Elaine Thompson/AP

What kept Seattle’s Pronto! bike share program from thriving? Turns out it was several things.

Earlier this month, Seattle quietly put the brakes on its bike-share program, Pronto! (with appropriately Jeb! Bush-ian punctuation). The city also canned the idea of an e-bike replacement program.

The program’s failure might seem like something of a surprise: One of the bike-friendliest cities in the U.S. (ranked fifth by Cycling in 2016), Seattle seems a lot like the kind of affluent, outdoorsy place that should embrace bike sharing. Instead, Pronto! will come to an end in March. If bike sharing could successfully spread to 119 U.S. cities since 2008, why couldn’t it work in the Emerald City?

The answer has to do with a series of structural, political, regulatory, and geographical challenges that the city was unable to overcome. George Bernard Shaw once quipped, “The trouble with the media is that it seems unable to distinguish between the end of the world and a bicycle accident.” With that note of editorial caution, we bring to you: the Four Horsemen of the Bike Share Apocalypse.

(SounderBruce/flickr)

1) Low ridership

Sure, this seems obvious: Not enough people signed up. But the causes of low ridership remain bitterly contentious. Was it the weather? The hills? Or the company that ran the program?

Pronto! was initially operated by Motivate, which also currently runs ten other bike-share programs in cities across North America, among them New York, Boston, Portland, Chattanooga, Toronto, Columbus, and Jersey City. Spokesperson Dani Simons told me that the company didn’t wish to speak specifically to the Seattle program, but she did confirm that accessibility and station density are key features to encouraging bike share ridership.

It’s not hard to find people in Seattle who are willing to suggest specific reasons behind Pronto’s demise, and some finger the combination of climate and geography. But Tom Fucoloro, who runs Seattle Bike Blog, says none of those issues are insurmountable. “When you have a hilly city,” Fucoloro says, “you need to recognize that and plan the system around that. Everyone complains about the weather where they live, but at least we’re not covered in snow.”

Indeed, bike share programs had thrived in places with similar topography (like Vancouver, Portland and San Francisco) and in places with more inclement winter weather (Chicago, Montreal, and Boston).

Others point out an issue more specific to Seattle: the city’s helmet law, which added to program costs and may have discouraged casual riders.

Comparing Pronto’s year-one data to other city bike share systems reveals just how serious the ridership problem quickly became. The example of Washington, D.C. and Seattle are a close (but imperfect) match in terms of population and density. (D.C.’s relaunch of its system from its pilot program of SmartBike in 2008 to Capital Bikeshare in 2010 is pointed to as a key turnaround to a successful bike share program in the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s bike share planning guide.)

In Pronto!’s 2014-2015 launch year, the system of 50 stations and 500 bicycles saw 142,846 trips. In Capital Bikeshare’s 2010-2011 launch year, their system of 116 stations and 1,100 bicycles saw over 1 million rides. Membership numbers were similarly disproportionate. In its first year, Pronto! had 3,299 year-long members, while in Capital Bikeshare’s first year there were over 18,000 members.

Another instructive comparison is with the initial launch of a now similar size system, Austin’s B-cycle. That program launched in 2014 on a smaller scale and expanded slowly to the same size as Pronto!; it ended its first year with 150,000 rides. And it’s now touted as a success—albeit with federal funding.

So did Pronto! just need more time to expand?

A screen shot of the system map for Pronto!, where stations mostly covered the downtown and University of Washington areas. (Pronto!)

2) Delayed expansion

Expansion was always in the works: Pronto!’s second phase of the launch would have added another 60 stations and 600 bikes to the system six months into the program in 2015. But in early 2015, the Seattle Department of Transportation approached Pronto!, offering to take over the program, and the build-out was delayed. After the city bought the system in February 2016, expansion was reconsidered.

That left Pronto! with a somewhat compromised coverage area. Zach Shaner at Seattle Transit Blog laid out a key principle for system design: “Linearity is the enemy of useful bike share and contiguity is its best friend.” His map below shows us the ideal service area for maximizing station density and what actually happened in the system.

(Zach Shaner/Seattle Transit Blog)

According to a Seattle Department of Transportation analysis in February 2016, doubling the number of bikes and stations would have seen more than triple the number of trips and double the user revenue from users.

I asked Fucoloro to describe a place that you might want to go on a Pronto! bike in Seattle that didn’t have a dock. His first answer: Gas Works Park, a reclaimed industrial site that is about a 12-minute bike ride from the University of Washington—where a pocket of eleven bike share stations separate from the main system went underused.

