The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) released a few bikeshare data morsels to the Pedestrian Advisory Board last week. Seatte’s system of privately-operated free-floating bikeshare continued to post solid numbers in the “Mid-Pilot Check-in.” Buoyed by free ride promotions, the five-month-long pilot program has surpassed the million mile mark and hit 347,300 total rides at the end of November.

SDOT said it has permitted 9,388 bikes to the three licensed operators–Spin, Limebike, and Ofo–although not all those bikes are in service at any given time due to breakdowns, maintenance, or them just not being rolled out yet.

Missing data points prevent us from drawing more far-reaching conclusions.The limited bikeshare data so far works as a Rorschach test; depending how you look you can see a national bikeshare leader or a fragile system with cracks forming. The number of total rides suggests private bikeshare is booming. But rides per bike per day–the metric that boosters used to argue Seattle’s private bikeshare was the second best system in the country after New York’s CitiBike–has dropped significantly with the influx of bikes and more marginal gains in total rides per days, which is up to 2,711 from a 2,231 average during the first two months.

If active bikes climbed to an average of 4,000 (still less than half the total number SDOT has permitted), then the rides per bike per day would be 0.68–a far cry from the 2.25 rides per bike per day the system averaged in its honeymoon phase for the first few summer months. We don’t know the rides per bike number because the mid-pilot check-in didn’t reveal how many bikes were active per day: SDOT says it will be releasing that number next month for the entire pilot phase.

The dip in rides per bike could simply reflect less bike-friendly weather, but it also could indicate deeper problems, such as insufficient demand to warrant so many bikes. The question of if Seattle’s market can really absorb 10,000 bikeshare bikes is still an open question. That’s the same number of bikes as New York’s dock-based system has in a city of 8.5 million people. Seattle, meanwhile, just recently passed the 700,000 population mark.

Additionally, New York City has 425 miles of protected bike facilities, while Seattle has fallen woefully behind its goal of 50 miles of protected bike lanes promised in the Move Seattle Levy voters resoundingly passed in 2015. Lately SDOT has picked up a little momentum with the extension of the Second Avenue protected bike lane to Denny Way. Still, Seattle’s slow progress on completing a Basic Bike Network Downtown and tying together its fragmented protected bike facilities across the city is likely hindering cycling rates and could well be lowering bikeshare ridership potential. People aren’t as likely to try bikeshare if they don’t feel safe.

Or, to present another hypothesis, Seattle might have enough demand for 10,000 free floating bikeshare bikes if the bikes were more reliable and less clunky and slow. Clunky bikes don’t necessarily present a problem for short trips or leisurely joy rides, but a mature bikeshare network can be more than that. To convince people to subscribe to bikeshare, nimbler dependable bikes could be a big selling point. Better bikes could also convince more people to do the legwork of climbing hills, which does appear to be limiting usage areas judging by the map below.

Most bikeshare trips stared in the Downtown core or Ballard, Fremont, Wallingford, and the University District. (TRAC)

Another lingering issue is how SDOT can ensure the bikeshare bikes don’t clog sidewalks and recreational trails. SDOT is floating an idea for a few designated parking areas for bikeshare. However, a more sweeping intervention will likely be necessary if providers continue to add bikes without solving the issue of compliance with parking rules. SDOT has also kicked around written warnings, fleet reductions, fines, and permit suspension for providers with persistent non-compliance issues.

More comprehensive data is coming in January as pilot period data collection ends December 31st. At that point, SDOT will extend the operators’ permits for an additional six months while the agency further evaluates the pilot program’s data and determines next steps–likely a permanent program. Hopefully that next big data drop will better illuminate the program’s performance.

Seattle’s Bikeshare Pilot Deserves More Scrutiny

19 COMMENTS

  1. A couple of points:

    1. I don’t think the rides per bike matters that much. The cost per bike is probably lower than the overhead for engineering staff, hosting, administration. Also, bikes that are ridden less take less maintenance.

    What will matter most for the survival of these companies is whether they can expand to more cities than just Seattle.

    2. Bikes littering the sidewalk is speculated about online, but I have yet to see it in downtown Seattle.

    The cities where bike litter is a real problem in China have populations of 30 or 40 million and hundreds of thousands of bike shares. Seattle has a population of 700,000 and has only a few thousand bikes.

    In other words, this is a totally fictional problem for Seattle… It’s an issue of people getting over excited about a novelty and engaging in unfounded speculation… the same way a lot of people talk about AI becoming self aware and taking over world.

    • It’s not unfounded speculation that it frequently takes trying 2 or 3 bikes before finding one that works. That’s virtually guaranteed to discourage use. It’s not unfounded speculation that the bikes do litter public space haphazardly, especially pedestrian space – I see this any time I venture more than a block or two beyond our apartment (Capitol Hill). it’s not unfounded speculation to voice concern over actual problems with this system. It’s not unfounded speculation to ask why a private dockless is held to a much lower standard for maintenance and operation than our also-flawed public system was.

