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Safe & Connected: The Future of Bike Share in Seattle

reposted from Sally Bagshaw’s Blog

Over the past few weeks, my office has heard from a significant number of community members about Pronto and City acquisition of our bike share system. I have appreciated the rigorous analysis taking place on all sides of this issue and want to share my rationale for supporting the legislation to move forward with bike share. After countless conversations with SDOT, stakeholders, and colleagues, I believe Pronto will become financially stable given proper oversight and expansion into new neighborhoods. Beyond that, I believe it will be a vibrant program serving all ages and abilities, and will allow us to take a critical next step to a smarter, healthier, and more equitable transportation system.


This particular issue garnered significant press as well as heated opinions on all sides of the conversation.   I want to share with you some of the considerations informing my decision to support City acquisition of our bike share system.

In our vote, the City Council was deciding whether our current bike share assets would be acquired by SDOT for continued operation, redeployed in targeted new ways, or decommissioned for sale. Before deciding whether the City of Seattle should acquire Pronto, I asked Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) staff detailed questions about their underlying financial assumptions and expectations for future success.

I received input from many who believe these funds could have been better spent on different programs. In my work to address homelessness I have recognized the importance of smart spending. The Pronto funds were strictly directed to transportation projects and could not be used for another City service. Specifically, $1,000,000 of the funding is in the form of grants from the Federal Transportation Administration the City would be required to repay regardless of the outcome of Pronto.

I am an avid bike rider and last year alone put over 1000 miles on my Electric assist bike Downtown, relying on it as my main form of transportation.  I find this way of getting around to be more rewarding than driving my car and searching and paying for parking.  I believe many more people would like to ride but do not want to ride from their homes into Downtown without dedicated, separated bicycle lanes.

I want to make the All Ages and Abilities opportunities real for more of my friends and neighbors.  Accordingly, my goal with Pronto was to decide whether we could assume responsibility over the system with the expectation that expanded bike share could survive and thrive in Seattle.

One of the improvements with which I want to experiment is more stations around our most densely populated and likely-to-ride populations, such as the University District and Capitol Hill residents.  Link Light Rail will be serving these destinations beginning this weekend.   If we acquire the bike share assets, we can determine where they go and collect important information about ridership and locations where people want to ride.  I am all for making decisions based on effective data; this will help us determine whether and by what means we decide to expand the system in the future.

Here are some of the primary questions I asked SDOT about the future of Pronto and improved bike share, along with the information SDOT provided me (in blue).

1.Are the assumptions around Capital and Operational Costs moving forward accurate, given the data we have about the system’s operations since 2014?

SDOT reaffirmed their current projections are intentionally conservative and build on a model of statistics from peer cities. A private engineering company, Sam Schwartz Engineering built the model, and SDOT ran it for the 100 station system scenario in Seattle.

Moving forward, SDOT will ask all vendors in the bid process to provide projections and an explanation of their methodology. This will allow SDOT additional opportunities to refine the projections.

2. Will bike share be successful in a city with Seattle’s weather and topographical challenges?

Typically, better weather increases overall ridership year-round.  Seattle’s bridge-counts of cyclists attest to this.  However, the projections for year-round ridership expect significant numbers of riders, despite the weather.  Many of the peer cities SDOT studied, including Minneapolis, Boston and Chicago, have rough weather—they get a bit more sun but are substantially colder, which is also a deterrent to ridership.

Overall personal bike ridership in Seattle is on par or better than these cities, with Seattle seeing 3.7% of commute trips by bike versus 1.7% in Chicago, 2.4% in Boston and 4.6% in Minneapolis.  SDOT believes these statistics demonstrate the hardiness of Seattleites and can be seen as a proxy for the willingness to ride bike share bikes, despite the weather.

Note from Sally:  these other cities have also invested significantly in separated bike lanes which are integrated in a network separated from cars and trucks. When we expand our network as part of our Center City Mobility Plan, we will make targeted investments for drivers, riders, and pedestrians.  More people will get around safely by bikes thereby reducing congestion Downtown.

