What I learned pedaling the Pronto! Marathon

50 stations, six neighborhoods, 5 1/2 hours. The bikes are clunky, Seattle's bike infrastructure spotty, but it's a great way to get around town.
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Pronto! Marathon pit stop at the International Fountain in Seattlle Center.

50 stations, six neighborhoods, 5 1/2 hours. The bikes are clunky, Seattle's bike infrastructure spotty, but it's a great way to get around town.

The brand new Pronto! bike share system launched on October 8 with 500 bikes and 50 stations clustered in the University District, South Lake Union, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, First Hill and Downtown. I’ve ridden bike share bikes in Boston and Washington D.C. I have my own bikes, so until recently I had little reason to shell out for a Pronto ride in Seattle. But then I had a dumb idea that I couldn’t shake: The Pronto! Marathon.

Last Friday, I set out to explore the entirety of the Pronto System in one go. The goal was to check a bike into and out of every station in town using a single day-pass and without incurring late fees for riding longer than 30 minutes in any one stretch. Similar to a real marathon my route was a little over 26 miles, took a long time to complete and, once it was finally over, left me a bit tired and very satisfied.

My personal Pronto! Marathon started at 10:30 a.m. at the Eastlake Ave station near the University Bridge, a 10-minute walk from my apartment. The check out process was relatively straightforward. After you insert your credit card and punch in your phone number, the consul asks if you want a one- or three-day pass, offers a $2 key fob that speeds up the process of checking out a bike, reminds you several times that you're on the hook for $1,200 if the bike isn't returned, then spits out your fob so you can get on your way.

If you don't opt for the fob, you have to punch in a code for the bike each time you check it back out. Probably not a huge deal for regular and sparse use, but given that I was trying to hit 50 stations, I wanted any time savings I could get. I took the fob.

My $8 day pass was good for unlimited rides under 30 minutes until 10:30 the following morning. If any ride lasts longer than 30 minutes, you start incurring additional fees. The system is intended for short, one-way trips from station to station and if you use it as such, it's unlikely you'll ever suffer the extra charges.

Before I hit the road, I grabbed a free helmet from the bin at the station. It was sealed in a plastic bag and looked shiny and clean. Eventually there will be helmet vending machines at every station that rent out a helmet for $2 for day pass holders and $1.50 for annual members, but since the machines weren't ready in time for Pronto’s launch, Alta Bike Share, the company in charge of Pronto's operations, is on the hook for the cost of the free helmets, along with their cleaning and replacement.

I headed north first to the University District and University of Washington campus stations. I made my way over the Ship Canal and down into the U District towards stop one: the UW Medical Center.

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The Pronto! Challenge: 50 stations, six neighborhoods, 5 1/2 hours, $8. Credit: Greg Hollobaugh

The docking station there was obscured by a construction site and I rode right past it. But I consulted the CycleSpot app, which shows all the stations and the number of available bikes, and eventually found it. I peddled into the construction site, docked my bike, and began my three minute countdown. Though there's no limit to the number of trips you can take with your 24 hour pass, there is a 3-minute "cool down" period between checking a bike in and checking it back out.

With my countdown over, I headed back up to Pacific Ave and past Husky Stadium to station #2: the UW's IMA building. From there, I hopped onto the Burke Gilman for one of the longest segments of the day — out to the station at Seattle Children's Hospital in Sandpoint.

This leg of the ride drove home how uncomfortable the Pronto! bikes are. I'm a very average 5'9" and I still felt hunched over the bars. The downside of a bike built for all sizes, I suppose. Also, the bikes aren't geared very high and force you to settle in at a slow cruising pace. Nonetheless, I was enjoying myself.

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Along the Burke Gilman Trail. Credit: Josh Cohen

While waiting for my cool down at the Children’s station, I watched a mom check out a bike share bike to use on a ride with her college-aged son who was riding his own bike. She passed on the fob and had to run back and forth between the console and her bike a few times to get it checked out. They passed me a few minutes later while I was waiting to check my bike back out of the station nearest U Village. 

When I'd plotted out my route, I'd scoffed at how many stations were clustered around the UW campus and other spots such as South Lake Union. But once I started riding, not only was I glad to tick off a bunch of stations in short order, I realized that the syetem, by design, requires a lot of stations in close proximity. If there’s no station near your destination, you have no incentive to ride bike share. You’re paying for convenience and with six stations around campus, students can ride from their dorm to class to yet another lecture hall without having to walk very far after docking their bike.

As the day dragged on and I made my way to the half dozen or so stations around South Lake Union I started to worry. Between the time spent checking bikes in and out, the cool down period, and the actual riding, I was only averaging about 6 stations an hour. The marathon was certainly possible, but an 8-9 hour bike share adventure was unappealing.

Having already checked a week's worth of bikes in and out of the stations, I was rapidly losing enthusiasm, so I decided to change the rules of my game. I would still visit every station in the system, but instead of checking the bike in and out of each one, I would only check in every 30 minutes to avoid incurring late fees. Now my Pronto! Marathon became a race against time and the financial penalty for going over added a bit of adrenalin to my previously dull ride.

