Proposed Bike-Share Phases

The Bike-Share Studio in the UW College of the Built Environment released a feasibility report commissioned by SDOT. It’s a very good starting point for any future bike-share proposal and does a excellent job of outlining the possibilities but also limitations and obstacles that a bike-share system will have to overcome, especially with relation to policy. Publicola’s Josh Cohen has a good post on it so won’t spend time rewriting what he already wrote. I have included a few comments and thoughts that came to mind after reading the report.

More after the jump

First, no funding sources have been identified, which is beyond the scope of the report but I think is important to keep in mind. At this point discussion about a bike-share system is more about whether and how it could work. Nevertheless, systems in Europe are funded by allowing new advertising throughout the city. This is a pretty mature funding mechanism in Europe but it probably won’t work here. Daniel Rowe, who spoke to me on behalf of the project team, said,

“In North America, it appears there are few cities that have the foot traffic to generate a large amount of on-street advertising revenue, which means you will probably not see fully funded bike-share system from advertising companies. Some bike-share systems will utilize advertising to contribute a small amount of revenue, but the Seattle Sign Code currently restricts large panel ads at bike-station kiosks. That’s why you see ads on buses (b/c they’re moving) and not at bus stops. It appears that bike-sharing in Seattle could utilize advertising on the bike, but it would not contribute large amounts of money. Other sources of funding that are being explored are federal and state grants, private sponsorships, and user fees. It seems like a large grant and/or private sponsor(s) is necessary to fund a large-scale bike-share program in North America.”

Back to the report. One part of the report that I found especially interesting was the discussion about King County’s bicycle helmet law, which requires all bicyclist to wear a helmet. Helmet laws are very troublesome for bike-share systems because the whole structure of bike-share systems goes against the idea of needing anything, i.e. a helmet, to use it. Bike-share systems capitalize on the fact that anyone walking down the street can easily use the system without planning ahead of time. The report acknowledges that this is a significant, but not insurmountable problem. Liability waivers, discounted or free helmets for yearly subscribers, low cost helmets for daily users, and partnering with business to store helmets are all proposed as workarounds.

While I think it goes without saying that the system should encourage helmet used and place liability on users, I think the other solutions aren’t very practical. From my limited knowledge no bike-share system provides helmets in an on-demand manner. This puts advocates in an interesting position, forcing them to either advocate against mandatory helmet use laws or settle for the status quo, knowing fully well that this forces some users to choose between using the system illegally or not using the system, at least for a portion of trips.

Another question I have which is beyond the scope of the project relates to system operations. Specifically, I’m interested what kind of operations would be needed to ensure good distribution of bikes among the docking stations. I have used the system in Barcelona and while I was generally happy with it there is a chronic problem of completely full docking stations by the beach, while docking station in the foothills are often completely empty. Seattle will certainly have an unbalanced demand like this because of its hills and I think it is important to understand how this will play out. Is it a significant or minor obstacle? Will it require a system that maybe limits bikes from Capitol Hill to just Capitol Hill? I don’t know but it certainly would be an interesting discussion.

My last comment is that I don’t believe that Seattle’s current bicycle infrastructure is to the point where it can support a bike-share system like this, especially downtown where the most potential ridership is. Downtown only has a bike lane southbound on 2nd, a climb lane/sharrow combination on Western, multi-use path along the waterfront and a smattering of sharrows and short bike lane segments elsewhere. Many bike-share systems in European cities that haven’t typically be known for bicycling (Barcelona, Paris and London as opposed to Copenhagen and Amsterdam) are often preceded or accompanied by a significant increases in funding for bicycle infrastructure.

London, which is introducing a bike-share system this summer, has increased funding of bicycle facilities from £5.5 million pounds ($8.5 million dollars) in 2000 to £24 m ($37 m) in 2006-2007 and close to £30 m ($46 m) by this year. The Bicycle Master Plan envisions spending $24 million a year but the city has only funded it to the tune of $7 million a year, underfunding it by 70%. On the flip side Daniel points out that bike-share systems, such as Lyon’s, can be an important catalyst for increased  investment in bicycle facilities. Daniel goes on to say that “we recommend that if the city continues to plan for a bike-share program, they will need to aggressively implement the projects identified in the BMP and potentially more.” I couldn’t agree more.

