Seattle privately-run bikeshare pilot is widely heralded: it’s cheaper, shinier, and more widespread and flexible. There’s just one catch. Besides being better than Pronto Cycle Share was, private bikeshare hasn’t accomplished much yet.

After pulling the plug on Pronto Cycle Share in the midst of a planned reboot as a completely city-managed separate system, Seattle tried something that no other U.S. city had tried before: letting as many private bikeshare operators come in and have access to all of Seattle’s city right-of-way with relatively limited restrictions. All the companies had to do was pay the appropriate fees and Seattle’s streets and sidewalks were theirs. (Incidentally, managing sidewalk bike clutter is a major challenge facing the free-floating bikeshare program going forward.)

In September, the city council’s transportation committee received a presentation on the state of the pilot program that the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had been implementing around private bikeshare operators. At the meeting, SDOT’s Transit and Mobility Director Andrew Glass-Hastings and Kyle Rowe (the SDOT staffer credited with creating the framework for free-floating bikeshare) laid out what had happened with the free-floating pilot since its launch in early July. “We’re talking about bikeshare, and we actually have a positive story to share,” Glass-Hastings told the committee, chaired by Councilmember Mike O’Brien.

Compared to Pronto, the numbers for free-floating bikeshare (FFBS) look positively stellar. Pronto, which suffered from poor station placement and a disjointed network that almost everyone agrees gave it a severe handicap, also had the misfortune of being one of the most bad-mouthed arms of the city’s transportation system. The free-floating counterparts, made up of (in order of their arrival on Seattle’s streets) Spin, LimeBike, and Ofo, are free from association with city funding, and have the backing of heavy amounts of start-up cash.

The presentation made to the city council rightfully showed optimism toward the prospects for free-floating bikeshare in Seattle. But we should be examining the system on its own merits, not simply asking “is it better than Pronto?” In a chart that was not included in the presentation to the city council committee, but that was posted on the SDOT blog in a post that–after only looking at two months of data for FFBS–was ready to declare “it’s a pretty big success.” Pronto’s metrics were laid out, side-by-side, with the free-floating bikeshare.

Pronto’s system metrics versus the first look at FFBS data. (City of Seattle)

Seattleites were very anxious to use bikeshare bikes in the first few weeks of the pilot program. Average usage of 2,231 trips per day is a lot of trips. However, the days examined here only include summer days with long hours of daylight, combined with excitement over the launch of the program and all of the buzz associated with that, as well as high numbers of free rides provided by the companies for new users. In other words, the factors that combined to create the metrics above will likely never be repeated ever again. We have to look deeper into the numbers, insofar as we can, to glean as much as we can about the sustainability and usefulness of the system.

Bikeshare bikes sometimes make already narrow sidewalks even narrower.

Let’s look at one of the metrics above: average trip duration. 26 minute average trip time on a bikeshare system might not seem like that much, but you can cover quite a bit of area on a bike in that amount of time. According to Google Maps, in 26 minutes you can get from Westlake Station almost all the way to Gas Works Park (24 minutes), or from Beacon Hill Station to Seward Park (27 minutes). If the average trip length is this amount, that means many users are taking more time. It doesn’t look like bikes are being used for last-mile connections.

But that metric is at odds, slightly, with the metric of average trip length. If a trip from Westlake to Gas Works Park, for example, taking 24 minutes is 3.8 miles, that means that if the average trip length of free-floating bikeshare trips is instead 2.6 miles, we can safely conclude that free-floating bikeshare trips are, on average, leisurely rides. It’s also worth noting that while we know exactly how far trips were on the free-floating systems, we don’t have that exact same metric for Pronto trips. Pronto bikes were not equipped with GPS and instead distance had to be extrapolated from trip time, which, as I’ve demonstrated above, can be problematic.

But the most telling metric shown above is the percentage of trips taken during peak hours on weekdays: 20%, with just 4% taken during the morning peak. 80% of trips outside commuting hours on weekdays tells us that, for the most part, people were not using the system to get to work. This will be very interesting to track over time, but we really won’t be able to get to the bottom of the information without a completely different set of data: what the riders are experiencing.

