After weeks of speculation, the Seattle City Council appears to be rushing to put together a framework that could allow private bikeshare operators to get their bikes onto Seattle’s streets by the height of peak tourist season. Tom Fucoloro at the Seattle Bike Blog has been covering this story more intensely than anyone else in Seattle media, and thanks to his reporting we have a pretty good idea of what companies are eyeing the prime Pronto-free streets of Seattle.

Allowing a private bikeshare operator (or three) to come in and place bikes on our streets is probably very tempting to the bike-friendly members of the city council, who from all reports were left out of the loop on the decision to close down the city-owned Pronto bikeshare on March 31st. The decision by the mayor’s office to divert bikeshare funds elsewhere during an election year disarmed a political problem. Private bikeshare doesn’t come with as many political problems: no city money would go toward it, and the city might even come out ahead with revenue coming in for permits.

Josh Cohen, writing about the next steps for Seattle bikeshare at Next City, quotes Kate Fillin-Yeh, the director of strategy for NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Engineers: “If something looks like it’s too good to be true, maybe it is,” citing the concern that cities with public-subsidized bikeshare systems could see themselves undercut by dockless systems that flood the market with loss leader pricing and the thrill of novelty. But is the danger to a city that has already had its bikeshare system fail even greater?

Seattle is still one or two years away from building out its Downtown bike network: there are still huge gaps in the cycling network Downtown and elsewhere. That was a major hindrance to Pronto, and it will be a major hindrance to the success of any subsequent bikeshare system before we have a complete network. But if a second bikeshare system in Seattle fails, it will be very hard to escape the narrative that Seattle and bikeshare just aren’t compatible.

One major issue with Pronto was the placement of the stations. As “dockless” bikeshare, the new potential private operators wouldn’t have to worry about where their stations are. However, stations come with big benefits for a transportation system. For one, you don’t have to go looking for your bike when you need it if you know the network reasonably well. Pulling up an app and having to locate a bike that may be several blocks away may not be sustainable for someone looking to hop a bike to get to work every day. Stations also provide an identifiable branding opportunity for the system. Someone just in town for a few days might not notice a few dozen bikes on the streets in their neighborhood when they might be more likely to notice bikes grouped together at stations waiting for riders. The dockless model may be both a blessing and a curse for private operators.

But the real test for a private system is how well can lower density areas be served, places where the bikes may not naturally end up on their own as much, compared to with a public system. After all, Pronto only served the relatively high-demand areas of Downtown, Capitol Hill, and University District. Serving areas like the Rainier Valley and the Central District was always envisioned, but didn’t pan out. But will a private operator be willing to subsidize service in one neighborhood from service in another, more popular neighborhood? And what can the city council do to encourage them to do so?

The Car2Go model will likely come up as a comparison to this problem. When first launching, Car2Go did not serve some South Seattle neighborhoods like Columbia City. Eventually they expanded after some public criticism and now serve most of the city. But Columbia City did not lack a safe car connection between itself and Downtown, unlike the bike connections currently. Bikeshare trips typically cover much shorter distances on average than car trips.

Then again, if the Pronto 2.0 proposal with Bewegen’s electric assist bikes was to be implemented, it only proposed serving the Rainier Valley with a linear string of stations along a corridor with limited bike facilities. One thing is clear: serving the entirety of Seattle with bikeshare is going to be tough. Getting a successful system up and running in our denser Downtown-adjacent neighborhoods should be much easier and that’s where any sensible system will start.

Bewegen’s proposal for Seattle bikeshare in 2017. (City of Seattle)

At this point in time, it seems very unlikely that Seattle’s leaders will forego the offers of private bikeshare operators in the hopes of returning a public bikeshare to Seattle’s streets. But the danger of such a system coming in and not becoming successful should be worrying, because it has the potential to cause any public model in the future to become a political non-starter. Even though most public bikeshare systems in the country do operate in the black, the standard that bikeshare, and not other forms of public transit, should pay for itself should not hold any water in a city that is desperate to provide alternative forms of transit. Public bikeshare is a public good that can do things that private companies cannot, and there is no reason to operate under the assumption that they are interchangeable. In any case, private operators should not slam the door on a public ownership model for the future.

10 COMMENTS

  1. “But the real test for a private system is how well can lower density areas be served”

    That’s the complaint with transit, too. “I want to live in a low density area and have the same transit service as downtown, and nobody is willing to give it to me for a price I’m willing to pay.”

