Seattle’s stationless bike-share pilot program, the first of its kind in the nation, technically ends at the end of the month. But the bikes will remain until at least July, as the city studies data and works to improve how bikes are parked.

Share story

The three stationless bike-share companies that have scattered thousands of low-cost rentable bikes across Seattle are operating on a six-month pilot program that ends at the end of this month.

But the end of the pilot does not mean the end of the program. It doesn’t even mean a decision on the future of the program is all that imminent.

The end of the pilot program, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) said, simply means the end of the official data-collection period for the bike-share program. The bike shares will continue to operate at least until July.

Beginning in January, SDOT officials will analyze the data — things like how often the bikes are used and where and when people are riding — and compile a set of recommendations for a permanent bike-sharing program, including how to improve the haphazard way that bikes are sometimes parked. SDOT will also conduct a survey to gauge public opinion on the program.

The agency should have a proposal for a permanent bike-share program for the City Council to consider by spring, SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said.

In the meantime, absent anything unexpected, the bike shares will continue to operate as they have been.

Despite the program’s being billed as a six-month pilot (in announcing the program, SDOT said that “successful applicants will be permitted to operate for six months”) the private bike-share companies completed permits that run for a year, from July to July, SDOT officials said.

“That’s always been the case; I think the language read like everything would completely stop in January,” Hobson said. “But the data-collection period ends and then we start looking at the data.”

The three private bike-share companies currently have nearly 9,400 bikes active in Seattle, although that number includes bikes that may be out of service or those that are being repaired.

That number has vastly increased since the program launched in July, when each company was initially limited to 500 bikes each.

SDOT presented data to the City Council in September showing the bike shares performing well, and vastly outperforming the city’s shuttered Pronto bike-share program, which operated on a traditional model in which bikes must be parked at docking stations.

But, since then, the number of bikes on the streets has ballooned, while the weather, as it does, has gotten less bike-friendly. And, for now, it’s unclear if people are still riding the bikes as frequently.

The stationless bikes, owned by three separate companies, all operate essentially the same way. They are unlocked by smartphone app, cost $1 to ride and can be left on city sidewalks so long as they do not block the traveled path, crosswalks, curb ramps, transit stops or businesses.

In September, SDOT said that each bike was being ridden an average of 2.2 times per day. That’s three times more often than people rode Pronto’s bikes, and, according to SDOT, the best bike-share usage number for any American city other than New York.

But SDOT says it won’t have an update on that key number — rides per bike per day — until January.

With about 9,400 total bikes on the street, none of the three companies is anywhere near its maximum allowable bikes. Companies are allowed no more than 340 bikes per square mile, which equates to a maximum of roughly 28,000 bikes in Seattle.

New York City, by contrast, which has more than 12 times as many people as Seattle, generally has between 7,000 and 10,000 bikes in its traditional, docked bike-share program. And those bikes are ridden much more often, with ridership numbers ranging from about 3 rides per bike per day in winter to about 7 rides per bike per day in summer.

In Seattle, the companies are reluctant to make their fleets too big because they don’t want to hire the amount of local staff it would take to handle that many bikes, said Joel Miller, SDOT’s director of the bike-share program.

The companies are supposed to respond promptly to improperly parked bikes — within two hours on weekdays and within 10 hours on nights and weekends. Those are standards they’re not always meeting.

If companies don’t comply with the requirement at least 75 percent of the time, they’ll first get written warnings and then could be fined or forced to remove some bikes from the street, Miller said.

“Are most people parking correctly — the short answer is yes,” Miller said. “The long answer is this needs to get much better.”

The city has asked each company to submit a plan on how to improve bike parking, so fewer bikes are tipped over, dropped in bushes or parked in the way of pedestrians.

In January the city says it will roll out a limited trial program under which it marks designated bike-parking areas in frequent bike destinations, although use of the areas would be voluntary.

“We see this as something that needs to be corrected for any permanent program,” Miller said.