Rider surveys are going to be essential to gauging the success of the private bikeshare in fulfilling a public good: getting people to where they need to go without the use of a car. Is the reason that few people are using the bikes to commute because riders attempted to get a bike in the morning before work and either couldn’t find the bike based on the position suggested by the app, or found the bike inoperable, or had trouble getting the app to work in the first place? We don’t know the answer to these questions right now; nonetheless, our free-floating bikeshare guidelines are already well on their way to being a national model for other cities to copy.

A Spin bike in South Lake Union missing a seat. This bike did show as available via the app. (Photo by the author)

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, B.C., the city council there has been reviewing the performance of their station-based system, Mobi, after it has wrapped up its first year of operation. Mobi, like our free-floating pilot, gradually added additional bikes to the streets over the course of that year. However, while we have around 6,000 bikes citywide, their system is currently paused at 1,214 bikes at 123 stations closely clustered around the downtown peninsula.

Top level Mobi metrics. (City of Vancouver)

The free-floating bikeshare average of 2.25 rides per bike per day in Seattle during the first two months is right on par with the metrics that Mobi has seen during its highest ridership summer months. With almost five times as many bikes in Seattle, this goes to show that a station-based system in a city that shares a climate and terrain with Seattle could also be successful if given a chance. Another factor shared between the two cities is a helmet requirement law. Vancouver is reporting a 70% compliance rate after providing every user with a cranium cup. But I’m sure there are some that will continue to insist that Seattle is completely different.

Mobi metrics from Vancouver, B.C. (City of Vancouver)

The free-floating bikeshare pilot is still in its infancy. Other cities are greenlighting these systems, and many are looking at our regulations before creating their own framework. We must ensure that we examine exactly how the system is functioning for all users (or attempted users) before we continue down this path. Rider surveys must be a part of this, considering the many aspects that free-floating bikeshare can “let down” the user. We may ultimately decide that free-floating bikeshare is a resounding success that benefits most of its users, but we are a long way from being able to knowledgeably make that decision.

Finding Bikeshare’s Role In Seattle

10 COMMENTS

  1. “(Incidentally, managing sidewalk bike clutter is a major challenge facing the free-floating bikeshare program going forward.)”

    This is more than an incidental, parenthetical sentiment. It’s going to be a MAJOR driver of public support for or against the program. I’ve taken about 6 or 7 rides on LimeBike, one on Spin, and I think the program is great on clement days. But I despair at the visual blight caused by individual — and even heaps of — blown/knocked-over bikes. I always pick them up if I am walking by…some have been vandalized with their kickstands removed.

    Time will tell if we’ll simply have too many bikes on the street and need to prune back to manage the aesthetic as well as operational aspects of the program. I’m rooting for it to succeed.

  2. The great thing about these new programs is that if they fail, it isn’t the city’s problem. So far the city has done a good job of getting out the way and letting private industry take a crack at it.

    So far I haven’t really seen a problem with bike clutter in Seattle. I’ve heard that’s been a problem in Beijing, but that city has a much larger bike share system than we will ever have. There are 2.4 million rental bikes in Beijing. There aren’t even that many people in Seattle.

    If anything I feel like there aren’t enough bike share bikes in Seattle. I still have to go several blocks from my workplace in belltown to find one.

    • If private bikeshare fails, no bikeshare will ever return to Seattle. So there’s a public interest in making sure that it succeeds. Therefore, I think it is the city’s problem.

  3. I think the bikes are generally pretty, when standing up, and am generally willing to have them standing near the sidewalk even in my very suburban neighborhood. I’ve seen a few incidents of vandalism style abandonment (near U Village, where someone or group of someones had taken the time to pile 10+ bikes on top of each other). But, in general, I’m not finding the bikes a visual/physical hazard in NE Seattle.

    I also don’t think that “no rideshare will ever come to Seattle” if this one fails. People will come if it makes economic and physical sense. If it doesn’t make sense? well, then, I suspect there are real barriers (our hills!) that prevent successful bikeshare in Seattle. It could be that there will be other tweaks necessary (only summer months? more investment in reprogramming the bikes? Some electric assist bikes? Available helmets? Subsidizing the trips won’t fix outcomes if people don’t ride because it’s wet, rainy, dark, miserable and hilly.

  4. You’re right that rider surveys are needed. I look forward to seeing updated usage data, especially to gauge seasonality impacts. That being said, I don’t think we should be making any assumptions about usage patterns based only on average time/distance at this point – those are pretty weak indicators to make such broad assumptions about user behavior. I imagine the averages are covering up more interesting and nuanced stories that we’ll hopefully be hearing about soon.