39 Replies to “Seattle Bike-Share, A Few Comments”

  1. I know people don’t very much use Bryll Cream and other greasy products in their hair any more, but the idea of sharing helmets with hundreds (ultimately thousands) of other users, none of whom we know, is…well, not very pleasant to contemplate.

    Perhaps someone could develop a helmet storage bin with ultraviolet lights or something that would kill any cooties left behind by unclean users.

    And bike users shouldn’t be segregated to just one neighborhood or district. If someone wants to ride from Capitol Hill to Queen Anne, perhaps doing errands along the way (that wouldn’t be practical on the bus), by all means they should be able to.

    1. The problem would be with people who bike down the hill and then take the bus/Link/Streetcar back up.

      1. Yeah, as I understand it this is a bit of a problem in Paris, too. Still, redistributing the bikes is something that will need to be built in to the system in any case. Once the patterns of use are understood it is a relatively easy problem to figue out the most efficient way to move the bikes from where they accumulate back to where they are needed.

    2. I know that I’m going against the grain here and I’ll probably spark a bunch of heated comments, but it seems like helmets may not really be necessary for the type of riding that these bikes are intended for. Maybe rethinking the helmet law is in order, both to make it easier to start bike share systems and to increase the use of bicycles in general. Real safety for bike riders seems to be most related to numbers. Cities with high numbers of riders (helmeted or not) have the lowest rates of injury.

  2. In my opinion the helmet issue is a non-issue. Make reasonable accommodations such as signs reminding users to wear a helmet, but then use wink-nudge enforcement.

    The lack of bike lanes is more serious, though I’d add that there are bike lanes along Dexter Ave N all the way to Fremont, and 9th Ave N from Denny to Mercer (to be connected to the Chesiahud Lake Union Loop), both of which get you to the Burke-Gilman.

    Lastly, part of the purpose isn’t even to get the bikes used–it’s just visibility.

  3. I pretty much agree with what was said here and by Josh. Good idea to keep in mind for the future, but we have bigger fish to fry. Once we get the bike infrastructure in place, then worry about attracting casual users. Put casual users or tourists on the streets as they are now and you risk scaring them off for life.

  4. I agree, this would be great, but we need more cycling infrastructure. Downtown there’s also a bike lane on 4th that you forgot to mention, but it’s still not nearly enough. I think they should look at putting an NB buffered bike lane on the east side of 4th and a SB buffered contra-flow bikelane on the west side, taking away spacing from cars but providing N-S bike lanes on the same street right in the middle of downtown. They should also designate one of the SLU N-S streets, perhaps Boren, a bicycle boulevard and put in all the infrastructure needed for that.
    And that’s just a couple things downtown out of the hundreds of projects that we need around the city to make bicycling a viable option for more than just a few percent of people.

    1. I’ll vote for Boren all the way from to First Hill to Lake Union! Unfortunately there’s no light at Denny but it could zig-zag via John and Fairview to get across.

    2. Thanks for the correction and I ABSOLUTELY agree about the contra-flow bike lanes on 2nd and 4th. I think that is the best way of building high quality facilities in downtown, and taking advantage of the one way streets. NYC has shown that this model works in situation exactly like 2nd and 4th.

    3. Why not just close off 3rd ave through DT at all times to car traffic and use it only for buses and create separated bike lanes on each side

  5. I say just dispense with the idea that helmets make cycling safer. Safe bicycling is safe bicycling, helmets or not — and if you get hit badly by a car, you’re in trouble regardless of headgear, since they protect your brain at speeds up to 11mph for a direct hit. But I’d rather not get into a helmet debate because that is in the top five of pointless, endless arguments.

