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.
Crosscut archive image.

Cyclists on Dexter Avenue in Seattle

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

Crosscut archive image.Since 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.

Crosscut archive image.

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.


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