Did Seattle’s mandatory helmet law kill off its bike-share scheme?
The Guardian, 18 April 2017
A small group of supporters, journalists and a city councilman gathered at the end of last month to take Seattle’s cycle share bikes out for one last spin. Mayor Ed Murray had pulled the plug on the Pronto system after two-and-a-half years of low ridership, financial troubles and waning political support.
Sitting tall on the clunky, lime green bikes, our group of 10 pedalled through downtown’s heavy evening rush hour traffic, picking up a few more mourners on Pronto bikes en route.
“I’m sad to see it go. I think it’s disappointing that Seattle will be remembered – at least at the moment – for a failed bike share system. But I believe it’ll be back, and hopefully relatively soon,” says Mike O’Brien, the city councillor who joined the memorial ride.
News of Pronto’s closure came in January just a few months after heated budget negotiations led to a plan to spend $5m to fully revamp and expand the system with electric-assist bikes. That plan has been scrapped, making Seattle the only major city in the United States to shutter a bike share system (other than cities with pilot programmes).
Fundamentally, low ridership killed Pronto. The system had 500 bikes at 54 stations. In its first year of operations, there were 142,832 trips or an average of just 0.78 rides per bike per day. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the national average for US bike share systems is 1.8 rides per bike per day. New York City’s CitiBike system gets nearly 3.8.
If you ask five people why Pronto had such low ridership, you’ll get as many answers. Some say Seattle’s helmet law discouraged use. Others say the system was too spread out and never got the expansion it needed. Some say it lost its political support both inside and out of city hall. More still think would-be riders were discouraged by the lack of bike infrastructure in downtown Seattle or the city’s notorious rain and hills.
In truth, all those theories are at least partially correct. It was a series of compounding problems that spiralled over time until the mayor had little incentive to fight to keep Pronto alive.
From the start, advocates worried that Seattle was the only bike share system in the US affected a helmet law. King County, where Seattle is located, has a helmet law that applies to all riders, regardless of age. Pronto’s solution was first to offer free helmets at every station; then offer helmets for $2 with the purchase of a day pass. Pronto staff collected dirty helmets from return bins and replaced them with clean ones.
“I don’t think the helmets were fundamentally a problem. People chose to either use a helmet or didn’t, but it wasn’t necessarily a factor in using [Pronto] or not,” maintains Andrew Glass-Hastings, director of transit and mobility at Seattle’s Department of Transportation.
Few advocates think the helmet law alone killed Pronto, but Russell Meddin, co-founder of The Bike-Sharing Blog, is among those who think helmets hurt the spontaneity that makes bike share successful. “Helmet laws stop the serendipity of using the system,” he says. “People want convenience. The more convenient a system is, the more it’s used.”
Mexico City and Tel Aviv both scrapped their helmet laws before launching their successful bike share systems. Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia, on the other hand, forged ahead with their bike share programmes despite having helmet laws and have suffered from poor ridership. Sydney mayor Clover Moore has said she would love to launch a share system if it weren’t for Australia’s helmet law.
One of Pronto’s biggest flaws was its lack of station density. According to Meddin, successful systems need 20 to 28 stations per square mile. Seattle’s had closer to 12.
“Pronto never got a fair shot to succeed,” says Blake Trask, policy director for Cascade Bicycle Club advocacy group. “It was meant to grow to meet bike share best practices. But that expansion plan for a variety of reasons never made it to fruition.”
Other cities saw ridership growth after expansion. Boston’s Hubway started with 61 stations and 600 bikes and had 142,289 trips in its first year. It now has 140 stations, 1,300 bikes and sees nearly 1.2 million annual trips.
Seattle applied for a $10m federal Tiger transport grant to quintuple the number of bikes, but did not receive it. The proposed 2017 system relaunch would have come with 1,200 bikes.
Another factor was politics. When it launched in October 2014, Pronto had broad support from city politicians and cycle advocates – although, as with any bike project, there were plenty of skeptics as well. That support started to erode when the city began considering taking ownership of the Pronto system from the non-profit that started and managed it for the first year.
In February 2016, as the city council debated whether to acquire the system, Pronto’s financial woes came to light. Ridership had fallen short of projections, leaving the system with less fare revenue than planned. On top of that, the non-profit had stopped seeking new sponsorships in 2015 because they’d expected the city to take over sooner than they did. When it came time to vote, Pronto was nearing insolvency and the city needed to spend $1.4m to acquire it and pay off its debts.
Cascade and Seattle Neighbourhood Greenways organised a big push at city hall to voice support for bike share. “We wanted to see if we could make it work if we bought it out and expanded on it,” says Gordon Padelford, policy director at Seattle Neighbourhood Greenways.
The council eventually voted to acquire Pronto, debt and all. Then just a few months later, SDOT director Scott Kubly was investigated and fined for an ethics violation over a potential conflict of interest.
The final straw came when it emerged that Seattle was going to have to scrap all Pronto’s equipment to move forward with its expansion plans. All the leading proposals from the tender process called for starting fresh with new stations and bikes, and the winning bid from Bewegen called for an all-electric assist bike share fleet. “That definitely frustrated some of the more fiscally conservative members of the council who felt like we were had. Bad press leads to bad policy leads to bad outcomes and it spiralied,” explains Padelford.
Mayor Murray put $5m in his 2017 budget proposal to fund the system relaunch. Funds were given the green light pending city council approval of the final plan from Bewegen in January. But instead of rolling out that plan for a new system, Murray announced Pronto would shut down, with the funds instead used for bike and pedestrian infrastructure downtown and for a Safe Routes to School programme.
“We are disappointed that bike share is not going to happen right away,” says Trask. “But at the same time, we’re pleased that the mayor is using the funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects. We heard from a lot of leaders and members that the lack of a safe bike network was a big barrier.”
Glass Hastings is also confident Seattle will someday have bike share again – although he would like to see it better integrated with the new light rail, bus rapid transit, and streetcars the city is currently building. “We learned a lot from the Pronto system. What it did well and what some of the weaknesses were.”
Some cycle experts in the city believe new Chinese private bike share companies will set up in the city. Operating on an Uber-like model of implementing first, asking forgiveness later, they have been launching without permission in cities around the world: BlueGoGo launched in San Francisco recently, while Ofo is headed for Cambridge.
“I think one of those systems will come to Seattle and experience many of the problems Pronto experienced,” says Padelford. “Long term, the case for an expansive electric bike share system is just going to get better as Seattle continues to grow and get more dense and people struggle to get around the centre of the city.”
Seattle might end up with a new bike share system whether the city wants one or not.