    Perhaps a better way to encourage biking is to offer serious tax benefits. Make the purchase deductible and offer credits for daily commuters and their employers, etc. Set up a program that allows low-income people to purchase inexpensive bikes at very low prices — $100 for a basic commuter with fenders, rack, lights, and lock. Make it affordable!

    Unfortunately, a story I hear frequently is, “I used to ride my bike every day, but when I moved to Seattle, I stopped. The hills!” Riding a bike, even casually, is a workout in Seattle. No way to work around that. Maybe offer reduced bus fares for people who load their bikes onto the bus for the hills?

      1. The only problem is that they cost thousands of dollars, putting them out of reach of a lot of people. Of course, for someone who would otherwise purchase an automobile, they would be a great deal.

        I agree that they are (or should be) the future of personal transportation.

  6. Josh, I have always wondered about your system operations question regarding bike share stations. Could a zonal fare system help solve this problem? i.e. drop the bike off on the waterfront and get a 2$ surcharge, drop it off on capitol hill and get a 2$ discount. I don’t think that is a very good soluction and simplicity is part of the appeal of bike share so I am curious of other ways to solve the problem. Have a delivery truck balance out the stations at the end of the day?

    1. Yeah that would be a very interesting market based approach to solving the problem. Maybe have “elevation zones” or something like that. So if you are intending on using it downhill and uphill you won’t pay anything, or little compared to someone that always just takes it downhill. It would be interesting to see how this would work.

  7. As it turns out, there are no good quality data to suggest that wearing bicycle helmets improves the safety of bicycle riders. I reviewed the medical literature on this particular subject a week or so ago. The available data are generally case series or case-control studies that rely heavily on extrapolation to predict rates of serious head injuries. I do not know of any large scale population studies which have shown decreased rates of head injury when bicycle helmet laws are instituted.

    What is quite clear is that bicycle helmet laws substantially reduce ridership. For example, bicycle helmet laws in Australia instituted a decade or so ago reduced ridership there on the order of 40%. Interestingly, the data suggested that rates of serious injury among cyclists in that country may have gone up in total, which is to say that the per-mile rate of head injury among the remaining cyclists may have increased dramatically. There is likely safety in numbers, and helmet laws indisputably reduce numbers.

    I feel quite strongly that Seattle should abandon the bicycle helmet law at this point. And I say this as a physician who works with trauma patients quite frequently.

    1. I have not really done too much research into this but what you said jives with what other people have said. Building off that I think if you looked at minor injuries and helmet use you would probably see some relationship. With that said I think the most well established method of increasing safety of bicyclist is by simply having more bicyclist on the street. Once bicyclist get to the point where they don’t “appear from nowhere” but are rather always present then safety increases. Take Copenhagen for example. You won’t see a single driver turn right without looking in their mirror for a bicyclist *and* look over their shoulder multiple times. That is because bicyclist are always present. When you start to see Seattle drivers doing this you know that something good is happening.

  8. (Disclaimer: I am one of the bike-share report authors; however, I offer these opinions as my own.)

    As a cyclist, while I agree w/ the need for more infrastructure, I believe it’s more of a chicken-and-egg argument than many people think. As we discovered in our research, the availability of bicycles transformed Lyon into a bicycle-friendly city, w/ infrastructure responding. Also, having studied in the Netherlands – deemed a cyclist’s paradise – their cycling culture preceded and informed their need for the extensive cycle track network they now have, rather than the infrastructure pulling people to become cyclists.

    I believe there is a very real “safety in #s” argument to be made. Even in “progressive” Seattle we are an auto-centric society; bicycle infrastructure is nice, but drivers won’t become aware of cyclists till they see actual cyclists.

    Given the option of a long wait to build-out infrastructure prior to a bike-share system coming on line, or going ahead w/out the infrastructure, I’ll opt for the latter.


