Seattle recently entered negotiations with a vendor to replace Pronto, the bike share network that became insolvent last year and required a $1.4M taxpayer bailout.   Tom at Seattle Bike Blog did a fantastic run-down that I highly recommend.

The high scorer of the six bids is an all-electric proposal from a young Quebec company, Bewegen.  Motivate, the company that powers the bikeshares in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco (and Seattle’s Pronto), came in a close second.  Motivate proposed standard bikes, with an e-bike option to be rolled out over time.

As we contemplate a new bike share service for Seattle, let’s consider why Pronto failed in the first place.   Possible culprits include:

  1. The King County helmet law
  2. A lack of capital
  3. Seattle’s hilly topography
  4. Too few stations, spread too far apart, and in the wrong places

If you think the answer is 3, a hilly terrain that discouraged casual riders, then Bewegen’s all-electric fleet makes the most sense.   If, however, you think the answer is 4, as we have argued in the past, then a system with greater density is superior.

From the city’s point of view, thinking about tourists or super-casual riders, it’s easy to see why they might over-index on electric.  More regular riders, on the other hand, may know how to plot their route to minimize hills and use the system only where and when it makes sense as a compliment to transit or walking.

Station density, though, is a big difference between the two high-scoring bids.  As Tom writes:

Not only would Motivate’s map include some of Ballard, Mount Baker and more of the Central District, but each area where there are stations would have a higher density of them (12 stations per square mile). This means far shorter walks from many more homes and destinations compared to Bewegen’s seven stations per square mile.

Much like transit, bike share works well when the stations are closely grouped.  Having to walk a long distance to a station is an access penalty. The difference between a 4 or 5 minute walk and an 8 or 10 minute walk is often the difference between using the system and not using it.

Hence NACTO (whose members just finished a conference right here in Seattle) recommends siting stations in clusters no more than 1,000 feet apart:

The distance someone will walk to use a bike appears to be much smaller [than for transit] – about 1,000 feet or 5 minutes walking  The bike share systems that have the highest ridership – Paris, New York, Mexico City – have stations evenly spaced an easy walking distance apart.  Since the distance that people are willing to walk to find a bike remains the same regardless of neighborhood type, the size of the stations should be adjusted, not the spacing, to address neighborhood-specific needs.  To increase ridership and system utility, bike share stations should be placed no more than 1,000 feet apart across the entire program area.

In other words, the most someone will walk is 1,000 feet. But to be really successful, stations should be 1,000 feet apart, meaning the average walk is not more than 500 feet, or 1/10th of a mile.

Motivate seems to grasp this in its proposal (see Tom’s post for PDFs), noting that “areas with high suitability could support a dense grid of stations, positioned every 1,000 feet while medium suitability areas ay support a grid of stations approximately every 1,000 to 2,000 feet.”

Bewegen, meanwhile, roughly mimics the current Pronto station density, proposing stations every 1/4 to 1/2 mile.  This is surely driven by costs, as electric stations are more expensive to install, electric bikes more expensive to buy and maintain, and station sites are limited by the need to plug into the grid.  As the electric system expands, the bias will be towards fewer, larger stations, also running against the NACTO recommendations.

It’s troubling that Bewegen doesn’t really grapple with these issues in their proposal.

Compare the two proposals’ coverage maps for South Lake Union (locations are presumably representative at this stage). Motivate has 50% more stations than Bewegen.


Bewegen also offers a smaller coverage area overall.  Indefensibly, they include the top of Queen Anne(!) but not Ballard.  It’s unlikely anyone in Northwest Seattle would buy a membership for the electric system.  But then, if your emphasis is on tourists, that hardly matters (and let’s not forget that electric bikes are technically illegal on trails like the Burke-Gilman).

The $5,000,000 question, then, then is this: is an all-electric system going to be so compelling that we can ignore best practices about station spacing, living with a smaller coverage area, and absorbing the higher costs?  It’s a risky gamble, and another example of Seattle choosing to reinvent the wheel with untested technology.  Having tried and failed at bike share once, the city must be feeling fairly certain that electricity is the savior and tourists the audience.  From that point of view, it makes sense, although it will almost certainly limit the system’s appeal to locals.