There are fewer comparable situations related to hills as a deterrent to ridership. San Francisco is hilly, but has better weather.  E-bikes can help conquer hills.  SDOT believes strong ridership by people in Seattle on personal bikes bodes well for bike share, with or without electric assistance.

3. If the City were to sell the Pronto assets, could we count that sale against the City’s obligation to the Federal Transportation Agency?

SDOT confirmed the City would need to repay the FTA loan if Pronto Bike Share were to shut down.  It was technically possible to sell the infrastructure to another city; however, this scenario was unlikely because there is no city that has a fully inter-operable system with the Pronto bikes.  The only potential market would be a city that is starting up a new system that is in the market for 25 stations.  SDOT did not identify any cities in the process of procuring systems of that size.

FTA staff also provided the following information:

  • A transfer to an FTA approved designee (instead of sale) can take two forms: “(1) grantee-to-grantee transfer [pg. IV-27], or (2) transfer to another public entity [pgs. IV-12 & IV-28] under 49  USC 5334(h)(1)-(h)(3).
  • Repayment to FTA is not required in either approach – even if SDOT receives payment from the other entity [note: there are restrictions on which funding can be used by the other entity to make such a purchase].
  • However, if the property is sold on the open market, FTA repayment of its remaining share may be required.
  • The calculation of the amount owed FTA, if any, depends on the disposition approach taken. With the various options, there are a number if subtleties and implications.

4. Who will use bike share and how can we spread the word to make Pronto a well-used system?

Note from Sally:  Hundreds of cities internationally have added bike sharing to their transportation systems and I have enjoyed riding bikes in Copenhagen, Washington DC, Portland, and New York City.  Councilmember Gonzalez proposed an amendment that was incorporated in the final legislation, to reach communities of color and riders of all ages and abilities, finding out what we can do to get more people on bikes around their neighborhoods.

Bike sharing in this country has struggled to attract low-income riders who could find relying and utilizing bikes a way to improve health and reduce their expenses.   SDOT is learning from the experiences of other cities and will utilize those lessons in our new system. SDOT’s goal is to build on the successes of other cities and be the most inclusive system in the country.

5. Will the City be able to acquire and maintain electric bikes (e-bikes) for our bike share system?

Because of increased competitiveness in the market, e-bikes are not prohibitively expensive. For instance, Beweggan, which launched an e-bike system in Birmingham, AL, charges roughly the same as other bike share systems.

E-bikes require more maintenance. However, the City would be able to charge more for memberships, since the benefit is greater.  E-bikes also likely require less rebalancing as the bikes will be easier to ride uphill.  SDOT’s projections were fairly conservative. In assessing the cost, they did not assume an increased price to users, nor reduced rebalancing, although they did assume a similar price for equipment. SDOT still believes E-bikes are an attainable goal for our system.

I asked SDOT multiple rounds of questions, met with both proponents and opponents of rideshare, and decided to vote in favor of this legislation based on the information I received and possibilities for future options.  I was keenly aware of the costs and weighed the potential benefits carefully.

An important part of my decision on the bike share legislation was based on my commitment to an integrated transportation network in Downtown Seattle and across all neighborhoods.  I believe as our bicycle network improves, more people will take advantage of it and congestion will be reduced along the way.   I will continue to work hard to grow our protected bike lane network so everyone can safely navigate our streets, whether driving, walking, or riding.

Data from other cities shows us that an expanded and targeted bike share program will increase the numbers of people riding whether they live and work Downtown or want to ride the last mile from our newly expanded Light Rail stations to their neighborhoods.  Joining forces with other Councilmembers, we have assured that the design and extension of the coordinated bicycle infrastructure in Seattle will happen before further investments will be made in bike share expansion.  I believe enhancing this system will play a critical role in integrating transportation of all modes in our city.

I appreciate your involvement and interest in this topic, and hope you will join me someday soon on a bike ride.