Seattle Bike Share System Is Being Shut Down

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter

It’s not just about the helmets.

A lot of people are blaming the helmet law in Seattle for the failure of the bike share system, including Janette Sadik-Kahn, who tweets:


Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And it was silly and awkward and unnecessary to have everyone go through this process with the helmets. But that’s just one of the problems. There were ethical issues with the management of the system, but there were also design problems that hurt it from the start. Tom Fucoloro of the Seattle Bike Blog wrote earlier:

While the shutdown of Pronto is a sad end to a system that could have been a great addition to Seattle, the city seems uninterested in making significant changes to the struggling Pronto system — such as better station placements near more major transit hubs, major destinations and quality bike infrastructure or offering lower entry-level prices. If the city is not going to work to make the system work better, it’s hard to justify continued subsidy.

It was in fact an expensive system to run, with a lot of people using bikes to go downhill, so the bike share system would then have to cart the bikes back up. Not exactly a level playing field. It needed an investment in expansion and new equipment, but that's not going to happen. Now that the plug has been pulled, Tom writes:

Pronto was a small start to create such a system that was never expanded to the size needed to succeed. The city’s efforts to buy and expand it were fumbled and lost. By the time expansion talks started in earnest, the public narrative about bike share was that it was a failure. Without an engaged constituency fighting for the system (people had already shown up to City Council twice to save it), it fizzled out politically.

Bike share systems are not free and they are not toys; they are part of the transportation system. If the network is big enough and properly designed, people will use it instead of public transport (often overcrowded) and instead of driving. It is never going to be a profit center any more than the roads themselves are. But as Zach Shaner of Seattle Transit Blog summarizes, you could see this coming.

...while there may be future chapters for bike share in Seattle, the Pronto saga will come to a close on March 31 with a series of unforced errors and unnecessary political pain. Severely undercapitalized, hobbled by helmets, and going against best practices for network design, Pronto was doomed to disappointment at least and failure at most. For those of us broadly supportive of public biking in Seattle, the slow-moving demise was sad to watch.

Meanwhile, the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel total cost is $3.374 billion and rising. But nobody can find a few millions to invest in bikes.