At noon today, at the South Lake Union Discovery Center, Puget Sound Bike Share will hold a press event to formally announce their choice of operating partner for the Seattle-area bike share, whose roll-out is expected to begin next year. Two other local transportation agency heads will be on-hand, including Peter Hahn from SDOT, and Metro’s Kevin Desmond. From the PR:
Puget Sound Bike Share, a nonprofit partnership of public and private organizations, announced today that it has selected Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share as its operator/vendor. Alta will work with PSBS to plan, launch and sustain a regional bike share network beginning with approximately 500 bikes and 50 stations in Seattle and eventually expanding into other areas of the Puget Sound region. One of the most experienced bike share companies in North America, Alta is the vendor/operator behind the highly successful Capital Bike Share in Washington D.C. and Boston’s Hubway. In the coming months, Alta will launch Citibike in New York City, the largest bike share network in the nation, as well as systems in Chicago, Vancouver, B.C., Portland and San Francisco.
The selection of Alta isn’t a great surprise to those of us who’ve watched the bikeshare movement expand in this country. The US market is dominated by two players: Alta and B-Cycle, and most larger or coastal cities seem to end up choosing Alta. The difference to users is primarily in the details of the bikes and docking stations: Alta’s equipment is designed by Bixi of Montreal, whose eponymous original system has served that city since 2009, while B-Cycle is partnership of bike manufacturer Trek with other companies, most well known for the successful Denver B-Cycle program. Both systems work well, although (completely anecdotally) most people I know who’ve ridden both found Bixi slightly more polished.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking to Holly Houser, executive director of PSBS, and I relayed some of your questions from yesterday. After the jump, a summary of our conversation.
Bruce: Let’s get right down to the issue seemingly uppermost on everyone’s minds: helmets. The track record of bikeshare systems in mandatory-helmet jurisdictions is mixed, at best, with Melbourne being perhaps the standard cautionary tale. What’s your approach to King County’s helmet law? Will you advocate to have it changed?
Holly: Our approach is to accept and embrace it. We have no plan to lobby for legislative changes, partly because our structure as a non-profit prevents this, but also because we have board members, such as Children’s Hospital, who have no interest in seeing this law repealed. We want to find a good solution, and with the work Alta has done for Vancouver, which also has a helmet law, we think we have one with Helmet Vending Machines. These machines will offer helmets for rent at a very small fee, perhaps $2, and for purchase at-cost — maybe $8-$9. Our business plan does take into account a reduced level of demand due to the helmet law, and it still pencils out.
I’ve heard conflicting things about where you’re going to launch first — you published a study some time ago based around a downtown-Seattle-centric rollout, but others have told me it’s now SLU and the U-District first — and there’s been even more second-guessing than usual on STB and elsewhere about your phasing and priorities for expansion. What are your plans?
Our initial study was primarily to evaluate the viability of the business case for bike share in the Seattle area. The boundaries of individual neighborhoods and areas, what neighborhoods will be included and when, are very changeable at this point. Now we’ve hired an operator, we will begin a process of public outreach and fundraising; we’ll probably have a map where people can indicate where they’d like to see bike share stations, as was done in New York. Funding will dictate how quickly we can build out, and the existing level of mixed-use density and transit connectivity, along with public opinion, will guide where we build out; we want the community to feel this is their system, something they shaped.
Seattle’s bike infrastructure is lacking in a lot of ways, especially in the central city. Will the roll-out of PSBS be contingent upon new infrastructure? Will PSBS be contributing to bike infrastructure?
We are looking to Seattle for infrastructure improvements, and the city’s BMP update will likely contain new infrastructure plans for the CBD. We will have no role in infrastructure ourselves, but we hope that bike share will, through the presence of more bikes on the road, both improve safety by making drivers more aware of bicyclists, and catalyze more infrastructure development.
Other bike share programs have struggled in reaching out to lower-income and minority communities. How will you ensure PSBS is serving all of Seattle?
We’re very aware of this. Social equity is very important to us, and we’ll be looking at the experiences and lessons of other systems. There are a few aspects to this issue. One is that many lower-income people don’t have credit cards, which you typically need to access the system. We’re going to look at partnerships with banks and community groups to address that. Another is outreach and education, which we plan to do lots of. Perhaps the trickiest thing is balancing social equity with the need to launch the system successfully and sustainably at the start, and there are subtleties to this. For example, Belltown is a place with lots of demand, so it’s somewhere we want to launch early. The people who live there are largely white and higher-income, but if you look at the people who work and visit there, it’s a different story.
How will you deal with Seattle’s right-of-way advertising restrictions?
Many cities have restrictions somewhat like Seattle’s; our limitations on advertising, and the associated reductions in potential ad revenue, have not been a problem in other cities, and are built into our business model. For example, it will be possible for companies to sponsor stations, but there are limits on how big the logos can be. We are not limited on what we can put on the bikes — these do not fall within the ROW advertising restrictions.
Will (anonymized) usage data be publicly available?
Yes, it will be completely open-sourced, similar to other Alta systems.
Will wayfinding, such as area maps on docking stations, be a part of this system?
Yes, just like other Alta systems around the country.
Do you expect bike share will extend out into single family neighborhoods at some point?
Probably not. Experience has shown that bike share, to be workable, needs stations not much more than about 1,000-1,400′ apart. It’s unlikely that SF neighborhoods could generate enough demand to justify the cost of installing that many stations. There’s also a legal issue: Seattle’s zoning prohibits sidewalk vending in SF neighborhoods, and we fall into that category. So that law would have to change.
Do you plan to offer multiple models of bike?
In future, it’s possible, and we’re open to the idea; for example, B-Cycle now offers a tricycle in Madison, lots of people have talked about electrics, for the hills. For the initial roll-out, we want to launch a system that we can be sure will be successful, and build from there.
One of the few features B-Cycle offers that Alta systems currently can’t match is portability: annual members in (say) Denver can use Boulder B-Cycle with their Denver fob, at no additional cost. This is somewhat easier for them, as their pricing is uniform, but it seems like Alta could offer something along those lines. For example, with my Seattle account I could pay in advance for a short-term membership in San Francisco when I visit, and use my fob to unlock bikes, avoiding the need to mess around with my credit card and access codes. Is this something Alta could offer, and more broadly, what made the difference for you between these two companies?
Alta is working on offering portability, although I don’t know details or when. The decision was quite hard, we spent a lot of time considering our options. One factor is the way the business side runs: B-Cycle is more of a franchise where you buy a toolbox to build a bikeshare (bikes, stations, a website, etc.); Alta runs the system for you. We also considered what our neighbor cities are doing: both Vancouver and Portland will be run by Alta, and we felt the similarity of the systems would help visitors from those cities feel more immediately familiar with it.
POSTSCRIPT: Mike Lindblom has more details over at the Times.