Gas Works Park, a twelve-minute ride from the University of Washington, lacked a bike-share station of its own. (Wildcat Dunny/flickr)

Fucoloro describes how the second half of that bike ride would lead riders to Fremont, a district full of breweries, coffee shops, and places to people-watch—but no bike share stations. Instead, Pronto! riders would roll up expecting docks; it became common to see unattended bikes propped up outside of breweries.

The bottom line, Fucoloro says: “No one's going to pay for an all-day bike pass if your bikes don't go everywhere they're trying to go.”

Bike share operators use trucks to ‘rebalance’ the distribution of bikes in a city when natural riding patterns do not. (SounderBruce/flickr)

3) Lack of funding

Even with a maximal level of ridership, cities typically need to find some way to subsidize a bike share system through corporate sponsorship, federal dollars, or both.

Sponsorship certainly can give a great boost to that initial capital investment. They’ve become a model for the bike share operators like Motivate, which also runs Portland’s Nike-sponsored Biketown, and San Francisco’s Bay Area Bike Share, which is expanding under a sponsorship from Ford. (One notable exception: Capital Bikeshare, which meets about 97 percent of its funding needs with its farebox recovery—covering operating costs with user fees. )

Pronto!’s original revenue projections were built around a future sponsorship: They only called for 446,000 trips and 4,000 members to pay for expenses after sponsorships. The search for that funder originally fell to a nonprofit, Puget Sound Bike Share (PSBS). Here’s how they originally envisioned costs in a 2014 proposal:

Budget estimates for the yet-unnamed bike share program in Seattle. (PSBS)

As Bike Portland notes, Alaska Airlines put up a lead sponsorship of $1,000 per bike per year from 2014 through 2019 for Pronto!’s 500 bikes—$2.5 million over five years, or roughly $500,000 a year. PSBS had a few other additional initial sponsors, but once ridership and membership numbers fell short of expectations, the system began operating at a loss with substantial overhead and the program borrowed against future sponsorships to continue.

The most contentious question about Pronto!’s finances comes from when PSBS shut down at the end of 2015. City council had approved SDOT to take over the program from the nonprofit in March 2015; PSBS ceased pursuing sponsors in anticipation of a handover to SDOT by August 2015, which the program needed with ridership falling below expectations.

Meanwhile, SDOT had been pursuing a $10 million TIGER grant from the federal government to expand the program. That never came to be, and the program ran out of funds by the end of the year. In 2016, Seattle’s city council then faced a decision to buy out the program for $1.4 million, which they voted to do in March 2016 with the intent to expand the bike share system.

The city considered bids to expand or replace Pronto! at the end of the year, but replacing the system with electric-assist bikes supplied by Motivate’s rival Bewegen would have required renegotiating Alaska Airlines’ sponsorship, or finding additional sponsorships.

(Tony Webster/flickr)

4) Politics

Ridership, expansion, and funding problems all congealed into the fourth and final death-blow for Pronto!: lack of political will. Once the idea of bike share in Seattle appeared to be troubled, the program found itself without a constituency.

“Honestly, the reason Pronto! died was mismanagement and politics,” Fucoloro says. "There's nothing wrong with the equipment; there's nothing wrong with the original plans that they had and where they were going to put the stations. It seems like it was too many cooks in the kitchen.”

Pronto!’s financial sustainability was not the only political problem. An ethics investigation engulfed then-Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly. He had been the president of Alta Bicycle Share (which became Motivate in January 2015) before Mayor Ed Murray tapped him as transportation chief in July 2014. An ethics investigation fined Kubly in June 2016 for working on Pronto! without obtaining a waiver disclosing his previous connection to the company.

“It’s a snowball effect,” Fucoloro says. “Once it becomes toxic or labeled a failure. All this uncertainty happened at the six- to nine-month mark. They needed to be focused on the health of the system, not selling it to the city.”

As the city considered expansion, Pronto! continued to fall short of expectations. By August 2016, the projected $608,000 in user revenue only turned out to be $449,000, as trips and memberships fell below the system’s 2015 numbers.

With operating losses mounting and the city council objecting to the buyout, the proposal to expand the program became politically untenable. Mayor Ed Murray announced the cancellation of the program and instead put the expansion funds towards pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements.

The lesson, Fucoloro observes, is that bike share can become perceived as a “neat amenity” that is both very visible and easily expendable to city government, especially when its is in doubt. “That's the problem here,” he says. “Through this whole frustrating story of the slow death of Pronto!, we’ve lost the whole story of why we want bike share. What purpose does it serve?”

Pronto! isn’t the first bike share system to cease operations, but it might be the most prominent non-pilot program to shut down. What happens next in Seattle could be that hard-learned, classic cycling lesson: When you fall down, pick yourself up and try again.

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