Bike share rolls onto Seattle streets

The city and its partners launched the new system today with hoopla, and a few questions.
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Mayor Ed Murray, front, takes part in a ride to celebrate the launch of a bike-share program.

The city and its partners launched the new system today with hoopla, and a few questions.

Seattle’s brand new Pronto! Bike Share system is open for business, launched this morning with official hoopla led by increasingly pro-bike Mayor Ed Murray.

The city and other sponsors of the system put on a maiden voyage ride to King Street Station and a press conference in Occidental Park. Seattle now has 500 bike share bikes available to rent from 50 stations in Capitol Hill, Downtown, South Lake Union and the University District.

Murray, Pronto! Executive Director Holly Houser, the Seattle City Council, and representatives from Seattle Department of Transportation, King County and sponsor organizations Alaska Airlines, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Group Health and PeopleForBikes appeared at the bike share kickoff in Occidental. They lauded bike share’s potential to introduce new people to bike commuting, make bicycling safer (safety in numbers) and help normalize bicycling (presumably, nobody changes into spandex for, say, a 1.5-mile bike share ride across a neighborhood). 

“This is a form of transportation by bike that’s affordable, safe, convenient and good for the environment,” said Houser of Pronto!, a non-profit, public-private partnership. Alta Bicycle Share operates the system.

Local government grants and sponsors' support have helped finance Pronto! Bike Share. Rentals will cost $8 per day, $16 for three days or $85 for an annual membership. Users rent a bike from a sidewalk docking station, ride it, then can return it to any other open docking station in the city, allowing for one-way trips. Bike share rides are meant to be short--typically less than two to three miles. Your $8 day pass gets you as many sub-30 minute rides as you can fit into 24 hours, but if your bike is away from a docking station for longer than 30 minutes, you’ll start incurring additional fees. Pronto! requires a credit card to use and riders are liable for a $1,200 replacement fee if the bike is stolen or lost.

Mayor Murray emphasized that bike share is part of a robust city transportation network.

“This is a way to help make driving safer for cars, walking safer for pedestrians, and bikes safer for bike riders,” he said. "We need to have a system that works together to make things safer for all.”

In more than 23 million rides taken in the seven years bike share systems have been operating in the U.S., there is no record of a single fatality.

Murray also pointed out that, like all transportation systems, bike share requires public investment. “Every form of transportation requires public dollars to subsidize it. If you look at the city budget, our biggest subsidies are for drivers.”

As people take their first bike-share rides, there are a several remaining questions, including: Will King County’s helmet law hurt bike sharing and does bike sharing have an equity problem?

Pronto! is one of the only bike share systems in the world operating in a city with a helmet law. A 2010 University of Washington study of bike share’s feasibility in Seattle warned that the King County helmet law could be a detriment to bike share’s success, especially among casual users. Melbourne, Australia is another rare example of a bike share city with a helmet law. The law has been cited as a cause of the program’s poor ridership. Some cities such as Houston, Texas eliminated or revised their helmet laws before launching their bike shares.

When asked if there are plans to alter or remove helmet laws in the city, Mayor Murray said he won't pursue any change to the law “unless there’s some scientific study from University of Washington or Harborview showing that not having helmets somehow makes biking safer."

Bike riders caught without a helmet in King County are subject to an $81 ticket. Pronto! is letting riders borrow a helmet for up to 24 hours; detailed instructions are on the Pronto! website's FAQ page.

Another critique of the Pronto! system is an inequitable distribution of the bike stations. For phase 1, bike share stations are clustered in the more affluent and less diverse city core, Capitol Hill and the University District. It’s a problem many bike share systems have struggled with including San Francisco, Chicago and other places.

The argument for launching in the city core is logical. Bike share programs need heavy ridership from the get-go to help make them financially viable and prove their political worth to a skeptical public. But in doing so, cities perpetuate the image that bike share and bicycling is for affluent residents and tourists.

Mayor Murray addressed the equity issue at the press conference: “We’re going to expand to every neighborhood … we want bike share to be as diverse as the city it’s in.”

The mayor’s recently released 2015-16 budget has $600,000 to expand the system to the Central District, Yesler Terrace and Little Saigon.

Pronto! is also working to create a plan to subsidize bike-share memberships for low-income residents. Pronto! has an equity committee headed by Phyllis Porter from Rainier Valley Greenways. She is working with the Seattle Housing Authority to create a program that would let people living in low-income housing get annual memberships for a significantly reduced rate. They are still working out the details of the program and other potential options for subsidized memberships.

In keeping with his recent and vocal support for biking in Seattle, Murray said the launch of Pronto! Bike Share and the installation of Downtown's new Second Avenue protected bike lane are “just the beginning.” 


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