      Thanks, Doug, for a much-needed assessment of where we are so far with dockless that is neither ridiculously optimistic nor overly pessimistic.

        • just get out and observe, way more bikes all over with no one riding them. Probably a ratio of 100 to 1 of bikes to riders.

          • You are missing the main point, there are many cars driving and in use. There are very few bike share bikes in use, most are parked and just moved from spot to spot by the bike share companies. Take a drive through multiple neighborhoods, count the # of bike share bikes parked, count the # of bike share bikes in use. 100 to 1 ratio is a conservative ratio. or you can do the same and count cars. no comparison.

          • I think what Mike is trying to say is that if you go to downtown for example, 99.9% of the cars parked on the street, in parking lots, and in parking garages will be driven at least twice that day. The bike share bikes parked on the downtown streets are used much much less, likely somewhere around 10% where actually rode on that day.

          • The 95% statistic would suggest 1 in 20 cars is parked rather than in use. Sure if your spitballed 1 in 100 number is correct then cars appear to “win.” But on the other other hand, parked cars consume 10 times as much space. 10 bikes can easily fit in the space one parking car consumes. Plus cars are an immovable obstacle for passerbys but a bikeshare bike can be picked up and moved at will. It also costs much more to build a parking space for a car: an underground spot runs something like $60,000 to build in Seattle, sometimes more. The externalized costs of car storage are simply much higher.

          • I was curious about the utilization of bikes in Seattle by the same metric. Here’s my napkin math:

            avg trip distance = 3.0 miles
            avg speed (Copenhagen) = 9.6 mph
            # of trips = 347300
            # of bikes = 9388
            hours/day = 24
            days (half year) = 365 / 2

            (3.0 / 9.6 * 347300) / (9388 * 24 * 365 / 2) = 0.26%

            It’s not great, but the big assumption here is that all 9,388 bikes have been available throughout the entire trial, which is definitely not true. Certainly the bikes should be better utilized to prevent crowded pedestrian spaces, but SDOT is already working on that.

        • Really surprised that you’re going all strawman on this. Sure, people have a propensity to complain when things change. But to pretend that everything is just peachy keen is to ignore real-world issues. If proponents don’t take the legitimate criticisms of street use violations seriously, it’s a guarantee the whole programme will be shut down by backlash.

    • I can only speak for myself, but I have definitely observed littering of bikes on sidewalks as a serious problem, especially where sidewalks are narrow. SDOT needs to make this one of its highest priorities in regulation, particularly where it presents ADA violations and general safety threats. Lack of proper regulations are also allowing the companies to damage public and private property.

  2. Clogging sidewalks with bikes is obviously an important point. But I think one should look a bit more generally here: what are the main obstacles on sidewalks? Why is the walkable width so often substantially less than the total sidewalk width? In my opinion the objects are coming broadly broadly in this order: a) trees lining the street, b) various small traffic-related objects like no-parking signs, parking meters, bike racks, etc; c) trees and other greenery spilling over from adjacent gardens; d) (large) utility poles; e) trashcans; and maybe f) would be the new bikes.

    There are also other issues, like too narrow sidewalks in certain places but let’s keep it separate…

  3. The obvious, cheap solution to the sidewalk clogging issue is what SBB has suggested, use city funds to provide on street bike corrals within the first 30 feet (the no parking zone for stop signs) at intersections. In most cases that no parking stipulation is to provide the necessary sight clearances for proceeding through the intersection and not to provide vehicle space. By providing permanent bike parking you a) provide a space to remove bikes safely from the sidewalk and b) ensure those necessary sight clearances remain by only allowing low profile bikes to be parked in those areas and preventing cars from violating this restriction. All of that can be achieved at low cost relative to the construction costs associated with adding things like curb bulbs.

    • I definitely agree SDOT should add lots more bike parking, particularly at intersections. I’m not sure that’s a magic bullet though. If demand for parking exceeds the number of spots provided at the corral, the bikes are still likely to end up strewn in the sidewalk or along a bike trail.

      And while cost is relatively low it’s still significant enough that SDOT can’t add thousands of spots overnight. The handful of bike racks to block the homeless camp in Belltown cost about $6,700 for example. Seemingly small but a massive rollout would add up.

  4. How do you (SDOT) permit and encourage such an open-ended system like this then place all the blame on the companies for people leaving the bikes in bad places? I don’t know how you can really hold the company responsible and punish them for people doing dumb stuff with the bikes just because the company’s name is on it. The problem lays entirely on the people who lack common sense and leave the bikes in the middle of sidewalks, inside stores, in doorways, in lakes, etc. And there is no way to feasibly regulate the people using and leaving the bikes so for some illogical reason they go for whats simply the easiest and blame the bicycle for its placement.

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