    1. Interesting. Tell me more about Lyon. I have to admit I have never been to France, but my experiences from other places in Europe lead to believe that even in places that by European standards may not have been traditional bike cities, bike usage is much more prevalent than in America. Not only that the old street system keep speeds relatively low, and drivers are much more aware of what is going on around them. So even if Lyon may not have had dedicated bike infrastructure, it might not have needed it as much as Seattle would. No way in hell would I ride a bike in Seattle the way things are now, and I jump out of planes for a living! Lol.

  9. I’m pretty sold on helmets having been through two accidents where they saved my noggin.

    One thing I’m curious about is what kind of bikes would be used. Seattle being hilly as it is a good range of gears would be essential. The big clunkers one sees in Amsterdam would not be very practical in Seattle.

    1. Most bike share systems I have seen use 3-speed internal hubs with a some kind of custom bike design. There are two main designs, one for JCDecaux and ClearChannel.

    2. I pretty much agree with you about helmets, it’s the helmet laws that bother me. Seems like they discourage casual riders, and casual riders are what we need more of.
      I also agree about the gearing. You can do a lot in Seattle by picking your route carefully, and there is plenty of room to study ways of getting out the word on that. Bottom line, though, is that this is a hilly city, and the bikes need to be geared accordingly. Some combination of more gears (maybe a 5- or 8- speed internal gear hub) and lowering the overall gear ratios (how fast do you really need to go on one of these bikes?) would probably work just fine.

      1. Yeah the bikes should be geared low. This both makes it easier to climb hills but also keeps people from riding too fast. I was wondering if there is any kind of mechanism that can keep a bike from exceeding a certain speed. Like a limiter but for bikes. Keep the bikes from going more than 10-15 mph and you would certainly improve safety at least in a not wearing a helmet manner.

      2. Except that going down 2nd a bicyclist is much safer traveling at 20 – 25 mph the same as other vehicles.

  10. I wonder how the ADA would play into this. As a paraplegic, I would love to be able to grab an adaptive cycle, throw my chair on the back, and ride off!

  11. Adam,

    Paris’s bike-share system had a similar problem with bikes accumulating at the bottom of hills. They mitigating the problem by making it cheaper to drop off a bike uphill, but they also had to run some trucks to balance out the bike distribution: (click on the Paris link)

    1. yes! or even free. on a nice day after work, I would certainly consider picking up a free bike and riding it up the Hill. probably would still need a couple paid employees to redistribute though.

  12. The bottom-of-the-hill problem sounds like a good case for market incentives. Give someone a 25c ORCA credit for riding (or walking) a bike uphill, and a few people might do it who wouldn’t otherwise. Or the machine could issue a receipt, and participating businesses could exchange ten receipts for a freebie or discount.

    1. Or the city could designate popular hilltop nodes as “incentive destinations”, and anyone who rides to one from a regular node gets a credit toward a future ride.

    2. ooo, i like this idea. offering an ORCA credit could be a good way to avoid paying employees to redistribute, as i mentioned above.

  13. The “islands” metaphor is a good one for Seattle, and should help in gaining support for transit and compact neighborhoods. Leverage our strengths!

    The hills aren’t too bad if you know the ways around them. I made a map of Mike’s Favorite Bicycle Routes. You can go N-S to the major neighborhoods relatively easily, and E-W along the ship canal or N 74th Street. Of course there are some trips where you can’t avoid the hills, such as eastbound from Broadway or Rainier to Lake Washington (except at the I-90 park), or from any part of West Seattle to any other part. :)

  14. Melbourne is also grappling with the helmet/bike share problem, having also been short-sighted enough to pass adult bike helmet legislation. There are more models out there than DeCaux and Clear Channel. Bixi and B-Cycle are both N. American systems that are more advanced than the 2006-ish Euro bikes.

  15. We are The Bike Share Group, we are located in Seattle, we will be implementing a system here!

    Got your attention?

    And we have already considered: Funding, Bike Design, Station Design, Helmets, Hills, Infastructure, ADA, The Orca Card, Re-distributing Bikes, and much more.

    Please send me an e-mail to learn more.


    Mark Hulscher, Head Groupie and President
    The Bike Share Group

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