40 Replies to “Seattle Gambles on Electric Bikes to Replace Pronto”

  1. Spoiler: It’s 2 & 4, along with other issues.

    Helmets are not the issue and the hilly terrain is not necessarily the issue. This could have and should have been launched (or quickly expanded) to the Burke-Gilman corridor, from Golden Gardens to Magnuson Park. The big issue is linking SLU to the north area, but I think the Westlake Parking Lot would have sufficed until the Cycle Track was built.

    I live in Ballard and would love to take one way bike trips to Fremont, U-District, Downtown, Eastlake, SLU and Downtown, all accessible with decent to great, flat infrastructure within the 30 minute limit of Pronto. I bet a lot of people in Ballard would agree.

    I think the other thing that killed Pronto was the push to serve low income areas first. The problem is that Pronto comes off as a alternate transportation mode for higher income users; an initial expansion into low income areas first would have killed it, had it not killed itself. While I agree that Pronto (or whatever bike share arises from its ashes) should go into lower income areas, I also think it should first expand into the “tried and true” crowds, establish itself and then expand.

    1. Well, Rapid, last time I saw Ballard you were living in a high income neighborhood. Fact you didn’t get an eviction slip when I did proves it.

      Guess that’s the way our departing President looked at the economy too. Banks like to deal with the “tried and true” crowds. Good reason for no help to the low income neighborhood called most of the United States. But don’t worry, it’s only been eight years since they got bailed out.

      Sooner or later, they’ll expand their generosity. Won’t they? Meantime, buy your own damn bike like us homeless do.

      Mark Dublin

  2. 5. Fee structure

    Too expensive for the occasional single trip. A lot of people bike in this city frequently using their own bikes. Most of the time if I’m going to go anywhere on a bike, I’m using my own, so a monthly membership is too costly to justify given the frequency of use. On the of occasion that it might be handy to use Pronto – a few times a month. It would be nice to have a time based fee that will not be more or equal to taking a taxi or uber. The electrification will maybe help lure people that don’t bike all the time but the anxiety of riding in car traffic and finding a station at your terminal might still be a big deterrent to those users. It seems to me the biggest miss is the regular, frequent bikers who might want to occasionally use a Pronto, but aren’t so die-hard that they’re on their own bike every day.

  3. 6. lack of a connected, intuitive bike network
    7. Intimidating, fast streets, with miscreant, selfish drivers

    1. As a pedestrian I have weekly close calls with bicycles ignoring red lights, blowing through crosswalks with people in them, or biking quickly down crowded sidewalks. So I think that drivers don’t have a corner of the market on being selfish. I think a selfish jerk is a selfish jerk no matter how many wheels there are under him.

      1. And I didn’t say otherwise. Of course, an encounter with a driver is about 9,000x more likely to be deadly.

      2. Can anyone tell me if there’s any training or skills test for permission to ride a bike? Or is it like the way our schools teach the skills of electing and running our just, well, know. Or not. Who’s checking.

        Anybody have any objection to a required bicyclist’s license? After an inspection ride with one of the bicycle police? Because maybe some better skills training would also put drivers and riders equally in a more mannerly state of mind.


      3. I normally agree with you Mark (like your well said remark above). But where does the line get drawn? Should we have skateboard tests too? What about the razor scooter police?

  4. My personal opinion is that the problem is primarily 4) – Too few stations, spread too far apart, and in the wrong places. The new station next to Husky Stadium has helped somewhat, but there are still big holes, such as the U-district stations being too far apart, and not serving Fremont.

    I think the hill concern is overrated. With proper station location, there are a lot of fairly flat trips you can do, such as along the Burke-Gilman. Even on Capitol Hill, while getting up there is workout, once you’ve already reached the top the hill, getting around local destinations is fairly flat. My primary usage of Pronto is traveling along the Burke-Gilman to/from the Husky light rail station. I would absolutely take it along the Burke-Gilman from the U-district to Fremont if only a station existed in Fremont – even the big, heavy Pronto bikes would still be faster than waiting for the 31/32. East/west travel in the South Lake Union area is another situation where Pronto has a lot of potential. It’s flat, and the re-done Mercer St. has side sidewalks and a protected bike path underneath Aurora. Meanwhile, traffic on Mercer is awful and there are no buses that use Mercer at all, while the 8 on Denny is extraordinarily unreliable, and too far out of the way to walk to if you’re already at Mercer.

    Besides more stations, I also recall Motivate allowed users to return a bike between stations for an additional fee, as well as offering a $2.50/single ride option allowing Pronto to be price-competitive with Uber and public transit for individual trips.