    Maybe some infrastructure really should serve high-density areas? Do we always need to subsidize lower-density areas, or should we at some point make the cost of lower density transparent? (Though it would be somewhat ironic to do that first with bicycles, probably the lowest cost mode of transportation.)

    • Maybe so, but I’d argue that most of Seattle is already dense enough to be served by transit, and the primary reason we don’t have a fully implemented RR+ system as envisioned (90% of Seattle within 10 minute walk of 10 minute frequency) is lack of transit infrastructure (bus lanes, etc.), not lack of density.
      Also, it’s a bit of a chicken & egg issue with density – one of the most common objections to neighborhood growth is “but our infrastructure can’t handle the growth!” In theory, SDOT should be working hard to stay ahead of neighborhood growth, not simply meeting demand. I agree that investment should go first to denser neighborhoods, but the long term plans should serve all neighborhoods.

    • I agree with your notion that lower-density areas should not necessarily be subsidized, but I don’t think it’s so simple. For one thing, I felt like the pronto strategy of only putting the bike share stations in the most densely populated areas was not a recipe for success. In my opinion, bike share in Seattle needs to be all about the last mile connection with public transit. If you live in Capitol Hill, bike share is competing with frequent bus lines, light rail, it’s within walking distance to downtown and even a streetcar. Where I live in Interbay, I have a 30-45 minute walk to get to the D line and a local bus that comes every 30 minutes and with no service on Sundays. Believe it or not, I live in a low density area not by choice but because I could not afford to live in a high density area. Seattle’s ridiculous single family zoning laws have created this problem. So we’re left with neighborhoods where everyone drives because there are no other options and this increases traffic throughout the whole rest of the city. I don’t have the solution, beyond making the city more dense, but I do think there is a tremendous value in offer bike share to low density areas as a last mile connection to the major bus lines.

      • The problem here, particularly with a dockless bike share system, is that you end up with a lot of bikes at people’s front doors, which as you mentioned are spread out from one another. The incentive for someone to come and find that bike and create a new trip out of that location is a lot lower.

        • I know. I totally get that expanding bikeshare to low density areas is not the most feasible solution. I just think there’s a value in it as well. What’s the alternative? Increased bus service to my neighborhood is significantly more expensive. Should I just accept the fact that driving is my only solution when I don’t feel like doing the 14 mile round trip bike ride to work? I think there’s a lot of people like me in this city that want to take the bus more often but just can’t get there. Maybe there is no solution…

          • No, as I ague in the article, a public ownership model for bike share is probably the best way to serve the entire city. Unfortunately, it requires a robust system that the public cares to invest in.

          • Gotcha. I agree, which is why I was really upset when pronto failed. I’ve just given up on waiting for this city to implement any type of meaningful bike and public transit infrastructure until I’m retired decades from now.

        • Are they on a farm two miles from any other people? Most “low-density” neighborhoods certainly have enough people in them to where if someone drops off a bike in their front yard, someone else will discover it a couple hours later and take it away. The bigger issue would likely be that the person is less likely to find another bike in the morning when they’re ready to leave again and as such, they don’t view bike share as a reliable option for them.

    • This is exactly my point. Bike share is a low cost per ride, making it really cheap to subsidize and really easy to make available to lower income areas where infrequent bus service may require people to purchase a car they might not otherwise wish to budget for.

  2. I’ll actually argue in the other direction – I think the failure of Pronto is a blessing because it opens the door for private investment, which will be more nimble. I hope the city doesn’t rush Pronto 2.0 and gives these private operators room to breathe, grow, and figure out how best to serve this particular city.
    If, perhaps, we find ourselves with successful private bikeshares that are not meeting all of our equity goals, there should be ample room for regulation to achieve these goals without needing to roll out a public operator. For example, free bike rental with ORCA LIFT transfer.
    Thought experiment: say Seattle was “innovative” and launched a car sharing service 10 years ago. That system is still in use today with public subsidy. Would Car2Go and ReachNow been interested in launching their services in Seattle if they hard to compete with a public provider? Probably not, because government spending will crowd out private investment.
    Instead, bikeshare might end up just like carshare. There is a public subsidy for infrastructure (bike racks, PBL etc. for bikes. Parking spots & roads for cars), but the vehicles are funded privately. I think those who want successful bikesharing in this city should, in the short term, focus on building out this bike infrastructure.

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