Wolfsburg bike share
Bewegen Pedelec bikes in Wolfsburg, Germany
After my piece yesterday regarding Seattle’s choice for a new bike share vendor, I spoke with Andrew Glass Hastings, who runs SDOT’s transit division. Glass Hastings has been deeply involved with the procurement process to date and provided some great insights about the state of negotiations with Bewegen, the preferred vendor, as well as SDOT’s overall vision for the new bike share service.  A few themes emerged from our conversation.

  • SDOT views bike share as a compliment to transit, not a tourist service. 
    Glass Hastings was emphatic that SDOT is seeking to build a service that can be an integrated part of the transit network.  He cited Pronto’s recent decision to move a station next to the UW light rail station, which resulted in a 10x increase in usage, as evidence of the transit-focused approach.
  • Station density is key
    A dense mesh of stations is required to make bike share work as transit.  SDOT gets this and while they may not hit 1,000-foot station spacing like New York, they are committed to a much higher station density than Pronto.  Station locations in the proposals I linked to represent a first guess, but one that will likely change over time.   If you’re like me, you’re wondering how we can increase station density with a fixed number of bikes.  Well, that’s because…
  • The service area is also provisional
    SDOT is committed to serving the core downtown-adjacent networks and fanning out as funds become available, but not at the expense of diluting the overall station density.  The precise boundary will be driven by the amount of sponsorship money received, which will in turn drive the number of bikes and stations the city can afford.  Glass-Hastings was also clear that sponsors would provide capital and branding, but would not drive service area decisions, as was the case with Pronto.
  • Electric is a must-have
    I said electric bikes were a gamble on the future, and they are, but Glass Hastings noted that many systems are moving to electric – pedal assist – bikes right now.  Seattle won’t be an outlier in a few years. He also noted that, right or wrong, there’s a strong feeling throughout the city that a lack of pedal-assist is what’s preventing success.  In other words: most people feel that it’s not the weather holding bike share back; it’s the hills.  Additionally, the power requirements to charge the bikes aren’t prohibitive. The stations can draw power from modest power sources like a street light.
  • The financial relationship will be very different this time
    For various reasons, bike share is the only form of public transit that’s expected to be fiscally break-even.  That means getting the incentives right for a public-private partnership so no one is left holding the bag.  The city & sponsors are providing the up front capital, but the vendor is on the hook to make the ridership and operations profitable.

Overall I’m reminded of an important bit of advice I learned in my years as a consultant: the client never accepts the proposal as-is. The proposal is the start, not the end, of a negotiation. When the new system is up and running next year, it will look quite different from what’s on paper today.

52 Replies to “SDOT: Station Density and Pedal-Assist Bikes are the Keys to Bike Share”

  1. He’s countering the empirical, data-driven recommendations of NACTO regarding the critical importance of station spacing with a notion of “strong feeling throughout the city” (whatever that means) in favor of spending the money on electric bikes instead.

    Sorry if I remain unconvinced.

    1. Perhaps this wasn’t clear in the article, but SDOT is very much committing to getting as close as they can to NACTO-recommended station spacing. Much closer than the current system, that’s for sure.

      But skepticism is good! You shouldn’t be convinced until you/we see the full map.

      1. what data was used to decide that the system had to be electric? “a strong feeling”. the RFP gave a preference to an electric bike system meaning the other proposals didn’t really have a chance compared to the electric one.

  2. “In other words: most people feel that it’s not the weather holding bike share back; it’s the hills.”

    Not, you know, not being able to get to the vast majority of the city without roaming outside the station area?

    1. The vast majority of the city is low-slung single-family housing that is not dense enough to be a significant driver of bike trips.

    2. Or single-family housing whose residents, if they want to bike, will get one of their own. Because if they’re biking to the store, the store will be the same distanced the next week and they’ll need a bike then. Or if they’re biking long distances like I did from the U-District to Golden Gardens and the waterfront and Alki, bikeshare won’t be suitable.

      1. I have two bikes. I’m thinking of getting a third. If Pronto actually worked the way that good bike share systems work, I would use it more than I use any of bikes. It would be on the other end of my bus ride. It would enable me to take fun one way trips. It would change my world. But it being electric would probably not change anything.

    3. Did they bother to do any surveys or other research on why the current system is failing, or do they just “feel” that the lack of electric assist is the cause? Lack of electric assist hasn’t prevented me from joining; but insufficient station density and coverage have prevented me from getting a membership, and the high cost of single trips has prevented me from ever even trying it. This comes from an avid cyclist.

      I don’t think they went big enough (bike fleet and # of stations) initially, and they priced single trips way too high and annual memberships too low.

  3. How about actually completing the Bike Master Plan as it stands now, without watering it down to nothing, and without pushing its completion out to when all the current cyclists will be dead of old age (hopefully) or unfortunate encounters with cars or road defects?

