Bixi Bikes
Bixi Bikes. Flikr user manskilo.

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.

51 Replies to “Puget Sound Bike Share Partners with Alta Planning”

  1. Sad to hear they won’t be pursuing any changes to the helmet law, and that they just accept the hit to ridership that will entail. Other than that issue though, Houser definitely seems to know what she’s talking about so I’m hopeful that they’ll end up getting this right.

    1. On the contrary, I think bike rentals were the last legitimate excuse for repealing the helmet law and Alta basically showed that was unnecessary. I always figured that if there was truly a market for bike rentals, some company would find a way to embrace the helmet law and still make money.

      1. To be clear, PSBS is a non-profit. I don’t think there is any intention of making this a profitable enterprise. Over time, however, it will likely provide basic transportation for 1-3 mile trips in many areas for a far lower cost than other modes.

      2. Is Alta a non-profit entity? If not, they will certainly be looking to make money.

        I remember reading somewhere that any operating surpluses would go toward system expansion.

      3. Alta is a consulting company who presumably make money. PSBS, a non-profit, has hired Alta to run this system. PSBS does not intend to make money on it.

    2. In the days of lawyers and lawsuits, PSBS does not want to take a chance on being sued for millions of dollars the first time someone on their bikes without a helmet happens to get into a bad accident.

      Given the unfortunate fact that a program like this is never more than one big lawsuit away from being permanently shut down, I think their decisions about helmets makes sense.

      1. Fortunately, the rate of serious accidents on bike-share is one per many millions of miles, with (I think) zero fatalities worldwide.

        Accidents involving upright bike-share equipment are almost universally attributable to reckless behavior on the part of an automobile driver, with no conceivable liability for the cyclist or the system.

  2. Are the helmet vending machines all carrot and no stick? Will there be something to prevent users from renting a bike sans helmet? Or will users have to verify somehow that they have a helmet, whether a rented or owned one? I wish we could repeal the helmet law, but I also wouldn’t mind a little civil disobedience (riding without one) as necessary.

    1. I don’t think there will be any such “stick”, and I honestly can’t imagine how you would invent a machine to do that.

      1. I was thinking more of a “Press Enter to state that you accept that you have a helmet.” No actual verification, but more of a CYA for PSBS.

      2. Oh yeah, I could imagine that. If you read the terms of service for Hubway, you actually agree to wear a helmet whenever riding the bike. I dunno if they make you push a button, but definitely CYA.

      3. It’s in the contract you sign when you apply for your fob. I’ve never heard that you have to press a “helmet consent” button when swiping your credit card for 1- or 3-day access, but I suppose it’s possible.

        So yes, system users technically agree to wear helmets. Then nobody does.

      4. What’s the fine for not wearing a helmet / ticket price to go helmetless? One could just be civilly disobedient except maybe at ends of months.

        Bruce, I am now imagining the bike stand thwacking all users upside the head prior to releasing a bike: if you have a helmet on, no detriment. Similar to baseball coaches ensuring that their little league team is athletically protected.

  3. “…because we have board members, such as Children’s Hospital, who have no interest in seeing this law repealed.”

    So require helmets for children but don’t keep the laws in place for adults. Seriously, the science behind these laws is dubious but we absolutely know the effects of not enough exercise on the US population. So go ahead, Children’s… Keep everybody safe (maybe?) and prime them for a future beholden to pharmaceutical companies to treat their Type 2 diabetes and other maladies fueled by lack of exercise. Decades of insulin, testing strip, and medical device sales are at stake. Way to improve public health…

    1. Honestly, outside of the Burke-Gilman trail, I don’t think we have nearly good enough bicycling infrastructure to making riding without a helmet a good idea. Between crazy drivers, falling apart pavement, and streetcar tracks, accidents are inevitably going to happen.

      1. The problem is that bicycle helmets are not designed to protect you from *any* of the risks you just mentioned. Helmet standards are basically designed to protect you when falling on your forehead at about 5 MPH. They’re completely ineffective at cycling speeds, vs. a car, or in many other scenarios where their use if touted as a safety issue.

        In fact, studies have shown that wearing a helmet actually increases your risk of injury on a bicycle, probably because of the increased feeling of safety results in riskier riding styles. What about the social impacts of requiring a helmet, and the implications thereof? Helmet laws send the signal that riding a bicycle is excessively dangerous, compared to other modes of transit, which is entirely not true.

        TL;DR Helmets don’t make riding a bicycle safer, in fact they probably make it more dangerous, and discourage active transport options like bike share.

