I recently had the opportunity to check out Portland’s new-launched bike share system, Biketown. While the bikes are similar, the rest of the system is quite different and there are many things Seattle could learn while mulling Pronto’s expansion. I joined Pronto earlier this year and use it several times a week. The two systems are similar but have one very distinct and important difference.

Biketown is operated by Social Bicycles, who operate bikes share systems in 25 other cities in 3 countries. Unlike Pronto’s system operated by Motivate, Biketown does not require users to return bikes to specific stations. At the end of the trip, riders can simply lock up the bike to any public bicycle rack, albeit for a $2 fee. Rescuing a bike from a non-Biketown rack will net the next rider a $1 credit. Riders locking bikes up to racks outside the home area are hit with a $20 fee. By not forcing riders to start and end their trips at specific stations this effectively solves the full or “dead” docks that Pronto users experience. It also enables an additional layer of convenience.I recently had the opportunity to check out Portland’s new-launched bike share system, Biketown. While the bikes are similar, the rest of the system is quite different and there are many things Seattle could learn while mulling Pronto’s expansion. I joined Pronto earlier this year and use it several times a week. The two systems are similar but have one very distinct and important difference.


Pronto Biketown
Single ride N/A $2.50
24 hours $8 $12
3 days $16 N/A
Annual $95.40* $144

*$85 if paid up front.
Pronto’s prices do not include sales tax.

All Biketown plans include a set number of minutes per day with overage at 10¢ per minute. Pronto’s prices are capped per-trip (45 minutes for annual members, 30 minutes all others) with overage at $2.00 for the first 30 minutes and $5 for each additional 30 minutes. Each Pronto trip comes with unlimited trips, so you could theoretically keep a bike for 24 hours straight for just $8 if you made sure to visit a dock every 30 minutes.


Biketown has a mobile app and riders can sign up for any plan through the app. I attempted to do this but the Android app simply displayed an empty screen so I was unable to complete registration through the app and had to do so through the mobile-friendly website. Riders can also purchase any plan at stations that have a kiosk (about half of them). Pronto sells 24-Hour and 3-Day Passes only at stations. Annual passes are only sold online. Pronto does not have a mobile app, but directs to third-party apps that show bike/dock status.


I won’t pretend to be an expert on Portland’s geography, but with a semi free-floating system the station siting is less important. With Pronto, I often find that bikes are a few blocks away from my origin or destination. Pronto’s station footprint is large enough that it is useful for many short trips in and near Downtown but small enough to not be useful for a majority of Seattle.


Both systems use bikes with a step through frame (AKA “girl” bikes). This makes it for riders of all heights easy to start the right way. Both bikes are built with internal hubs. Most bike riders will be familiar with the more popular derailleur design for shifting gears where a chain slides on to differently sized sprockets. In stark contrast internal hubs allow the bike to be shifted while stopped and generally can’t be shifted while pedaling. Shifting is accomplished by twisting a grip on the handlebar near the rider’s thumb. Pronto’s bikes use a 7 speed hub connected to a chain (with a chain guard) whereas Biketown uses an 8 speed hub with a shaft drive. I sometimes experience issues with slipping gears on Pronto, but this wasn’t (yet) an issue on Biketown’s two month old bikes.

I’d need to see the spec sheets or ride both bikes on the same terrain to be certain, but my anecdotal observations were than the first 7 gears had nearly the same ratios. This means that Biketown’s eighth gear is meant for higher speeds on nearly flat terrain. I’d prefer to trade this for a lower gear at the opposite end.

Both feature a front basket. The Biketown basket is larger and fully enclosed and is great for hauling small items whereas the Pronto basket is U shaped with a bungee cord and better for hauling larger items (such as a yoga mat). Both have built-in front and rear lights that turn on automatically. The handlebars on the Biketown bikes feel very narrow; I imagine that those with broad shoulders will be riding with their elbows pressed in to their sides. I found the rubber grips on Biketown’s brake levers to be a nice touch.


Unlike King County’s all-ages helmet law, Oregon’s law stipulates that riders 16 and over are not required to wear a helmet. Thus, Biketown encourages the use of but does not offer helmet rentals. Pronto charges $2 for helmet rental except for annual members for which it is free. Helmets are available at every station.

Rental Experience

With Biketown, all interaction takes place on the bike’s built in computer which sits over the rear wheel. Riders can start a trip by entering their 6 digit account number followed by a 4 digit rider-assigned PIN.

