Monday afternoon the Seattle City Council approved $1.4m to purchase Pronto Cycleshare’s privately-held assets. The buyout gives Pronto a needed infusion of cash to keep service going while the City prepares to financially restructure the struggling bikeshare service. The City will retain the private operator (Motivate Co) through the remainder of 2016, and will issue an RFP to take over the contract and expand the service in the coming years.
Councilmembers Burgess and Herbold were the lone dissenters, sponsoring a failed amendment that would have allowed Pronto to go bankrupt on March 31, liquidate its assets, and apply those proceeds towards debt service, with the City on the hook for separately repaying a $1m federal grant. In his comments, Burgess preferred a fully private operator focused on profitability and worried about mission creep creating ongoing financial exposure for the city beyond the $1.4m buyout. Herbold, meanwhile, criticized the purchase of what she considers outdated capital assets. Noting that Portland is piloting a free-floating bikeshare system similar in structure to Car2Go, she made the analogy that the City was proposing to spend $1.4m to “buyout the contract for a flip phone so we can bid on a smartphone. Why not just buy the smartphone?”
The Council majority honestly conceded Pronto’s operational issues multiple times, but ultimately spoke in favor of a seamless transition, ensuring continuity of service, and an ongoing public stake in bikeshare. Indeed, in many of the subsequent amendments (all of which passed unanimously), Councilmembers indirectly made the case for public ownership. Councilmember Gonzalez passed an amendment to spend $50,000 on low-income and multilingual access for bikeshare, and Councilmembers Juarez, Johnson, and others spoke numerous times in favor of expanding low-income access, citywide expansion, and more. Each of these are laudable social justice goals, but none of them are performance-enhancing requirements. By voting unanimously for values that privilege access and equity over performance, Councilmembers effectively showed why such a system is better off in at least partially public hands. That is a trade I am perfectly comfortable with as long as those values are transparent and we evaluate the system’s performance accordingly.
O’Brien also passed an amendment requiring that 5 specific stretches of protected bike lanes be constructed prior to any expansion, including completing 2nd Avenue from Denny to S Washington St, completing the Westlake cycletrack, and completing the cycletrack on 9th Avenue North between Westlake and Denny that would effectively be a continuation of the Westlake corridor.
Now the fun begins, as the buyout gives us a chance to take stock of the current system’s shortcomings and reimagine its future in Seattle. In the meantime, 150,000 annual riders can keep riding.