      2. @Will I have heard that argument again and again and again and each time I call BS on it. Citing that a safety feature makes something look dangerous just doesn’t hold up.

        Does requiring car passengers to wear a seat belt make driving look more dangerous, therefore reducing the number of people that drive? Does requiring boat passengers to wear life preservers make boating look more dangerous, therefore reducing the number of people that boat?

        While I have heard many anti-helmet law advocates state that, I have never actually heard one single person that fits their hypothetical description. Sure, there are people that don’t bike because it appears to be dangerous, due to the media reporting on bicycle accidents and the fact that you sometime have to ride on a road with cars. However, I would venture to say very few, if any, don’t bike because you are forced to wear a helmet, which makes bicycling seem dangerous. I just don’t buy it.

        The only real aversion to helmets is people don’t like them due to reasons like fashion, social aspects and comfort. I could see this being a valid excuse, but why should we grant an exception to that? What about people who don’t like brakes on their bikes or having to buy a light for riding in the dark? Should we grant them exceptions just because they don’t like some safety feature required by law?

      3. I would have to agree with asdf, based only on personal experience. So I’ve landed on my helmet four times between age 14 and 45. One was going 20 mph, hitting a train track and spilling to my left onto the Trans Canada Highway near Sudbury. Got back up before a line of cars converged on me. Another was hitting gravel on Highway 30 in Oregon, broke the helmet in back at about 15 mph. Hit an illegally built diagonal speed bump on a West Seattle hill at 15 mph, grazed the side of the helmet. None of these involved high speeds or negligent riding. To me the anti-helmet arguments seem ideological. Helmet laws lead to obesity?

        If you want to argue that freedom means freedom for adults to ride without one, that’s cool. And there’s no need to wear a helmet riding your beach bike in a park. But yeah, it’s smart to wear a helmet on city streets, just in case you get doored along Eastlake.

      4. Helmets DO save lives, no doubt about it. However, their required use disincentives cycling which arguably results in lower cycling rates which leaves the remaining cyclists more at risk because drivers aren’t used to seeing us around. That said, Will is absolutely right and if you keep an eye on cycling fatalities in the area, you’ll note than most were wearing helmets and were killed in ways that a helmet would absolutely not prevent. (The cement truck driver dragging his trailer over a cyclist is the classic example. Helmet did squat to help that cyclist)

        I feel that DC has the right balance. They strongly urge helmet use and a lot of cyclists there do use them, but if you don’t happen to have one you can still legally ride.

      5. For my money, I’m far more concerned that bicyclists have to ride in the door zone on crazy streets like Eastlake to get around the city than whether or not they’re wearing helmets.

      6. @VeloBusDriver Can you provide a link to data on helmet usage during fatalities? From my recollection, it seems like more fatalities involve the cyclist not wearing a helmet. But again, that’s from my memory and not a statistic.

        What I’d really be curious about is a statistic of how many fatalities involved head trauma vs. other causes, like being run over by a dump truck, which isn’t preventable no matter what safety features you are using or not. It’d be like arguing that seat belts and airbags in cars aren’t necessary, since they won’t protect you in the even of a meteor striking your car.

      7. Mike Lindblom, this is not intended as an attack, but it does your case little good to counter what you see as the “ideological” anti-helmet argument with the quintessential pro-helmet fallacies: anecdotal evidence and confirmation bias.

        Knowing what we know about helmet science and which types of injuries they lessen or worsen, it is statistically impossible that a helmet has saved your noggin four times. But as you happen to be a helmet wearer, you have given the helmet undue credit, then extrapolated to insist that helmets are fundamentally necessary for all.

        (Velo and Will are my heroes today for linking/explaining the undue credit that helmets receive, so I don’t have to.)

        Anyway, Bruce is also correct that painting bike lines in the door zone is likely the greatest danger for the non-habitual cyclists that bike-share is intended to attract.

      8. It comes down to how much your brain is worth to you. I’d rate mine at a million dollars, so the cost of a helmet and any loss of coolness is peanuts. I’ve fallen off a bike twice that I recall, once when it got dark and rainy and I ran into a ditch (I went to the hospital for evaluation but was not admitted)m and once in daylight on a road south of Mountlake Terrace (I don’t remember if it was caused by a bump in the road or a car maneuver). I can’t prove that the helmet made a difference but I can’t prove it didn’t either, but I like the reassurance anyway. As to whether the helmet law should be repealed, I’m generally a libertarian on personal things, but I just don’t see the rationale in arguing against the helmet law, and I shudder at the thought of so many people in Europe not wearing them. They may rarely get in accidents where it can help, but there’s always that one time.

