Back in 2014, Seattle – with its active, affluent population – seemed long overdue for a bike-share program. The rainy, alpine city posed challenges for operators, but other North American metropolises had already overcome hilly landscapes (San Francisco, Vancouver) and extreme weather (Montreal, Boston) to mount successful bike-shares.
The same would not be true for Seattle – at least, not for several years. In March 2017, the city shut down its much-beleaguered bike-share, Pronto, due to chronically low ridership, $1.4 million in wasted taxpayer dollars and a whiff of political scandal.
Here, we dissect why Pronto failed – and how Seattle rebounded with three successful bike-share models just four months later.
Pronto launched with 500 bikes across 54 stations, which experts considered far too few to engage riders.
“It wasn’t dense enough,” said Andrew Glass-Hastings, Transit and Mobility Director for the City of Seattle, who took up the position a year ago. “There weren’t enough stations and there weren’t enough bikes to attract cyclists.”
Bikeshares work best as a “first mile/last mile” transit option for commuters, cycling advocates argue. The Pronto docks were too sparse and poorly placed, with not a single one installed near a Link (light rail) stop. Pronto also didn’t serve popular public facilities, like parks or the Seattle Public Library.
The inconvenience of station placement was reflected in ridership: Pronto’s year-one data revealed that most bikes were ridden less than once a day on average. In its first year of operation, Pronto only registered 142,846 trips, a far cry from the expected 446,000 rides.
“Pronto failed because it was a startup – and like a lot of startups, if there wasn’t a continual investment to allow the system to grow and evolve, it wasn’t going to be successful,” said Glass Hastings.
Pronto launched in 2014 as a non-profit, which meant that the city had minimal control over operations. When it became clear that ridership numbers were not going to meet expectations, the city helped Pronto secure a big-name sponsor: Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, which was to put up $1,000 per bike per year over 2014-2019. This amounted to an investment of $2.5 million over five years.
However, ridership and membership numbers continued to fall short, and Pronto began operating at a loss with high overhead. It had to borrow against sponsorship funding to continue operations, reports CityLab.
In January 2016, government documents revealed that Pronto was insolvent. Rumours began to swirl that the city was considering a buyout.
“The narrative was out there that Pronto was financially unsustainable and was going to go bankrupt”
“Because of the signals that the city – rather, the Director of the Department of Transportation [Scott Kubly] at the time – was sending: ‘Yeah, we’re going to take over your operations in order to expand and do what we want,’ … you’re not terribly motivated to go out and secure additional funding on your own,” said Glass Hastings.
“Then, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, when [Pronto wasn’t] taking funding and the city’s plans were slow to develop, the narrative was out there that Pronto was financially unsustainable and was going to go bankrupt.”
And so the city stepped in. In March 2016, the city council voted 7-2 to buy Pronto from operator Motivate for $1.4 million. One of the council members who voted against the buyout, Tim Burgess, called Pronto “a terrible example of mismanagement of public funds” and “an unfortunate example of how a passionate desire for something can overtake reality”.
The Department of Transportation intended to expand the system in 2017, and began the process of recruiting a new operator. But, as the city plotted Pronto’s expansion, ridership and membership fell further below 2015 numbers. By July 2016, two years after launch, Pronto only had 1,850 members.
In comparison, nearby Portland’s Biketown model – which is owned by the Portland Bureau of Transportation and sponsored by Nike – signed up nearly 2,500 members in its first month of operation.
Another part of the problem was a lack of transparency and failure to disclose interests from the man heading the Department of Transportation.
In 2014, Scott Kubly was hired as head of the department and immediately began working on Pronto’s rollout. Kubly formerly served as president of Alta Bicycle Share (now Motivate), the company hired to run Pronto. Because Kubly did not obtain special permission to work on the deal or recuse himself, he was charged with an ethics violation and asked to pay a $10,000 fee. (He only ended up paying $5,000).
Kubly ultimately stepped down from his post, but the scandal was the final nail in the coffin for Pronto.
“A lot of the political wind shifted, and the mayor decided to use the funding that was pegged for bike-share for investment in bike infrastructure – bike lanes and that,” said Glass Hastings. “Once that decision was made, there was no funding for the expansion of the system, and it was shut down in March of last year.”
