Who would have thought Seattle’s bike share program would struggle? Probably anyone who’s tried to cycle through downtown.
The news that Seattle’s bike share program is insolvent only a year after opening is, symbolically anyway, a wound to Seattle’s green psyche.
It could be due to mismanagement. Or a lame rollout. These were some of the reasons offered for how a bicycling program could falter so badly in a place that fancies itself as Bike City, USA.
But what if the real problem is that our self-image is mistaken?
Pronto, the nonprofit system of 54 stations downtown and the U District where you can grab a bike for short-term rental, now has to be bailed out by the City Council for $1.4 million. Or allowed to die.
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That’s not very much money, which is why I called this a symbolic issue. The city can pony that up without breaking into a budget sweat.
But there’s a more vexing problem: Nobody’s riding the bikes.
In its first year, people took 142,832 rides on Pronto bikes. That’s only 391 rides per day. It’s about seven rides taken at each station per day. Each station brought in only an average $30 a day in revenue.
These are terrible figures considering the bike stations are dotted around places like the Amazon jungle, which we imagine should be meccas of alternative transportation. For a particularly unflattering comparison, the Washington, D.C., bike share logged more than a million rides in its first year (although it did have twice as many stations).
“Washington, D.C., is freezing in the winter and horribly hot in the summer, but they’ve blown past us, definitely on bike share and also on their rates of bike commuting,” says Tom Fucoloro, editor of the excellent Seattle Bike Blog.
I called Fucoloro because he’s an evangelist for Seattle bicycling, but also a realist. Could it be that Seattle with its rain and hills and bad traffic is maybe not the bicycling city it purports to be?
We are falling a bit in the rankings. In the latest bike commuting surveys, Seattle dropped to number five among big cities. That’s still pretty good, but since 2000, bicycling to work has grown twice as fast in Washington, D.C., and three times as fast in Portland.
Recently researchers found the bikingest neighborhoods in the U.S. They looked at bike commuting rates by census tract and ranked the top 100 in the nation (a neighborhood near Stanford University is number one). Portland has 11 of these neighborhoods, Philadelphia five, Chicago two. Even car-crazy Los Angeles has one. Seattle? None.
After years of growth, the number of bikes going over the Fremont Bridge surprisingly dropped 2 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, other surveys have shown that what’s really soaring in popularity around here is walking.
Fucoloro supports saving Pronto. But he said the system is mostly for the casual bike rider, not the hard-core commuter. It could be that biking is rugged enough in Seattle that if you’re going to do it, you’re committed enough to already have your own bike.
But in his view the problem isn’t that Seattle has hit peak bicycling or something. It’s that after decades of talking and fighting about it, the city still hasn’t done much to make biking here better or safer.
“You can’t spray some sharrows and call it good,” he said. “If you’re considering trying out a Pronto bike, but you know you have to go elbow to elbow with cars on Fifth Avenue, are you going to try that?”
Probably not. D.C. has a connected network of bike lanes and paths. Calgary, Alberta, of all places, just put in a network of bike lanes. Here, whatever bike lanes get installed (annoying many drivers) tend to be short and disconnected from the others (which annoys the bicyclists).
The city wants to grow the bike share to save it. OK, if we’re going to have a bike share, it is nuts that there are no stations in places like Fremont or Wallingford. Another idea is to bring in electric bikes, but this involves even greater capital expense. I’ve written before that we should repeal the helmet law if we really want this to work.
It’s all an experiment. With the added tension that Seattle’s sensibilities about itself are hanging in the balance.
At some point, as much as it hurts our green pride, we might have to concede that unlike Paris, Amsterdam, Washington, D.C., and the other bicycling capitals of the world, the one thing we’ll never be is flat.