      9. “One was going 20 mph, hitting a train track and spilling to my left onto the Trans Canada Highway near Sudbury”

        Question: Would you be riding that fast if you weren’t wearing a helmet? Most bike share riders will be travelling at lower speeds.

        But I don’t really want to get sucked into this debate. My point is, and I emphasized it, helmets DO save lives but REQUIRING them suppresses overall ridership enough to put remaining cyclists at risk because drivers aren’t used to having us around. (Lack of good infrastructure obviously plays a HUGE part as well) The link I provided above contains gobs of studies and I’ve read enough to know there is real debate on the topic. Anybody who wants to go down the rabbit hole, as I’ve done many times before, can do so. The point here is that helmet laws DO suppress ridership but thankfully, hopefully, Alta is going to be able to make this system a success anyway. I know I’ll do my best to overcome the hassle of ALWAYS having to have a helmet.

      10. …but I just don’t see the rationale in arguing against the helmet law, and I shudder at the thought of so many people in Europe not wearing them.

        I know, Mike, it’s awful. [shudder]

        The rationale is that the science on helmets is iffy, they’re inconvenient to have to carry every waking moment, and they really don’t protect against any accidents that actually happen when riding casual utility bikes. It has squat to do with self-image.

        But why take our cues from successful cities, right? We’re Seattle!

      11. @Velo I recently came back from Amsterdam (referenced in d.p.’s picture), where seeing a rider with a helmet is more rare than winning the lotto. And yet, I can assure you that there are quite a few (helmet-less) riders there that do stupid stuff that I rarely see riders (with or without helmets) do here in Seattle. To say that helmets cause riders to ride more dangerously is unsubstantiated, I would say it’s more of a cultural or even personal issue.

        And the Wikipedia article you posted lists this as the first sentence: “Most work, and the only studies using concurrent control groups, come from Australia.” Most of the studies and surveys are concluded with a correlation-causation fallacy or utilized poor data gathering methods, which is also referenced in the Wikipedia article.

      12. @RapidRider: And as a result of this, are the streets of Amsterdam a bloodbath of cyclists?

        Far from it. Everyone’s going so slow they have plenty of time to react to whatever unpredictable stuff people do, and they mostly aren’t biking in streets with fast car traffic. Your margin of error in that situation, and the ethics of how you behave, are closer to walking than driving.

        Even in London, whose traffic is by reputation much more chaotic that Amsterdam’s, bike share without helmets has a remarkably good safety record.

      13. @Al Nope, accident rates are actually very low and most people ride at a safe speed (let’s call it average, not fast or slow), but there are still plenty of helmet-less people that ride faster than average and do stupid, dangerous stuff in Amsterdam.

        But isn’t the argument that helmets cause cyclists be more dangerous and not about the rate of accidents? I would say the rate of dangerous cycling is much higher in helmet-less Amsterdam than helmet-ful Seattle. Of course a contradiction to this would be Copenhagen, where there are slightly more helmets than Amsterdam (still less than 5% and not required), but cyclist flow like a well oiled machine and I never saw any dangerous cycling (not to say it doesn’t happen, just nowhere near as often). So again, I think it’s more a society/individual thing than a helmet thing.

        @Erik That’s an interesting study, but I’d like to see those statistics outside of the first 20 months of a law passed 30 years ago. Did the rate of accidents and fatalities continue or did they start to learn that seat belts don’t make them invincible?

      14. Note that “saving lives” covers only the fatality rate. I’m more interested in head injuries, which are more common and where a helmet can make more of a difference.

      15. @RapidRider: I don’t care one way or the other about the argument that helmets make cyclists less safe by encouraging them to ride less safely. It’s a sideshow; whether it’s true or false has no bearing on the real question. The question is whether helmets are so beneficial that mandating them across society has positive outcomes.

      16. Simply put, Mike: There is zero evidence that people riding upright utility-style bicycles without helmets are subject to blunt head traumas at even marginally higher rates than those with helmets.

        The Helmet Laws Now, Helmet Laws Tomorrow, Helmet Laws Forever crowd is going on faith, not on fact.

  4. As a bicycle commuter who is familiar with the (pretty sorry) state of our bicycle infrastructure in most places, my only objection to a helmet law is that it might prevent bikesharing operations. If the people planning a system don’t see a problem, then I’m happy with things staying as they are.

    Anyone who really doesn’t want a helmet can take the risk of citation and injury that entails. I don’t really think there’s much enforcement, so it really is effectively a personal decision. Maybe that will change if large numbers of tourists use the bikeshare system once it’s in operation. The majority who prefer the safety of helmets will have a convenient and cheap option, which might not be the case if there was no helmet law.

