The Seattle City Council decided to buy a failing bike-share program last week, and it’s difficult to determine how to feel about that. Seattle should have the same luxuries as other large cities in the Pacific Northwest; we hear Portland is rocking its bike share, rail system and everything else transit. But Pronto is a flawed system, and it’s unfortunate that circumstances surrounding its impending insolvency didn’t leave much time for debate.
If the City Council hadn’t intervened by putting $1.4 million toward buying Pronto’s assets and paying off its debt, the bike share would have been insolvent by the end of this month. With Pronto shut down, the city would have been required to repay $1 million from a federal grant it used to buy 28 of the bike share’s 54 stations. As often happens, the city had gone too far to stop now.
City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who voted against the buyout, was understandably concerned that the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had become aware of Pronto’s financial troubles in early 2015, the bike share having high overhead through third-party operator Motivate and then debt brought on by borrowing to fill the gap in funding needed to start the service. Then SDOT put $305,000 toward covering Pronto’s operation costs for December, January and February, apparently also not being quick to share that detail with the City Council.
As the city looks at expanding the number of Pronto stations to 100 and placing more of them in low-income neighborhoods — rather than the Capitol Hill and downtown areas, with greater transit options already — there will also be a call for proposals for a new system operator. Motivate can and certainly will apply to continue as the operator — now for the city, rather than Puget Sound Bike Share.
The City Council and Mayor Ed Murray will ultimately decide who gets the next shot at putting the air back into this deflated system. SDOT director Scott Kubly won’t make that decision, nor should he, considering he was once president of Alta Bicycle Share for a short time — now owned by Motivate — before his move to Seattle.
Barring a full-on conspiracy, we should look toward the future and how to improve the bike-share system beyond obvious actions, like expanding the number of stations and diversifying their locations.
It’s interesting to note, Pronto fell short of its projected membership by 1,000 in its first year, but estimated ridership fell short by more than 300,000 trips — 142,846 actual trips compared to a projected 446,000.People obviously wanted the service at some point, but then many just didn’t use it very much. Pronto launched in October 2014, so there may have been a rush for at the beginning of the new year, much like people joining gyms and then never going.
There are some common grievances one hears when discussing Pronto, one being that the bicycles are very heavy by design and don’t work well going uphill — it’s a good thing Seattle doesn’t have many of those left. Another is that you have 30 minutes between bike checkouts, which means not a lot of time to dawdle or run errands before needing to find another station to swap your ride. Why not an hour? Making the rides last twice as long seems reasonable when considering first-year Pronto trips were only at 32 percent of what they were projected to be.
Pronto will need some work and far more than $1.4 million before it’s truly a citywide system. It really belongs to Seattle now, so it’s time we learn to own it.