Today marks an unusual day in Seattle: we are shutting down an entire mode of transportation. Two and a half years after Pronto! Cycle Share launched in Downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill, and the University District with 50 stations and 500 bikes, operations will cease at midnight tonight after the Seattle City Council set a sunset clause into the operating funds for the system last year. The fact that such a famously bike-friendly city is pulling out its entire bikeshare system and calling it quits is pretty unusual, and disappointing. But despite the fact that every Seattleite you pass on the street probably has a different answer as to why bikeshare in Seattle failed, the decision to ultimately pull the plug was political, not practical.
Making bikeshare work, even in a city that requires helmets, has hills, and where it rains, is not about cracking a cryptic enigma. It’s about making it easy to use, and competitive with other modes. Pronto was stuck in a pilot phase for two and a half years, always in stasis because its future was never certain: it was the victim of its own self-fulfilling prophesy of defeat.
The initial 50 station system (that only grew by four stations in the entire operating period) was arrayed in a way that did not make using the system seamless. You really had to work to make a trip pencil out as opposed to hopping on a bus or just walking. No Pronto stations were on the same block as a Downtown Link station, with the exception of a short-lived station at the back end of University Street where its presence offended the caretakers of the war veterans’ memorial. That debacle was emblematic of the entire city’s approach to accommodating the system.
A year ago, when the city council voted to purchase the assets of the bikeshare system from Motivate, the operator, in order to keep the system operating, there was frustration that the financial state of the system had been kept from the public for months. But overall, the city council and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) seemed optimistic that bikeshare’s downward trajectory could be reversed if it simply were allowed to operate under normal levels of debt and sustainably expand like any other bike share network. And SDOT spent much of the past year working to make that happen, ultimately deciding that starting over with new equipment would be the best way forward. “We know how bikeshare works.” SDOT transit director Andrew Glass-Hastings told the Seattle Bike Advisory board late last year.
Ultimately, however, it was the mayor’s office that decided having the albatross of bikeshare hanging around the executive branch’s neck during an election year was not worth the benefits that Pronto could provide. Late last year during budget season, the council set a deadline that operating funds for the current system couldn’t continue past March 31st. In January, they announced that the money that was dedicated to expansion would fund other transportation projects. Sources confirm that the mayor’s office did not consult with the offices of any council members who might be working on expanding bikeshare, like sustainability and transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien or committee member Rob Johnson. The decision was made and executed with no public comment heard despite extensive pro-bikeshare comments that were provided last March as expansion was debated.
Any that’s how we got to where we are now. Downtown Seattle transportation is about to head into an unprecedented phase, with the One Center City committee tasked with figuring out how to move people around Downtown as more buses move to surface streets and construction projects ramp up. Bikeshare has not been listed as a resource on any planning documents released by the joint committee headed up by King County Metro, SDOT, Sound Transit and the Downtown Seattle Association. Bikeshare could have been a small but integral component of the new master plan for Downtown, particularly as new focus turns to expanding the Downtown bike network. But, as I have covered prior, One Center City appears mainly at this point about minimizing impact on drivers Downtown, not on optimizing other modes.
But does bikeshare have a future in Seattle? On behalf of The Urbanist, I have been trying to get answers from Seattle councilmembers on what might be the path back to having a sustainable system. The mayor has said he remains “optimistic” about bikeshare’s future, but after the mayor pulled the plug, I was more interested in what the legislative branch, that was largely not consulted on the matter, has to say about it.
Rob Johnson, avowed transportation wonk, was the most circumspect in his statement:
Recently, Mayor Murray announced that he would be redirecting $3 million in funding from a re-launch of the bikeshare program, effectively marking the end of bikeshare in our city. While I am glad that funds are being invested in Safe Routes to School and bicycle and pedestrian improvements, I believe that this represents a missed opportunity to provide the residents of our growing city a reliable, low-barrier, and environmentally friendly transportation alternative. As I mentioned in my initial blog about bikeshare in Seattle, “Why Investing in Bike Share Matters,” the City now must repay the Federal Government a $1M grant contingent on bike share, an unfortunate use of tax-payer dollars.
I would like to emphasize that governments at all levels subsidize nearly all other means of transportation–including cars, buses, trains, and airplanes; what we choose to invest in tells our residents what we’re prioritizing. It is encouraging that the Mayor “remains optimistic about the future of bikeshare in Seattle”–I will work hard to ensure that optimism turns into real investment that provides Seattle with the full range of safe, healthy and sustainable transportation alternatives.
Sally Bagshaw, famous for biking to work on her electric bike, had this to say:
For the future of good bikeshare, it makes sense to invest in infrastructure to make our City a place where people feel safe riding bikes. Bikeshare has been successful in other cities (Washington D.D., New York City, and Miami, to name a few) and I would like to see a robust program in Seattle when we are ready for it. The City’s system will need to provide users a quality service, starting with many station locations, high quality bicycles to climb hills, integration with the ORCA pass system, and a safe and connected bike network. We need to make smart investments now to put on the path for success.
Transportation chair Mike O’Brien, in a sit down interview, told me that he fundamentally believes that bikeshare can work in Seattle, and is convinced that improvements to our biking infrastructure will lay the ground work for a successful bikeshare network. It is clear he is one of the most full-throated advocates on the council for bikeshare, but remains pragmatic about how quickly it can return.
Whether or not that is another city-funded venture, or a private bikeshare operator that comes in and gives Seattle a try, it remains to be seen. What is clear is that Seattle should learn from its brief foray into the bikeshare world and look to other successful systems. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here, but a great bikeshare system does take some tender love and care.
Personally, as a daily Pronto commuter and weekend joy rider, I am disappointed to see Seattle step back from this sustainable transportation mode, and hoping that this is merely a dip in the road instead of a cliff.
Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist 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. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.