    1. Pronto was designed as a pilot system.

      Its proposed partnership with the City of Seattle is what killed it, because of the failure to gain a grant based on this form of transportation alone (search for TIGER grant), and the delays in ownership that followed, including the purchase (buyout, not bailout) of the system hardware.

  5. How about all four factors, plus lack of good bike routes?

    I imagine usage numbers should improve with the opening of two light-rail stations and a few important bike routes. The timing of Pronto’s first few years was really tough for biking in downtown and SLU, and with stronger finances maybe it could have survived to better times and hit some kind of stride before becoming a conspicuous failure.

    But then SDOT decided to put off the better times by delaying important downtown bike routes. That’s not something Pronto can solve on its own.

  6. Marketing is needed, not for the bikes, but for a bikable corridor of breweries, wine bars, eateries, museums, and other foodie destinations that hug a heavy-use bike path like BurkeGilman that loops around the lake. Then tourists would flock to it. But it’s difficult to want to use bikes if you have to partially use sidewalks or roads. Seattleites walk a lot… way more than even the average european, where subway systems, tramways and bikes are more heavily invested in.

    Its too hilly for locals and nowhere is too far to walk the diatance. And tourists want safer places to bike and realize the bike paths are not well connected

    1. I don’t think we should be encouraging people to cycle while drunk, especially with paltry grade separation.

    2. 1. The Burke-Gilman Trail does not loop any lake.

      2. The “Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop”, which runs along the Burke-Gilman between the approaches to the University and Fremont Bridges, does loop around Lake Union. The Lake Washington Loop has a well-established, somewhat-well-signed route in Seattle, following the Burke-Gilman between the Rainier Vista overpass and somewhere in Kenmore or Bothell (the route is not as clearly established there). The Lake Washington Loop is way too long for Pronto touring so I’ll assume you’re talking about the Cheshiahud loop.

      3. The Cheshiahud loop is about half on sidewalks and roads.

      4. There are some restaurants and stuff around the south edge of Lake Union and in Fremont, near where the loop goes, but I wouldn’t say the loop is some sort of foodie corridor any more than the rest of Seattle.


    3. Excellent idea, Andrew. It’s the natural extension of the transit-oriented communities I’ve been advocating for transit centers. Which include everything community life needs, including places to work.

      It’s one of my thoughts for a treatment of the Kirkland Trail. Like every neighborhood along a car-line, stops should have refreshments. And bathrooms.

      Years ago, I had hopes that a really good cafe in a loft building behind the Moss Bay Brewery on Leary way would be such a beginning. I saw the expanding cargo bike industry become the freight trucks.

      Population for what we call Transit Oriented Development would have been a town in the interurban days. So bikes, trains, and buses all three, I think transit should start its design by taking the lead in building the communities it wants to serve.

      That’s how Cleveland got Shaker Heights, and the country got a lot of parks, amusement and others.

      Mark Dublin

  7. Issue #5: Limited bike lane/path network and people parking in and otherwise blocking the bike lanes that do exist. If people feel their lives will be at risk when they are forced in to mixed traffic (translation: cars always win), they’ll just drive or take an Uber.

  8. 8. Lack of a major corporate sponsor, such as Nike funding Biketown in Portland.

    Double plus it is a sponsor that has people working for it that seem to understand how such a system works. We got stations where they make a network.

    The adidas Portland office maybe would like to sponsor a bike share system in a nearby city?

    1. The bicycle lifts seem like a very good idea for Seattle, every street from the regrade to Pioneer Square is steep to climb on foot, let alone pedal. But I’m curious about the mechanism, starting with what happens if a cable breaks.

      And ST’s experience with elevators and escalators indicates that neither transit, its spec-writers, nor attorneys can prevent present system-wide performance levels, maybe we ought to let our own shops create it and keep it running.


  9. Pronto “failed” as a profit-making enterprise, but so would essentially any other part of our transportation infrastructure. Judge the Interstate highway system or any public transit system by the same metric and they’re massive failures.

    I think the biggest factor is the small network size. I occasionally travel to an area within the Pronto zone, but I almost never travel between two places in the zone. I’d guess the same is true for a very large fraction of Seattleites.

    1. It also drastically underperforms by comparison with the usage rates and revenue of comparable systems. Just because profit is not the goal does not mean that no performance metrics may be used.

