Seattle’s city council has voted to spend about $1.5 million bailing out the city’s insolvent bike-share program, reports KPLU. The money will be used to pay off the Pronto system’s capital debt, and to acquire the system from the nonprofit Puget Sound Bike Share, which launched and currently owns it.
The council approved the measure 7-2, despite the system’s many limitations, acknowledging that to make bike-share work for Seattle, there’s a lot of work to do. (At least one dissenter would have preferred to scrap Pronto and start over.)
Council Member Mike O’Brien, chair of the Transportation and Sustainability Committee, says the city will need to remove “friction” from the system.
“You know, little subtle things like you get off light rail and the station’s a block away, as opposed to you get off light rail and it’s right there,” he said. Comments at a public hearing last month reflected similar frustrations. “There are no bike-share stations on the same block as transit stops. None on most bikeways. None by libraries,” said a Seattle cyclist and Pronto member.
After voting yes for the bailout, O’Brien told KPLU that with over a year’s worth of ridership behind them, the city now has data to guide those improvements. In particular, the city can focus on better enticing riders who are interested but were held back by Pronto's current inconveniences.
An amendment, advocated for by Council Member Lorena González, adds $500,000 to the deal for outreach to diverse communities and improvements that would better serve low-income people, like a way to use the system with a transit pass, but without a credit card.
The next step for the city is to begin a competitive bidding process to acquire entrepreneurial assistance and new sponsorships, and to decide whether the city will expand the system or keep it as is. Previous suggestions have included purchasing additional electric-assisted bikes, a recognition perhaps of Seattle’s somewhat dauntingly hilly terrain. (Birmingham, Alabama, was the first bike-share in North America to incorporate electric bikes into its plan.)
As Josh Cohen reported for Next City last month, a number of factors drove Pronto’s financial problems. A spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation said overly hopeful projections for ridership and sponsorship opportunities led the nonprofit to take out loans that it could not repay. Puget Sound Bike Share disputes that version, saying the problem is that the city didn't acquire the system quickly enough, despite beginning talks on the subject last May and publicly announcing the move last fall.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.