So ... you know that lime-green Pronto bike system Seattle just bought? Never mind.
When the Seattle City Council bought the Pronto bike-share system last spring, countless people argued it was a valuable asset that just hadn’t been given a chance.
“I actually see us as getting a pretty good deal,” enthused City Councilmember Rob Johnson in March.
Yes, the bike-sharing program was in the red. But the argument went that the city might as well snap up the bikes and stations from a private nonprofit, because the city then could use that equipment base to expand the system.
“We support the proposed asset transfer to the city and look forward to partnering with the city to help the system grow and thrive,” Demi Allen, a manager for Motivate, the bike-share company that runs Pronto, told the City Council last spring.
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But it turns out that when the city asked for bids on how to make Seattle’s system grow and thrive, the top three bidders — one of which was Motivate — all said the current system of bikes and stations should be scrapped.
This past week the city selected a Quebec company, Bewegen, which wants to put in an all-electric bike system. If adopted, it means all the green Pronto bikes would be abandoned by early next year. And all the stations around town would likely be rendered useless, as they would need to be replaced with electric charging stations.
It means a system that debuted less than two years ago is obsolete.
So why did the city buy it, six months ago, for $1.4 million?
“Talk about misrepresentation,” says City Councilmember Tim Burgess, one of only two to vote against the buyout (seven voted in favor.) “In the spring they’re telling us they need this money to save the system. ‘We need these assets so we can expand,’ they said. And now they’ve turned around just a few months later and said ‘this system is crap, we need to start over from scratch.’ ”
One person predicted this galling result. Even at the time, new City Councilmember Lisa Herbold foresaw the city would be left holding junk in short order. As she put it, why spend $1.4 million to “buy out the contract for a flip phone so we can bid on a smartphone. Why not just buy the smartphone?”
She also suggested it would be a smarter financial move to just let Pronto go under. Then, if the city wanted the bikes and stations, it could snap them up cheap.
“This could dramatically reduce the cost to the public to acquire the bankrupted company’s assets,” Herbold said at the time.
Herbold told me Friday the story has only gotten worse. When the city bought Pronto, the bike share estimated it would lose $115,000 this year. Instead ridership has plummeted 20 percent this summer and it’s now in the red $360,000 — more than three times the projected losses.
Maybe we’ve decided to move on from Pronto. But it hasn’t moved on from us.
“Now that we own it, I believe the best thing we could do is shut it down today, before it burns through any more money,” Burgess said.
There were only 13,400 rides on the 500-bike system in July. That’s less than one ride per bike per day — in the busiest bike-riding month of the year.
Why, exactly, did the city buy this lemon?
I think it was to preserve Seattle’s green self-image. Herbold said it might be one of the perils of public/private partnerships — that when the private company gets in trouble, the public side feels a responsibility to bail it out. Add to all that how cozy city government is with the bike-sharing industry.
The new “smartphone” bike system may be better, but it’s not cheap. Baltimore just signed with Bewegen for $2.4 million, but that includes only 200 electric bikes (along with charging stations and 300 regular bikes.) Seattle would need 500 e-bikes just to match the size of the current too-small Pronto system.
As for the Pronto bikes, they might not be so easy to break up with.
“The bike model and docking stations used in the current system are unique to Seattle, which may limit the secondary market for the equipment,” a council staff memo warned last spring.
Great. Anyone want 500 lime-green bikes, little used? Maybe they can go live with those million-dollar self-cleaning toilets.