Jean's View: What killed Pronto?

By Jean Godden

They called it Pronto! It was Seattle's bicycle sharing system and it was a disaster. Hard to fathom why a city like Seattle, proud of being green, couldn't make a cycle sharing system work. Why did Pronto fizzle after just two and a half years of operation?

Was it Seattle's rainy climate or its steep hills?

Was it the clunky bicycles that were hard to maneuver?

Was it the cloud cast over the system by Seattle Transportation Department Director Scott Kubly's previous position with Alta Bike Share and his failure to comply with Seattle ethics laws?

Or was it station placement and the county's helmet law that discouraged ridership? (King County law requires riders to wear helmets or face a $102 ticket.)

I have repeatedly asked myself those questions because -- and here's a confession -- I was there from the beginning. When the system launched on Oct. 13, 2014, I was not only a Seattle councilmember but one of three members of the Council's Transportation Committee.

I can recall the flood of optimism that preceded the launch of Pronto. The system started out as a promising idea from Puget Sound Bike Share. The non-profit organization was established as a private-public partnership controlled by a 13-member board with representatives from local transportation agencies as well as corporate sponsors.

Holly Hauser, PSBS's executive director, appeared at Transportation Committee meetings and gave optimistic reports about acquiring corporate sponsors like Alaska Air and landing national and state grants. She projected that, in the first year alone, Pronto would realize 446,000 trips and sign up 4,000 members at $85 apiece. The nonprofit took out loans and ordered 500 bikes branded with the Alaska Airlines logo. Picked to operate Pronto and its 54 stations was Motivate (formerly known as Alta Bike Share.)

The plans sounded aspirational; but, given backers' enthusiasm, it looked as if one should either get aboard or look anti-progressive. The council opted for the former and voted approval for locating bike stations on city streets and sidewalks.

However, when the first year's figures were reviewed in 2015, there was unsettling news. Memberships were lagging and there had been only 142,846 trips, far below projected numbers. As some pointed out, most enthusiastic cyclists already owned bicycles and were unlikely to use the heavier rentals.

Another problem was logistical. Users tended to ride down steep downtown hills and leave bicycles at stations along the waterfront. That forced Motivate to collect bicycles by van and redistribute them to the uphill stations, a costly, labor-intensive operation.

When PSBS finally crunched the numbers in 2015, Pronto was revealed to be insolvent. Supporters rallied and persuaded the city of Seattle to buy the troubled system for $1.4 million. City officials blamed the bicycles, heavy and difficult to maneuver on congested streets. To salvage bike share, officials sought bids for a replacement system. Last September, they selected Bewegen, a Quebec company, and touted a plan with electric bikes and 100 docking stations.

But it was too late. While drafting the 2017 budget, the Seattle City Council cut the mayor's proposed $5 million bike share allocation in half and set a March 31, 2017, deadline for Pronto to close.

A City Council majority still favored rescuing the system, although it had been discovered that membership numbers, said to be 3000, had dwindled to 1900. (The city was spending $736 per member.) Bucking the majority, councilmembers Tim Burgess and Lisa Herbold cast negative votes. Burgess said, "With limited public dollars these resources are better used to develop safe routes to school."

In January, after the city had reportedly spent $2,227,726 on bike share, the Mayor agreed with critics and pulled the plug on Pronto. He said the money would be shifted to critical bike and safety improvements.

The question remains: What killed Pronto?

In my own view, the system's death appears a combination of factors. In a way, Seattle was a victim of its own reputation, unwilling to challenge an appealing environmental idea. That hubris likely led to the city's failure to properly vet the project, presented by a non-profit and backed by politically powerful forces.

Bicycle lobbyists continue to lament that Seattle, first Northwest city with a bike share, now has none. Meanwhile cities such as Portland and Vancouver, B.C., are implementing their plans. Someday, Seattle may yet have a successful bike share system. But it should be far more carefully analyzed and designed.

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