With Pronto, 24 hour and 3 day pass holders need to swipe their credit card at the station’s kiosk and then enter a four digit bicycle number to check out a bike. Strangely, this option is not available for annual members, necessitating the use of a Pronto-provided keyfob in order to check out a bike. Non-annual members can purchase a keyfob for $2.50 and enjoy similar convenience.

Biketown also provides a RFID card for annual members and sells them to non-annual members. Checking out a bike still requires entering a PIN, essentially trading the convenience of not having to memorize and type a 6 digit number for yet another card in the rider’s wallet. The account number can also be viewed through the mobile app.

Starting a Pronto trip with a Pronto keyfob usually takes under 5 seconds. Biketown’s on-board computers are laggy and it takes approximately one second to enter each number. Additionally, the displays have poor contrast and I found it to be difficult to read even in the shade. Docking is similar; Pronto trips end nearly instantaneously after rolling the bike in to the dock, whereas Biketown requires sliding the U lock in to place before the trip completes (but requires no other user interaction).

Having a built-in lock is a huge benefit for Biketown. Any trip that requires a stop between stations is easy—riders can simply lock the bike up with the lock they undid to begin the trip. With Pronto, a similar feat would require riders to bring their own lock with them or ensure all their destinations are near Pronto stations. Coupled with Pronto’s small footprint, this has made some trips so inconvenient to the point where I consider them impossible.

After a trip, Pronto members can log in to an online portal to see their rental history which shows the start and end stations as well as start/end times and duration down to the second. The Biketown app and website show all that plus a GPS trail of the trip.

Despite only using the system for a day, I see tremendous advantages in a semi free-floating system compared to Pronto’s forced station-to-station system. While I would definitely welcome the addition of electric pedal assist, I feel that a more successful system could be realized by placing bikes in places where people can access them.

Biketown bikes photo by the author.
Pronto at Capitol Hill Station by SounderBruce CC BY-SA on Flickr

27 Replies to “Pronto vs Biketown: The Northwest Bike Share Showdown”

  1. I assume this means Biketown rides are GPS tracked, whereas I think Pronto bikes are ‘dark’ between dockings, based on Pronto staff thanking me for tweeting locations of ditched bikes I’ve come across.

    1. Yes, Biketown has integrated GPS. This is a screenshot from the Biketown app.

      So far as I can tell the Pronto bikes are “dumb” save for the small battery to power the lights.

  2. I recently returned from Shanghai and Beijing, and saw a lot of new orange bikes rolling around. Unlike the PNW versions, “MoBike” is totally free-floating and work the way Car2Go does.

    They also use a uniquely designed proprietary bicycle, to help ensure bikes aren’t stolen for parts. No chain – just an internal drive mechanism. I did not get a chance to ride one, however.

    Check this article out by googling: Bike-Share Schemes Test Shanghai’s Ethics

  3. I have internal hub gearing and can shift just fine while pedaling. I do so dozens or hundreds of times a day.

    Bike share will never succeed with mandatory helmet law. It never has, anywhere. It has succeeded everywhere that doesn’t have mandatory helmets.

    1. Which make/model? I have a Shimano Nexus 7 on a bike and shifting while pedaling usually works. I imagine Pronto is using something other than Shimano. It’s most noticeable when riding up a hill and the grade changes; you keep pedaling to continue moving forward but it gets harder and harder because you’re in the same gear until you stop pedaling.

    2. Just like car rentals, motorcycle rentals and boat rentals have failed because of requiring the renter to also rent seatbelts, helmets and life jackets. Get real.

      Pronto is failing because they released it in downtown, which is shitty to bike in for the most seasoned cyclists and the U-District, which is small enough that walking will beat undocking and docking and bike any day. Add to the fact that the only two zones are linked by Eastlake, which I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemies.

      The anti-helmet crowd would LOVE to tie Pronto’s failures to helmets, but they can’t. I see people on Prontos without helmets all the time. The bikes seem to operate perfectly.

  4. The flexibility of a free-floating system seems like a huge improvement. It would also come with a data advantage: you can look at where people are locking bikes to normal racks to figure out where you need to build stations.

    I’d like to see electric assist, too. The price of electric assist bikes is plummeting, and Seattle’s got more than its fair share of steep hills. A lot more people would be interested in riding if it wasn’t so hard to get a heavy bike-share bike up hill X.

