff.)

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