  5. Some of the conditions around the first couple months of private bikeshare will never be replicated. I think the most concerning is capital. Private bikeshare won’t get fresh VC money every summer, not in the same city at least. But the long, dry days of summer come around every year. And let’s take a lesson from Link Light Rail about the relative powers of initial hype and growing familiarity: Link had one big weekend when it first opened, then quickly settled down to an initial level of ridership it would easily surpass in subsequent years as familiarity grew. That was one of the tragedies of Pronto. It opened at a time when much of its service area, particularly as bike routes go, was changing rapidly. It needed time for construction to settle down, for bike routes to settle down, for people’s routines to build around it, even more than it would have in any other city, but it was planned so that it would fail unless it was a booming success right away.

    The private systems got to ride Pronto’s coattails in terms of familiarity, got to launch after more of the critical development and infrastructure were done, and got enough initial funding, all together, to put lots of bikes out there, providing sufficient density and coverage to succeed. And their money, coming from out of town, had no strings attached: no helmet advocacy, no isolated stations in Magnolia, no weird avoidance of Fremont, just succeed and make money.

    Even so, a lot of the same challenges apply as with Pronto. Vancouver may have hills, but downtown Vancouver doesn’t have hills the way downtown Seattle does; that’s not an impossible obstacle, but it does limit bikeshare in Seattle. Like Pronto, these companies will have to become operationally profitable quickly, and probably don’t have a plausible path to direct public subsidy (Pronto in theory could have pulled a CitiBike if it had become popular like CitiBike). Construction around 99 and high levels of private construction are still real barriers to bike connectivity near downtown — this stuff outlived Pronto and could very well outlive some of the private operators. While they might succumb to this stuff, their hot initial start really is a good sign.

  6. I am upset about the city bailout of the original bike sharing program. If they had made money, would taxpayers have received those profits? It’s an example of why people don’t trust government any more. But the current bike shares seem to be working in my neighborhood of lower Ballard. Of course it’s a seasonal business. Count the number of people using the Burke-Gilman Trail. Is it a failure because there are more on it in summer than the rainiest month of the year or because tons of people use it for fun instead of structured exercise or commuting? They need to learn from the seasonality of the business and adjust the number of bikes on the streets accordingly. That’s not business failure, it’s learning a seasonal business. I am very pleasantly surprised by what looks like a high usage rate in my neighborhood. I wonder if drunk driving is down because people are biking to bars. That could be a really helpful benefit for us. I have seen there are fewer cars being jammed in and cruising for parking during peak party times because of these bikes, and that is good too.

  7. Incidentally, managing clutter of parked cars in the public right-of-way is a major challenge facing the private automobile program going forward.

    I would rather have clutter & visual blight of bikes offered for use for $1, than private cars unavailable for use.

    • I really, really want bikeshare to succeed and I’ve heard this argument multiple times from folks that also appear to support the program. However, I don’t think this argument makes the case for bikeshare. Yes, there are cars everywhere in the city. For the most part though, this storage of private vehicles is extremely regulated. Cars are stored in predictable places and parking is permitted nearly citywide. When people don’t comply they often get hefty tickets, boots or are towed.

      I think urabnists who want bikeshare to succeed need to acknowledge it’s important for the system to leave people with a positive impression. Do we want the system to be scrapped because of complaints about bikes in trees or blocking curb ramps? I think a critical part of people having a positive impression is ensuring good interactions with the public space. If we’re referring to cars as a similar problem are we also saying we need a systemic way of managing bikes in public space? Are we saying we need designated areas for parking, permits for usage and hefty fines for non-compliance?

      • The comparison is not necessarily intended to make the case for bikeshare, just to suggest that parked bikeshare bikes offer better cost/benefit than the much higher volume of parked private cars whose presence most people accept without a second thought.

        Bikeshare bikes already do have regulations about acceptable parking locations, a permit system compensating the city for parking, and a known party responsible for dealing with problem bikes. Also, most people are capable of moving the bike a few feet to solve small parking issues. Again comparing favorably to parked cars which cannot be moved even 1 inch without a tow truck. The case for regulatory equivalence seems thin.

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