Is Seattle too hilly for bikeshare?

Seattle's hills could mean the city's new bike share program is more sweat-soaked slog than carefree cruise.

Seattle's hills might pose a problem for potential bike share usersSince the announcement of Seattle’s forthcoming Pronto! bike share program, people have been asking whether the pedal-powered transportation can really succeed in a city this hilly.

It’s a fair question: Not only will Seattle be one of the hilliest cities in the United States to install a bike share system, most bike share bikes weigh around 42 pounds and, to the untrained eye, appear to only have one gear.

It brings to mind less an image of carefree cruising than a sweat-soaked slog.

At right: One of Seattle's legendary downtown hills. Photo: Flickr user Shiny Things.

But, according to Puget Sound Bike Share Executive Director Holly Houser, the Pronto! bikes are being designed specifically for Seattle’s hills. Perhaps more importantly, she says the way bike share programs are intended to be used may very well make the hill issue irrelevant for most users.

Houser says Arcade Cycles, the French bike manufacturer building the Pronto! system bikes, is modifying standard bike share bikes to help riders deal with Seattle’s hills. Seattle bikes will have seven speeds instead of the standard three (the bikes use an internally geared hub, like your grandparents’ British three-speed had) and will use especially low gear ratios so that pedaling is easier. Arcade’s bikes weigh about 36 pounds.

Since bike share programs are typically used as a “last mile” form of transportation for short, inter-neighborhood trips, Seattle’s hills may not pose as a big a problem as some people imagine.

Bikers on Dexter Avenue. Photo: Oran Viriyincy.

“Bike share is meant to cover the distance between retail, restaurants and transit,” said Houser. “Most rides end up being an average of 20 minutes and under 3 miles. A lot of those trips could happen on top of Capitol Hill on the flat part where there’s lots of activity, lots of density. Same with South Lake Union, University District — once you're in the neighborhood, the streets are not that hilly.”

Pronto! bike share is supposed to launch this September with 500 bikes in 50 stations downtown, in the University District, on Capitol Hill and in South Lake Union. Similar to existing programs in other cities, Pronto! rentals will cost $8 per day, $16 for three days or $85 for an annual membership. Users can rent a bike from a sidewalk docking station, ride it, then return it to any other open docking station in the city, allowing for one-way trips.

San Francisco is the only American bike share city with comparable hills, but its Bay Area Bike Share bike stations are clustered in San Francisco’s flat downtown.

According to Ralph Borrmann of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the administrator of the Bay Area Bike Share program, the city has no plans currently to expand into its hilly neighborhoods, thereby avoiding the problem entirely for the time being. If they do expand it will be in the “easier to manage parts of town (with) more level areas.”

Houser acknowledges that hills will be an issue for some people, no matter what. “At the end of day, some people are not going to ride up certain hills, but I bet a lot of people are going to like riding down the hills.”

And when Capitol Hill residents bomb downtown to work and then take the bus home in the evening? The Pronto! operations team will circulate through the system and redistribute bikes so they don’t all end up in certain neighborhoods on certain docks.

Puget Sound Bike Share is also trying to come up with some sort of incentive to encourage people to ride bikes back up the hills. Details, Houser says, TBD.


Josh Cohen is a freelance writer and editor of The Bicycle Story. Follow him on Twitter @jcohenwrites.

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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jun 3, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

And let's not forget the helmet issue--which, I think, is yet another challenge for this system which the others don't have to face. (And our helmet law is again attributable to those treacherous hills.)

Posted Tue, Jun 3, 2:55 p.m. Inappropriate

No the helmet law is attributeable to our Northern European sense of prevent injuries rather than treat them after the fact. It's the 5ft fall, not the hill that will kill/injure your brain.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Jun 3, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Won't these bikes tend to collect at the lowest point in Seattle? if I have to go from the Ferry Terminal to Swedish I think I'll walk, thank you.

kieth

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

If I have to go to Swedish from the ferry terminal in November, I will take a taxi, thank you.

Posted Tue, Jun 3, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

As a regular bike commuter for the last 28 years, I think it's safe to say Seattle is not an easy town to bicycle in. There are hills even when it appears flat, and there are traffic pinch points and bottlenecks wherever you look. You need to be fit and pretty gutsy, especially riding in and around downtown. The idea that there is some serious pent-up demand among non-bike owners and out of town visitors to rent heavy bikes for short trips in an increasingly congested city is another pipe dream that can only survive with massive subsidies...

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle LOOOOVVVVEESSS subsidies. Especially if they come at the expense of commerce and cars.

Posted Mon, Jun 9, 11:30 p.m. Inappropriate

I can hardly wait until these things get stolen and vandalized like crazy.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jun 3, 2:53 p.m. Inappropriate

As a regular bike commuter, I'd say, "no it's not too hilly for bike share." If you want to go up the hill to Capital hill, you ride the bus silly. No one blames a skier for using the lifts!

Ride sharing a bicycle is not like owning a bicycle. You can leave it anywhere as Kieth mentioned, at the bottom of the hill, ride a bus up the hill, and pick up another bike at the top if you need it.

