The leading bidder to operate an expanded Seattle bike-share system has proposed an all-electric fleet. The existing system is still struggling.
Seattle officials plan to select a company as soon as this week to expand and run the troubled Pronto bike-share system that the city bought in March, and transportation-department chief Scott Kubly’s former company is one of three bidders on the short-list.
But the company where Kubly previously served as president isn’t the one holding the highest ranking from officials after the city’s initial evaluation.
The leading bidder is Quebec-based Bewegen, which is proposing an all-electric bike system for Seattle, according to an Aug. 3 memo to council members.
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That could mean the city will end up no longer using the nonelectric Pronto bikes it recently bought, and associated station equipment. Kubly isn’t on the city’s bid-evaluation team.
Pronto’s membership and ridership, meanwhile, have continued to decline, and the system is now projected to bring in less revenue from users than Kubly’s department projected when he asked the City Council to approve the $1.4 million purchase of the system.
Pronto, which launched in October 2014 under nonprofit ownership, had 1,850 active members as of July 31, compared with 1,935 members in May and 2,929 last July, according to an Aug. 24 report to Council President Bruce Harrell and Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the council’s transportation committee. People used the system for 13,416 trips this July, down from 16,895 last July, according to the report.
Due to the declines in membership and ridership, the system is now projected to generate less than $450,000 in revenue from users this year, according to Nicole Freedman, Seattle’s bike-share director. When the council was considering whether to rescue Pronto by buying it from its nonprofit owner, revenue from users for 2016 was projected to be about $608,000.
Portland’s Biketown bike-share system, which launched July 19, signed up nearly 2,500 members in its first month, The Oregonian reported.
In an interview Friday, Freedman, who is on the city’s bid-evaluation team, said officials are working to reverse the membership and ridership losses. The Seattle Times revealed in May that fewer than 1 percent of city employees held Pronto memberships despite the city subsidizing discounts for them. Neither Kubly nor Freedman were themselves members.
“We’re striving to add more members and get more trips,” Freedman said, mentioning various marketing campaigns. “The number-one thing we’re doing is moving some low-performing stations to higher-performing locations.”
But Councilmember Tim Burgess, who with Councilmember Lisa Herbold opposed the purchase, called Pronto “a terrible example of mismanagement of public funds.”
Back in March, Burgess suggested a fresh start with a private partner rather than a Pronto bailout. He and Herbold raised concerns about the city spending money on a struggling system with equipment that could end up being scrapped.
Other council members, such as O’Brien and Rob Johnson, argued for buying Pronto’s bikes and docking stations in order to keep it alive. They said doing so would provide continuity for Pronto’s members and give officials the control needed to make sure the system serves neighborhoods across Seattle, including low-income areas. Pronto backers have said a massive expansion is what the system needs to thrive.
In an interview Friday, Burgess said the membership and ridership declines are “an unfortunate example of how a passionate desire for something can overtake reality.”
“Councilmember Herbold and I voted no because this was not a viable enterprise and, sadly, the facts show that,” he said. “We’ve wasted the public’s money.”
Before he was hired by Mayor Ed Murray in 2014 to lead Seattle’s transportation department, Kubly led Alta Bicycle Share, which had won the contract to operate Pronto for its nonprofit owner. Alta, which changed hands last year and changed its name to Motivate, now operates Pronto directly for the city.
The city’s ethics commission last month fined Kubly $5,000 for failing to complete paperwork disclosing his relationship with the company and failing to obtain permission to work on bike-share matters.
Also last month, The Times reported that the transportation department did business on at least two occasions last year with a consultant who was Kubly’s boss when he worked in Washington, D.C., and Chicago — without Kubly first disclosing the relationship.
Motivate operates Biketown in Portland, which is heavily sponsored by Nike, and bike-share systems in several other cities.
Since his hire by Murray, Kubly has been a forceful proponent of bike sharing in Seattle, adding his Pronto expansion plan into the city’s application last year for a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program. The grant principally would have helped build a pedestrian-and-bicycle bridge over Interstate 5 connecting the planned Northgate light-rail station with North Seattle College.
In 2014, the city had unsuccessfully sought a TIGER grant for the bridge alone and was trying again. But the 2015 application also failed, and notes from a Nov. 24 post-mortem meeting suggest the feds didn’t like the two-project approach.
The notes say, “It wasn’t clear how the project would generate new riders or new users — or who else would benefit directly from the project. Many broad types of beneficiaries were referenced, but there wasn’t enough focus on a key audience.”
The notes, obtained recently by The Times through a public-disclosure request, compare the proposal to a successful application Seattle made a few years ago to remake the Mercer Street corridor in South Lake Union.
“Mercer had a much clearer, more defined target audience and benefit,” the notes say. “The audience for this proposal was faceless and vague.”