    1. Since the profit-making Wall Street Journal – not a criticism, because to its clientele, ability to make profits is equivalent to a technical certificate, like for an electrician or plumber- won’t let me read the whole article, I’m not seeing the whole argument.

      If the average helmet isn’t giving the protection it’s supposed to, isn’t this more a matter of design engineering than law?


  10. I think there is a 5% chance, that the person or people who made this decision have realized something no-one else has about bikeshare in hilly cities, and a 95% chance that we’ll be back here in two years, with egg on our faces, passing that hat once again to pay for Seattle Bikeshare 3.0.

    The islands of bike share down in the Rainier Valley don’t make much sense to me — those stations should be moved up to Mount Baker, Beacon Hill and the Central District, to beef up the marginal network desnsity there. Otherwise, the Motivate network seems like a decent start. I have no fucking clue what the Bewegen people think they’re doing on Queen Anne.

  11. Given the cost of a decent used or new mid-grade bike (no, not some souped-up racing/road bike), it is no wonder it failed. Most people can afford a couple hundred dollars for a bike if they want one, particularly with buses in Seattle equipped with bike racks so you can take yours along with you, start to end on your trip. Maybe, just maybe, we don’t have more people on bikes because of hilly terrain, rainy weather, need to be clean and presentable in a workplace which may or may not have shower (or a germaphobic nature related to foot fungus in public showers), lack of safety on busy city streets, and need to manage time & inability to squeeze in a shower at work after a sweaty rainy bike ride and the start of the work day. People who want to bike already own a bike. We need a bike rental service about as much as we need a couch rental service. Lack of desire to ride a bike through puddles, get soaking wet, get hit by a car, and have to take multiple showers per day are what keep me from riding. Moreover, it isn’t a good use of my time.

    1. It’s not that simple. Bike share is design for short trips – a 10 minute ride isn’t long enough to get sweaty enough to require a shower. If you pedal at a leisurely pace, it’s not any more strenuous than a 10-minute walk to a bus stop. Basically, like jogging, but a lot less effort.

      Nor is it sufficient to say that bike share is useless of people that already own a bike. I personally own four bikes, but I am still a Pronto member because when the stations are in the right spot, it’s less hassle to use one of their bikes than my own. Why? Well, there’s multiple reasons. To begin a trip with one of my bikes, I first go downstairs to the parking garage and unlock it from the bike rack. It’s a good minute or two to just get the lock off, and moving the other three bikes I’m not riding that day out of the way. Then, since I typically ride less than once a week, the tires are usually low on air, so every trip requires checking the tires and adding air. If I’m lucky, this can take as little as a minute or two. But it can can take as long as 10 minutes or more to pump air if I have bad luck getting the pump aligned with the tire value. Then, if I don’t want my bike getting stolen at the other end, I have to lug a lock with me (ideally two locks to be more secure), and spend another few minutes locking the bike up at the destination. By contrast, with a Pronto key fob, locking and unlocking a bike takes mere seconds. And I don’t have to worry about my bikes getting stolen. Furthermore, I get flexibility. I can bike to a bus/train station and have the option to return home a different route without needing to make a special trip to the bike rack just to take my bike home.

      And, as I mentioned earlier, there are lot of trips you can take in Seattle that avoid going up and down hills. Along the Burke-Gilman is a prime example. Ideally, the stations would be located at the elevation of the trail, so you can do the steeper parts of your trip walking without the weight of a bike to carry, using the bike for the longer, flatter sections. In practice, Pronto has, by and large, not done this with their station placement, but that’s a problem with Pronto in particular, not bikeshare in general.

  12. Over the years, haven’t some places- maybe college towns- just left older and hard-used bicycles, usually with “coaster brakes”, meaning no hand levers or gears, on simple stands around town for people to ride and then leave the bike for somebody else. Any chance?


    1. Yes. You might have to get a different coupler design.

      But then if you go with a bike trailer you have to make the platforms longer.

      If you do that, you might as well just get longer cars and have sections of the car with no seats for bike use or strollers or luggage or standing room. That seems to be what many places are doing.

      1. Oh, also: a lot of lines in Europe use turning loops with cabs at only one end. It would be hard to do a trailer with a route that requires reversing. Seattle currently has zero streetcar turning loops.