As for being subsidized, think of it as an extension of the bus system. Rather than stop the bus every 1/4 mile you get off at a bike station, ride the 1/4 to 1/2 mile to your destination. It makes the bus system faster because it has fewer stops, it makes it more effiecient because the buses don't have to go everywhere. It makes the commute faster because rather than walk the last mile, you can ride.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Jun 3, 9:50 p.m. Inappropriate

If the system works the way you describe, terrific.
We waste so much money (e.g. Tunnel) that an experiment like Bike Share is great.

But I am dubious about the hills.

Bike Planning should do triage and focus on investing in bike infrastructure in connecting flat areas to flat areas.

Does it limit things? You bet. Ignore QA, Connect Ballard/Fremont/U District/CBD/SLU. Don't try to do whole city. Make it work well where it's plausible.

Gather the low-hanging fruit and that means bike infrastructure is for connecting (relatively) flat areas.

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

You can't leave a bike "anywhere." You can only leave it in an "open dock."

"Users can rent a bike from a sidewalk docking station, ride it, then return it to ANY OTHER OPEN DOCKING STATION in the city, allowing for one-way trips."

So, if all the docking stations at the bottom of hills are full -- as it sounds like they will be most of the time -- then where do you leave the rented bike? You may have no choice but to take it back up the hill to find an open dock where you can leave it.

How much sidewalk space are these docking stations going to take up?

Lincoln

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 9:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Seems to work in DC. http://www.streetfilms.org/the-phenomenal-success-of-capital-bikeshare/ The docking stations report their capacity and they use a truck to move the bikes around when needed.

When you build a system like this, you have more docking stations than bikes for just this reason.

As for sidewalk space taken up? Probably less than you think, more likely on street parking space will be converted from cars to bicycles.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 3:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Is the bike-share company going to pay for the parking spaces they use downtoan, as cars would?

Lincoln

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Car-to-go parkers don't pay for their use of the parking spaces. The city puts meters on parking so that you'll move your car, not to cover the cost of the pavement. They want you to have a spot to park and shop, vs park and work.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Just like shopping carts, bikes will be dropped wherever people want to drop them if it's not super convenient to park them properly.

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Too many bus stops have been removed already. Please keep in mind that bus stops are also used by the disabled, elderly, and people carrying more than they could on a bike. If they reconfigure the bus system to accomodate the cycling minority many vulnerable people will suffer.

simorgh

Posted Tue, Jun 3, 3:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Nah, but those hills will make you work hard!

gman5541

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Bikeshare is a stupid idea which will only encourage tourists on bikes to get in the way of everyone else.

What could possibly be the point?

Lincoln

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 9:35 a.m. Inappropriate

"what could be the point?"

To make the bus system more effiecient. See my note above about removing bus stops to speed it up, but place bike share docking stations at those stops.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 3:41 p.m. Inappropriate

LOL You can't be serious.

With only 500 ride share bikes in the entire city, they are going to move bus stops? Surely you jest.

Lincoln

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

It remains to be seen just how similar the Pronto! Program will be to programs in other, flatter cities. The statement by Ralph Borrmann about limiting the deployment of San Francisco’s bike share program to the “parts of town with more level areas,” would indicate their acknowledgement of the existence of gravitational forces will enable them to avoid the problem entirely. I’m assuming the special “Seattle” modification provided by the French Arcade Cycle Company will also include a small internal combustion engine to supplement the “especially low gear ratios” described by Ms. Houser.

jmrolls

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 5:12 p.m. Inappropriate

In Lyon, France, one of the cities where bike-sharing started, they have a flat(ish) downtown surrounded by residential hills. What they do, to assure equitable distribution of bikes, is send trucks around to collect the bikes at the bottom of the slopes and return them to the hilltops.

Posted Thu, Jun 5, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Re-location of shared-bikes is necessary even in a flat city like Antwerp.

Posted Sun, Jun 8, 4:34 p.m. Inappropriate

You all realize that Seattle is paying 8,000 dollars a bike for this program, right? Just divide the reported 4.4 million dollars costs by 500 bikes. This is before ongoing maintenance and trucks moving bikes around,etc. . It is possible to buy a decent bike for 100 dollars. 80 bikes, or more, could be purchased for 8,000 dollars.

It would have been better to simply buy a bunch of bikes, paint them white, and scatter them around the City; and have no organized program. The bike share program seems to be more about enriching corporate contractors than an effective bike share program.

If you have to pay, then how is it a "bike share"?

Also at 85 dollars a year it would take over 90 years for each bike to pay back the original 8,000 dollar cost. The Seattle bike share program is not thought out.

jhande

Posted Mon, Jun 9, 11:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd like to say that $8,000 per bike is a surprise, but not here. So which "progressive" got the no-bid contract?

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jun 10, 6:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Is Seattle too hilly for bikeshare? Yes.

Seasoned

Posted Mon, Jun 16, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

I have ridden in both Seattle and San Francisco, absolutely the best hills. I personally think that bike share is the best alternative. Let's get out of our four wheel vehicles get on with our two wheelers. We will all be a lot more healthier and have some money in our pocket.

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