Spirits buoyed by the challenge, I set my phone alarm for 30 minutes, checked my bike out of the station at Denny and Aloha, and hustled through the rest of South Lake Union and Lower Queen Anne and into Belltown. By eliminating the time suck of checking in and out, I’d more than doubled my station through rate, knocking off seven stops before my 30 minutes were up. It was fun to weigh the risks of running out of time with the reward of checking off one more station and getting to the finish faster. I wish I’d thought to do the whole route that way.

I left 2nd and Vine and headed towards the waterfront to catch the Pier 69 and Aquarium stations enroute to Pioneer Square. As I bombed down Clay Street I could hear the clanging bells of the railroad crossing gates ahead. I had the briefest vision of a Dukes of Hazard race in front of the train, but dying for the sake of my Pronto time seemed silly. Who wants to remembered as the guy who ruined American bike share’s fatality-free streak. I waited for the remarkably long BNSF cargo train to pass, catching glimpses of my next Pronto! station between each train car.

On the move again, I sailed through the waterfront, Pioneer Square and the International District before once again refreshing my ride at City Hall. As I waited for the required three minutes to pass, a construction worker walked up and asked what I thought of the bikes:

“They’re not particularly comfortable or the best handling, but they’re really just meant to make it easier to get across town and back.”

“Gotcha. Don’t you think they’ll all get stolen?” he continued.

“Nah, you’ve gotta check them out with a credit card and get charged $1,200 if they don’t come back.”

“I guess that’ll probably work. These are so freakin’ cool, man.”

As I looped through downtown on mostly bike-infrastructureless streets, I thought about Pronto’s potential usership. After eight years of city riding in Seattle and elsewhere, I’m mostly inured to busy streets without good bike infrastructure. But Pronto users will run the gamut of skills, including plenty of people with little or no city riding experience. It raises questions about whether Seattle put the cart before the horse with bike share.

Seattle has bike-friendly infrastructure on some streets; the protected lanes on 2nd Ave and Broadway are good examples. You can find decent unprotected bike lanes on other streets too. But our infrastructure network is largely unconnected. Pronto! users will have no choice but to ride shoulder-to-door with cars if they actually want to go anywhere.

In that same vein, Pronto! is already spurring development of new and better infrastructure. Bike share is the reason the 2nd Ave protected lane is up and running and it's part of the reason the city is moving ahead on the Center City network.

I ended my downtown spint at the REI station where I reset the clock for the penultimate time. As I waited, I overheard a passerby tell his companion that bike share will never catch on. They “should’ve waited for electric bikes,” he said.

Taking that cue, I went ahead and tested my bike’s hill-climbing capacity, riding straight up Boren Ave. towards the Frye Museum station.

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25th Ave. station near U Village). More bike-friendly infrastructure would make Pronto! rides safer. Credit: Josh Cohen

Bike share bikes climb hills exactly the way you'd expect heavy, ill-fitting bikes to climb: slowly. As the street grade tipped towards the sky, I twisted my grip shifter forward and dropped into the easiest of the bike’s seven gears. To Pronto’s credit, the lowest gear was plenty low enough to crawl up Boren and there are lots of less-steep routes I could have taken to get up to First Hill or Capitol Hill.

As I stood up on the pedals and inched my way forward, a Parking Enforcement Officer in one of those three wheeled police carts rolled up next to me. She leaned out the window and asked if I was on an electric bike. Just a regular old bike, I said. She laughed, wished me luck and scooted away.

After First Hill it was up James Street to the Seattle University station on 12th Ave., then to the Central Co-op station, my high point for the day. Neither climb was particularly bad, though I’ll admit my knees felt a little sore the next day.

I made my final check in at 12th and Mercer, then zoomed through the six remaining Capitol Hill stations. Five and a half hours, 50 stations, one espresso and one rule change later, my marathon came to an inauspicious end at the Broadway QFC station.

Here are three things I learned:

Seattle’s bike infrastructure isn’t quite friendly enough for the breadth of users that Pronto! hopes to attract. The bikes are about as clunky and slow and uncomfortable as they appear to be, but they’re more than good enough for the 10-25 minute rides you’ll likely take.

Some stations may look excessively clustered on the map, but the density mostly makes sense in a system intended for destination-to-destination rides. If you need to walk 15 minutes from a station to your destination, it defeats the purpose.

Finally, the cost of Pronto! only makes sense if you’re getting multiple rides out of your day pass. $8 for a 10-minute ride uptown is highway robbery. But spending $8 to ride from the office to run an errand, then back to the office, then to happy hour after work, then back to your car for the drive home starts to be a cheap and easy way to get around.

Riding bikes — Pronto! or otherwise — is faster than walking, more flexible than transit and over short distances it's easier than driving. Pronto! isn’t perfect, but its addition to Seattle’s transportation network gives more people greater access to bikes and all their benefits as an urban transportation option. And that’s a good thing.


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