Why did Seattle's bike share fail?

Bike sharing works. Seattle’s bike share did not — a point driven home when the city decided, in January, to shutter Pronto for good.

So why did Seattle’s bike share fail? And what lessons can other cities learn to avoid making the same mistakes?

Station placement
Bike shares must take users where they want to go, or people won’t ride. Seattle’s bike share fell short on that front.

Seattle built a system with a limited coverage area, rendering some desirable destinations unreachable. And within that area, the system’s linear shape reduced contiguity between stations, making the program less efficient for users. Worse, though bike shares are perfectly suited for last-mile trips, the system lacked effective connections to other forms of transit.

As a result, ridership suffered. Though Pronto began with a system about half the size of Washington, D.C.’s, Capital Bikeshare, it received only 14% of the ridership CaBi enjoyed in its first year.

Mandatory helmets
Seattle’s bike share required all riders, regardless of age, to wear helmets due to a 2003 citywide helmet law. Though that restriction made Seattle’s bike share an outlier — few major cities, let alone those with bike shares, regulate helmet use among adults — efforts to repeal it failed.

So though well-intentioned, the law is faulted for suppressing ridership by placing an extra hurdle to getting on a bike.

Financial instability
From its inception, Seattle’s bike share was plagued by financial uncertainty. Though Pronto did secure a multimillion-dollar sponsorship, organizers misjudged operating costs and the share of expenses user fees would cover, a problem compounded when ridership failed to take off. Attempts to secure additional sponsors stalled, and a bid for federal funding failed. Soon, the program became insolvent, forcing the city to bail it out in early 2016. Months later, while still determining next steps for the beleaguered program, the City Council approved a new budget — but didn't earmark funds for Pronto.

Bike shares need clear goals, direction and action to succeed. Seattle’s bike share, at times, was rudderless.

As the program floundered, inaction compounded problems. Plans for expansion were repeatedly altered or delayed. After the city purchased the program in early 2016, expansion once again came under consideration. Yet months later, the city changed course and opted instead to pursue a new program with a new, electric bike vendor. In the end, even that plan fizzled out.

On top of all this, Seattle’s then-director of transportation, Scott Kubly, became mired in an ethics investigation. The former president of Alta Bicycle Share, Kubly failed to properly disclose his connection via an ethics waiver, resulting in a $10,000 fine and fueling a negative public perception of the program.

A better way to bike

With proper planning, the problems that made Seattle’s bike share fail can be avoided. To learn more, register for our free webinar about planning a bike share for small and mid-sized communities. You'll get all the tips, tools and insight you need to get rolling with a stable, scalable bike share. And if you'd like to attend but can't make the date, a recording will be sent to all registrants.


Banner image: Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon via Wikimedia Commons)