  13. I was a software engineer for many years. As I got older and better at my craft, I started to approach things differently. One of the first things I would do when I had to solve a difficult task is ask myself a simple question: Has anyone else solved this problem?

    The civic leaders in this town need to do this as well. When it comes to transit, or really any other public issue, we need to stop thinking we are a special snowflake. We aren’t trying to invent bike sharing here. It has been used in many cities, and there is plenty of science on the subject. The study you linked to (in the previous piece) by NACTO lays it our really clearly (

    Yes, Zach, you are 100% correct. Of course our hills make things a bit more difficult. We have pockets of density spread out all over the city. Our weather is often bad. But these are all problems that all those cities have had to deal with to various degrees. But the studies are clear: Stop spacing and coverage are key. By all means we can tweak the lines a bit to favor major destination like transit centers or major bike paths (like the Burke Gilman) but the most important thing is to cover as much of the city as you can as densely as you can.

    We aren’t a special snowflake.

    1. We’re a little bit special.

      From the NACTO site:

      “Protected bike infrastructure that takes people where they want to go must be introduced with bike share system launches and expansions to ensure that people of all cycling abilities will feel comfortable using the system.”

      The area where Pronto was launched has precious little “protected bike infrastructure” along with massive traffic and an ongoing construction boom that makes riding downtown pretty unpleasant.

      And I will point out that none of the cities NACTO studied has the same elevations changes as the area covered by the Pronto rollout.

      I will hypothesize, and I think there is plenty of evidence to support this, that bikeshare is most successful in areas with a dense network of of low grade, low speed, low traffic, all ages bikeways — either protected lanes or side streets.

      Unfortunately, “low grade, low speed, low traffic, all ages” describes almost none of the current Pronto service area.

  14. I use Pronto several times per month and have been a member since they first started. I have followed the politics around it and I think I have a pretty good feel for what turns people on and off about Pronto; that is, I think I can help answer your questions and I have some confidence in the utility of my answers.

    -Helmets: NOT AN ISSUE. They are free (for members), clean, and easy to use. You pick them up in key-coded box by the bike, and drop them off in another box next to it.
    -Fee structure: It’s only $85 for a WHOLE YEAR. That is only a lot of money if you don’t use it.
    -Station density: Yes and No — I stop and think of what my route would be to use Pronto, and sometimes it’s too round-about so I’ll choose a long walk, car2go, or transit.
    -Stations (extent of coverage): This is a big issue. I live in a central neighborhood and have to walk 10 minutes until I’m in the coverage area. But even if I did live in the coverage area, only a fraction of the places I want to go are in it. Additionally, the coverage area is limited yet elongated instead of spread out like radially, with the effect that there is no where you could possibly live where you would be surrounded by adjacent neighborhoods that are in the coverage area.
    -Seattle’s hilly topography: Yes, it’s an issue — You can ride from ID to Capitol Hill and you’ll find it’s not that fun with the current bikes, even though it’s doable. You’ll prefer to bike the other way and take car2go or the train back.
    -Pricing Structure: It is excellent for people willing to fork over less than one month’s cell phone bill for a whole year. But for single riders, it is never going to be super simple because you’re not a member with a member key, meaning…you have to figure out payment each time instead of just using your key card (right? I’ve always been a member so on this topic I’m unsure).

    I will point out that one of the biggest reasons I won’t use Pronto on a given trip is because I will be with a group of people, and unless every person is a member (which never happens), then no one will use Pronto.

  15. I’m a cyclist but not a bike commuter. An amenity that would mean far more to me than bike share would be secure parking. I had a wheel stolen from the Mountlake Terrace transit center and it has reduced my use of the station substantially. I’d like to see day use bike lockers secured by an ORCA card or mobile app.
    Apartments and businesses should be incentivized to offer secure bike parking. For many low-income residents, a lack of secure parking is an obstacle to bike usage.

  16. I am surprised no one (seemed to have) mentioned pronto bikes are really heavy and hard to bike. I am an annual member, and have been making a couple dozens of trips, but since my first ride I was wondering why the bikes were designed that way. It takes a lot of effort to ride uphill with those bikes.

    Also if you take a look at Yelp Pronto reviews, a lot of poor ratings from one-time customers saying they wouldn’t rent from Pronto again. They thought it was a scam without knowing they needed to dock the bikes every 30 minutes and needed to pay a hundred bucks for a daily use. It certainly hurts the reputation of the bike sharing program.

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