    1. I like your final point, the helmet vending machine almost certainly wouldn’t exist without the law. I’m just sad about the large number of potential bike riders that won’t use this service because of the hastle of a helmet. That said, it’s good they predict there will still be enough riders left over for them to be successful.

    2. The people building the system have to say they’re OK with the law to avoid getting in trouble with one of their pig-headed sponsors and make it look like they have a chance. For the real story look at the precedent: bike share plus helmet law equals failure.

    1. The bike-share model is based on anticipated need for multiple short-haul trips over a set period of time.

      So you never “pay $5 to pull a bike out of the rack”, as precisely no one suggested.

      You pay for a membership of a 1-day, multi-day, 1-month, or 1-year duration. Beyond that, you use bikes absolutely free of charge for 30 minutes at a time (45 minutes in some cities).

      If you go over 30 minutes, there is a token surcharge. If you go over an hour, the charge is steeper. These bikes are not for long-distance joyriding.

      1. +1 – Seriously, if any critic goes to D.C. and rides their system, you’ll quickly realize how convenient it is to use. I constantly found myself waiting for a bus but grabbing a Bikeshare bike instead.

        The longest ride I took was from just over the river in Virginia to the Jefferson Memorial. Once docked there I walked around the Memorial for a while and then grabbed another bike to get to my next destination. I’ll point out that transit service in the area wasn’t nearly as good and required much longer walks with associated waiting time.

  5. Anyway, helmet arguments are a waste of time…

    It’s sort of disappointing that an organization behind bike sharing can’t step up and make a public case for the things that would influence its success, even things like downtown bike infrastructure that it definitely needs. Maybe they should turn themselves into a profit-making business, trade their board of uninformed-concerned-citizen stakeholders for a board of shareholders that want their investment to succeed, and go all-out for the cause of their success in the arenas of politics and public opinion.

    1. Assuming PSBS is successful, I suspect it will be the camel’s nose under the tent. I’ll bet we won’t have a mandatory helmet law in Seattle in 30 years. (That said, given Seattle’s propensity for Nanny state laws, I wouldn’t bet a lot on it)

      1. Why is this thread about helmets now, too? There are lots of places to argue about helmets. I wanted to argue about something else, specifically, why a bike share organization can’t campaign hard for the things it needs from others.

        I’m tossing around the idea that what we need to get bike share going, to really get cycling going downtown, is not a lily-livered non-profit that can’t speak politically, but a red-blooded capitalist corporation or three, hungry for success, to demand the city bend to its will… sort of like cities bent to the will of the private auto decades back. Someone tell me I’m wrong here :).

      2. Actually, I am afraid Seattle will (can’t be “soft” on anything these days…think of the children) and Bikeshare will have been a total failure because of it.

        At least these racks and bikes can be redeployed far away from the unscientific studies on the matter originally done by Group Health regarding white middle-to-upper class precious snowflakes with helicopter parents:

    2. Why is a non-profit lily-livered and a for-profit hungry for success? I’ve seen plenty of hunger in the non-profit sector, why else would people work the long hours at a pay cut?

      In this case specifically, “penciling out” means user fees cover about 80% of the costs, and the rest will have to be made up with philanthropic subsidy. A for-profit would have to charge 20% more, which might have implications for the actual viability of the system in addition to the obvious social justice implications. I do hope they are as aggressive with revenue generation as possible, given their mission focus. I imagine getting the colleges and hospitals to pay the full cost of installing a system on their property, for example.

      I think the political impact from the bikeshare could be huge. It opens up biking to an entirely new population, and those people will become supporters of better infrastructure. Rather than get a small group of business owners lobbying, you get a whole new slice of the city.

  6. The perfectly moderate middle-of-the-road unassailable position on helmets I’ve come to is they’re for when a cyclist goes over their handlebars and lands on their head. If you’re riding a dutch bike on flat ground at about the same speed as a very fast runner (say, in the Netherlands) there’s no point, it’s impossible to go over. If you’re riding down a 12% grade on a mountain bike (for example, if you go one mile in any direction in Seattle) doing 25 mph, you’ll go over the handlebars sometime and the helmet will help. If a motorist plows into you then you’re dead and the helmet doesn’t matter. Until we get rid of the hills and the rain helmets are going to be useful. Which isn’t to say we should require them.

    OK, enough about helmets. How are these bikes going to be geared? Will they go up hills, or only just down?

    1. Seven speeds instead of the usual three. Of course, that doesn’t actually tell you anything about the gearing.

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