Difficulty of use
Some pointed to other underlying issues that made it difficult for cyclists to use Pronto.
Seattle has poor biking infrastructure, with fragmented lanes that make it difficult for riders to navigate traffic and busy intersections. (The city is currently working on amending this problem with its Bicycle Master Plan, which will build out lanes throughout the city.)
Additionally, the law in King County (which includes Seattle) requires cyclists to wear helmets. While Glass Hastings said that it’s unlikely the helmet law had any impact on Pronto’s failure – as police don’t tend to prioritise cycling misdemeanours – others posit that the helmet exchange that ran parallel to the bike-share was one more financial complication for the overburdened company. The law may have also discouraged casual riders.
However, challenges such as these seem to have little effect on the three new bike-share pilots Seattle launched in July 2017, less than four months after Pronto tanked.
How Seattle bounced back
With these pilot programs, Seattle became one of the first US cities to issue permits for dockless systems – which means cyclists can park bicycles almost anywhere when they’re finished with them. The new, private systems – run by Spin, LimeBike and Ofo – only charge $1 for a single ride, the lowest price of any bike-share system in a major US city.
“Seattle became instantly attractive to these companies because we were one of, if not the, largest market in the US without an incumbent bike-share system,” said Glass Hastings.
“We went from proposing a bike-share that would use about $5 million of public funding and get us about 1,000 bikes. Now we have 9,000-10,000 bikes with almost zero public investment”
The city decided not to set a cap on the number of companies that could operate, instead limiting the number of bikes the companies were permitted to launch with. Each was allowed 1,000 bikes to start, and the cap has gradually increased to 4,000 each.
“We went from originally proposing a major bike-share expansion that would use about $5 million of public funding and was going to get us about 1,000 bikes. Now we have 9,000-10,000 bikes on the street with almost zero public investment,” said Glass Hastings.
Seattle is currently working with the University of Washington to evaluate the pilots, the results of which will inform whether the city will choose one company or allow all three to continue operations.
However, Glass Hastings said it’s clear that the bike-shares are a “huge success” compared to Pronto, with “huge ridership” tallied during the peak summer months.
Still, one challenge remains
In Beijing, competing startups have inundated city streets with 16 million shared bikes. Riders leave them all over the city: on private property, along busy traffic intersections, in bodies of water and on construction sites. It’s common to see piles of bikes, stacked one on top of the other, on busy streets.
Seattle is already seeing the beginnings of the same problem.
— Ale Manzocchi (@amanzocchi) January 28, 2018
“You have thousands of bikes all over the city, and not all of those bikes are being parked as you’d like them. Some end up being littered on the street. Bikes are ending up in parks; in public or private property where we don’t really want them. It’s a bit of a wait-and-see, whether having a bike-share with almost no public investment is worth some of these downsides,” said Glass Hastings.
The Department of Transportation is experimenting with designated parking spaces for the bikes, delineated by painted sidewalks in high-use areas.
“The nuisance of bikes all over the city is one of the biggest complaints. We’re working with companies to tighten up some of those parking requirements and create a little more order to the system, so we aren’t littering the city,” said Glass Hastings.
— Steve Banfield (@stevebanfield) September 16, 2017
After many different iterations of bikeshare policy, Glass-Hastings believes that Seattle will end up with a hybrid system, in which dockless bikes must be parked in clearly designated areas. He predicts the future of cycling programs will revolve around e-bikes, which have a motor that powers the bike as the cyclist pedals – ideal for hilly cities like Seattle.
As Seattle struggles with finding just the right bikeshare program demonstrate, public policy is endlessly complicated. Even good ideas can go wrong, and just because a model works in one city, that doesn’t mean it can be seamlessly replicated in another. One thing is for sure: the bikeshare industry is watching as Seattle and Beijing struggle to strike the right balance between convenience and order.
Both Motivate, Pronto’s operator, and Scott Kubly declined to comment for this piece.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr/SounderBruce, Flickr/SDOT Photos, Flickr/Eric Fischer)