  5. Good article! A different tack I would have taken would be to have the prices for Pronto “with” sales tax, as that’s a part of the price and makes the two numbers comparable, whereas Portland has no sales tax (I’m assuming there’s no special tax there for bike sharing). Then, the Seattle number wouldn’t require mental math or a calculator to compare those, then *- Including state sales tax.
    I also like that you tried out the app, an important part of the consumer experience

    1. I do think it’s silly for Pronto memberships to be charged sales tax. It feels almost like trying to collect sales tax on bus fares. Even Uber is somehow not subject to sales tax (although it probably should be).

      1. It’s because it’s a rental or lease, and bike rentals are charged sales tax much like car rentals are. It’s a choice of the system to determine whether they disclose sales tax or not on rental. B Cycle systems tend to have sales tax included (i.e. Los Angeles, Madison – although Austin is now quoting tax exclusive prices) while Motivate and SoBi systems tend to be tax exclusive.

  6. Just spent the weekend in Portland. Anecdoctally, it struck me how well-used their bike share is. I’d never seen Pronto bikes roaming around Seattle. I also got to use the system once and agree that it’s generally a better experience than Pronto for the reasons listed in the article.

  7. The on-board computer design of Biketown looks to have merit. But it certainly seems to present the risk of failure and frustrating problems as the system ages. I wonder about the vendor’s track record with this system. Pronto’s station-based design is certainly less flexible, but could be significantly enhanced by both increased station density (for a more circular station layout) and electric assist. I imagine both ongoing expense and the requirement of a helmet solution made the station-based design a must for Pronto. It can and does work in plenty of places. We just need supporters and a willing SDOT/City Council.

  8. Portland had a pure honor system bike share plan in the early 1990s. I went there by Amtrak in 1995, wondering if I would see any of the yellow-painted bikes. I wasn’t planning on using them, and it was raining, but it might be fun to try them out. I only saw one of them all day, and it was chained up. So this will be Portland’s second go around with bike sharing.

  9. I was in Vancouver this weekend and nearly every Mobi station we saw was packed with customers. It’s pricing structure, I seem to recall, is quite reminiscent of Pronto, but the big difference is the sheer number of stations and the general flatness of the part of Vancouver where we were. It was about a mile from our hotel to this bagel place we went to and half a mile from there to a park. There was a station across from our hotel, another station half a mile away, another one right at the bagel place and another one at the parking lot for the park.

    Of course, all of this was matched by great cycle tracks in between.

    I’m sorry, but Pronto’s problem is far, far more Seattle’s topography, the poor layout and coverage of the station network and the general lack of biking infrastructure in the places people might want to bike in the city than the helmet law. That’s an excuse.

  10. Looking at both Portland and Seattle’s bike share and I wonder why in the world would anyone use them. In Paris there’s 23,000 bikes at 1800 stations. Each station is only 300 meters apart. The cost of a day pass is under 2 euros. A 7 day pass is 8 euros. If you sign up for a year you get it for less than 3 euros per month! Students get a month for 1.50 euros. You can ride for the first 30-45 minutes and never pay.

    We charge almost as much for a helmet as they charge for a month of usage. If you paid the annual membership fee and the usage fees and a helmet and rode it to work every day you could have either just bought your own bike.

    I just don’t know who the target audience is for Pronto besides people lacking math skills. Maybe it’s people who don’t have space to store a bike.

    1. Helmets are included with Pronto’s annual membership. If you’re paying for the annual membership fees and usage fees and helmets, you’re doing it wrong. Which means you’re only spending $85-95 a year. You’re not going to get a very good bike for that price, and even if you did, you’ll have to maintain it. Pronto maintains the fleet to ensure every in-service bike is in working order.

      I still own a bike but only use it when my trips are long, going out of the service area or I’m looking for a lighter bike to ride (these rental bikes are durable, not nimble). Most of my Pronto trips are one-way, which is impracticable with bike ownership.

      Finally, Pronto provides a ton of peace of mind. Once you dock it, it’s no longer your responsibility. If someone steals the bike there will still be plenty of other bikes available to get you where you need to go.

