The city wants to roll out electric bikes in place of the standard bicycles in use. Here’s what it’s like to ride one.
Stories don’t often land on our doorstep.
Perhaps that says something about the state of bike share in Seattle that on Tuesday, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) employees rolled three test bikes to The Seattle Times building.
It’s part of a show and tell (and sell) of the city’s ambition to go electric and shed its recently acquired Pronto bike-share equipment.
“It’s not lipstick on a pig. It’s a new approach,” said Andrew Glass Hastings, SDOT’s director of transit and mobility.
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Whether that approach moves forward depends on several factors. The city is in negotiations over a contract with Bewegen, which provided the test bikes. Then, the City Council needs to approve the release of funds set aside for bikeshare expansion. The fate of the Pronto program and its equipment, which won’t be part of the new system, is up in the air.
Bewegen’s proposal calls for 1,200 electric bikes at 100 stations wired into the city’s power grid.
The bikes tested Tuesday are bulky and heavy. But the zippy electric motors that add an automatic boost as the pedals rotate made for a surprisingly nimble and fun ride.
At times it felt less like cycling and more like riding a scooter through the streets of a European city — just without the picturesque cobblestones and high-fashion sex appeal.
An electronic display showed the bike reaching about 19 mph on flat ground without much effort at the pedals. Kyle Rowe, who is managing bike share for SDOT after the departure of Nicole Freedman, said the electric assist tops out at 20 mph.
Riders must carry momentum when tackling Seattle’s steepest hills — the bikes were too heavy to fight their way up one of Denny Way’s steepest slopes from a standstill — but with the e-assist engaged, the Bewegen hit about 10 mph on a hill rarely tackled by the heartiest of bike commuters.
Downhill riding seemed scary at first, but disc brakes ably managed the bikes’ descents. The steering was responsive, but tight turns were less-than-graceful.
The bikes are tracked by GPS and have a lock that would allow them to be secured away from their docks, Rowe said.
Glass Hastings said SDOT intends the program to be an integral part of the regional transit system.
The bikes also have technology that would allow them to be unlocked by phone or anything with an RFID chip, like a fob or credit card.
He said integrating ORCA commuter cards into the new system would be key to its success. That’s something Pronto’s leaders long sought but never achieved.
Glass Hastings said the city hopes a dense, core network of stations and more bikes would make bike share more appealing than the existing Pronto system.
When a reporter pointed out that Puget Sound Bike Share’s plan for Pronto had been similar, Glass Hastings distanced the city from the first bike-share attempt in Seattle.
“That was owned by the nonprofit. That was not a city-led effort,” he said. “I always thought of Pronto as a startup. But, what was lacking was the definition or the path forward.”
The path for Pronto and its nonelectric equipment in use is as murky as ever.
In January, SDOT revealed the nonprofit that was running Pronto was in financial trouble and needed a city bailout. It was later revealed that SDOT, before notifying the City Council of the financial issues, had spent $305,000 to tide over the nonprofit and keep Pronto running.
In March, the City Council bought the bike-share system for $1.4 million, with plans for expansion to follow.
In approving the system acquisition, the council took selecting a company to expand the system out of SDOT’s hands as conflict-of-interest concerns surfaced involving SDOT director Scott Kubly.
Before being hired by the city, Kubly led Alta Bicycle Share, which was contracted to run daily operations of the program by the nonprofit that founded Pronto. Kubly was later involved in city negotiations with his former company, which had changed its name to Motivate.
The city’s ethics commission eventually 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. Membership and ridership have lagged since the city’s takeover.
The current Pronto bike-share equipment does not fit into the city’s electric plans.
Glass Hastings said SDOT hopes to sell the old Pronto bikes to another city in a surplus sale.
“We’ve had some pretty — progressing in their nature — conversations with a few different cities interested in acquiring our system,” he said. “Expansion of the system is not contingent on selling the existing system.”
Meantime, Glass Hastings said the city hopes to keep Pronto running as long as possible. “Right now we’re planning on keeping it going. The council ultimately needs to appropriate the operating dollars for 2017.”
That puts the Council in the saddle as both new and old bike-share systems navigate a crossroads.
When asked if Council members had tested Bewegen’s electric bikes, Glass Hastings said bike-share-boosters Mike O’Brien and Rob Johnson had taken them for a spin.
“We want people to see and feel the difference,” he said.