  11. Location. Pronto is failing because of location, not helmets, not weather, not any other excuse people can come up with. Downtown zone is not some place people want to bike, U-District zone is small enough that it is quicker to walk than to bother with Pronto and the linkage between the two is terrible at best and difficult to make it in the 30 minute time limit. Instead of extending south from the U-District, they could have considered extending west and east along the BGT and probably escaped their financial woes. It’s flat, safe and there’s plenty to do from Golden Gardens to Magnuson.

  12. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Portland’s geography, but with a semi free-floating system the station siting is less important.

    It would be nice to see it extended a bit further east, but the core of the activity areas are covered pretty well. The contrast on SE Division, Belmont and Hawthorne east and west of Chavez Blvd (formerly 39th) is pretty severe in terms of overall activity level. Even so, the area east to about 50th seems to me as though it has enough activity to support more stations out that way.

    It would also be good to see some expansion into Sellwood. It’s about as close as Portland comes to a Burke-Gilman trail between there and downtown Portland. It’s a decent trail, but with nowhere near the activity level along it as the Burke-Gilman does.

    At the same time, you can’t cover the whole area at once. It’s a good start.

  13. I’d argue the reasons for Pronto’s failure – in the order of impact – are challenging topography, poor station network, and lastly, helmet law.

    My argument for topography is based on the way this has shaped Seattle’s cycling culture into a very gung-ho spandex clad racing-bike race-all-the-time mentality, not the easy-going cycling culture one finds in less topographically challenging cities, such as Portland.

    Another interesting comparison is Melbourne and Seattle. Melbourne is flat, but has a helmet law, and bike sharing is struggling there.

    1. Somewhere in the mix should be “big money sponsor”. Let’s not forget that the e in Biketown is supposed to be pronounced as that makes the corporate sponsorship more obvious.

  14. I haven’t used either of these systems, but I imaging that either 7 or 8 speeds would be miles better than the 3-speed bike I got from Omaha’s Heartland B-cycle system.

  15. Pronto’s cost is often justified by backers because it helps take cars off road. I don’t see evidence that it works in that fashion here in Seattle, and not much evidence to think it could.

    If we want to make more bike commuters we’d be better off subsidizing the purchase of bikes for commuters who can’t afford them.

    If the city thinks they want a shiny object of a program to show how ‘world class’ and ‘progressive’ the city is, then let’s keep pronto. But fund it thru a tourism tax or something. Not from general revenue.

    The city should not be in the bike rental business – it’s a boondoggle and ineffective.

  16. I actually made it a point, as a visitor to downtown, to find a pronto bike at UW and ride down to Pike’s Place market. Easy…right?


    First off, we had to pull up a map on our smart phones as to where the pronto bikes might be hiding. Were they at the station with the other bikes? Nope. That would make entirely too much sense.

    We walked about 1/4 of a mile to the pronto station. At which point, I was prompted no less than 2 times with legalize. Where you helmet yo! (whatever). Oh, here is a 16 page legal form to read, yo! (sure).

    Almost every bike had sticky hand grips..due to a choice of cheap rubber. I have ridden bikes…a lot…and never one so slow. Or should I say, several so slow. The ride was so utterly slow…I had to switch out twice for fear of being penalized for holding a bike over 30 minutes.

    30 minutes!

    I learned after the second change to eyeball the bikes hoping for a bike that was fully functional and not making funny sounds (crank brackets, gears).

    Let’s talk about the helmet.

    They require you to “rent” one. Hmm…I have a larger than 60cm head…so that’s out. Turns out, the helmet fits nicely into the basket. Rode past state patrol cop and a city cop just like that…..they didn’t care.

    The city has done little to point a bike rider towards real bike lanes. Google lists arterial streets as bike ways.

    The one plus side, the waterfront pronto is located under the Alaskan way viaduct across several lanes of traffic…nowhere near the actual waterfront (outside crab pot).

    Bottom line…the bikes are slightly above department store. The stations sometimes are placed ok…sometimes…not so much (UW station). I got the best workout due to bike being 90 pounds and each having a drag coefficient worthy of a semi truck.

    Never, ever…again.

    I ride 2-3 times per week .

    Let’s talk about the price. $8 for 24 hours.


    2 dollars if you keep one of their hotly demanded bikes for more than 30 minutes.

    What the price should be is $2…for 30 minutes and $3 for an hour…and so on.

    One more thing…you can’t lock the bike up..because it has no integrated lock like the Portland Bikes do.

  17. I’m a little late to the party but Portland’s system is run by Motivate, it just uses bicycles from Social Bikes.

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