    Let’s start with the Burke Missing Link and finish it by next year, and then we can talk bike share again.

    1. Because completing the bike master plan is politically fraught for reasons that have little to do with funding and everything to do with people not wanting to give up their parking spaces. If we say no bike share until the Bike Master Plan is complete, then Seattle will never have bike share.

      Ultimately, bike share and bike lanes are not an either-or proposition. We need both.

      1. I’m worried that the city’s approach to bike share is actually going to make it more difficult to build safe bike infrastructure. What was the point in sinking $1 million in Pronto, only to abandon it? That could have gone to sidewalks, bike lanes, or even the new bike share system. As it is, it’s just an indefensible waste of money that will give the Seattle Times and its followers something justifiable to gripe about.

  4. I have to admit I never used Pronto (I don’t live downtown and when I was there, the busses are just so convenient), but I was wondering about the actual experience for using these systems. Can anyone walk up to a station, swipe their Orca card or credit card, and take a bike? Or do I need to register online, get a membership card in the mail etc… like ZipCar?

    1. @Stephen: if you want to do a short-term pass it’s more like the former; if you want to do an annual membership it’s more like the latter.

    2. If you have the annual plan it’s convenient. You get a bike key that can quickly unlock a bike without using the kiosk. The price is pretty low.

      If you aren’t subscribed, you have to pay $8 for a day pass… and you only get 30 minutes of biking at a time. You also need to use your credit card at the kiosk. I didn’t try pronto for years because I could never justify paying $8 for a 30 minute bike ride.

      I work downtown, so it’s handy for me to have a bike available. I can bike down to get lunch, or do a quick ride after work on the elliot bay trail. Or bike to the light rail, and then head to capitol hill after work.

      If you have the subscription, it’s also a lot cheaper than the bus for short downtown trips.

      I think the biggest problems are station density, the tiny service area, and the hassle of using it without a subscription. It should definitely be plugged into ORCA, but I’ve heard no talk of them fixing that.

      1. I STILL don’t comprehend the absurdly short 30-minute ride time! It’s not as if there’s someone waiting at the destination kiosk, waiting to check out the bike I’m riding. The average bike in the Pronto system is ridden less than once a day.

      2. I’m wondering the same thing RDPence. The only thing I can think of is that longer trips would then start needing locks for people making stops with bikes kept out longer.

  5. How much do pedal assisted bikes cost? How much maintenance do they require? How will SDOT prevent them from being stolen, chopped up and sold for parts?

    It seems like our money would be better spent on more bike lanes instead.

    1. The Pedelec bikes cost $3150 apiece, and the city is paying about $3.1M for 900 of them (Bewegen is providing the remaining 300). For context, the Let’s Move Seattle levy will spend at least $64M on Bicycle safety improvements, plus more for the complete streets projects.

      1. Thanks for the info Frank. I wonder what the yearly maintanence cost will be? At 3k$ apiece, these are going to dissapear…

  6. My last bike was a heavy steel frame home-painted with red enamel, a coaster brake, and a balloon front tire and a racing-bike rear one. Great for concrete curbs full-speed. But someplace flat for miles all directions.

    Closest comparable bike I’ve recently seen was a black present-day Chinese equivalent of a ’51 Chevy, with a serious saddle-basket behind the seat. Coaster brake again. Thought about buying it. But it would have pulled not only the rack but also the front end off a bus.

    So really curious. For Seattle, is an electric motor really a dispensable option? But also, what’s the heaviest-weight rider the average electric bike can carry up Spring or Madison? Thanks for the update.


    1. Do you mean literally ‘carry’? My ebike weighs 58lb. I ride up Spring (and then University) from 4th ave downtown up to Cap.Hill several times a week. I certainly can’t carry it, and I can’t even pick it up high enough to put on a bus bike rack. If the bike ran out of battery, I’d probably have to walk it up the steepest part of that route. That’s doable (walking it up), just not fun.

      1. No problem, Joyce. Really, nobody talks about what a bike can carry nowadays. Term is for things like trucks and coal cars. Might better have asked “What’s the weight of the heaviest rider who can take a standard bike up Madison Street between I-5 and Boren?”

        Or, since people’s strength counts for more than their weight, question might have been, “Can the average person ride a bike up this hill without dismounting?” Though because we’re talking about the bike itself doing the propelling, “carry” might be all right. I’m now going to check and see if anybody knows.


  7. My Pronto membership is up for renewal in a few weeks. If I renewed it, would I get a partial refund if Pronto disbanded before the end of the year?

  8. How have they not figured out they need to take advantage of the Burke as an extension of Link after all of this? Station density = good. Stations where people want to bike connected to transit = better.

    1. I happen to live next to the one Pronto Station along the Burke that does allow Pronto to function as an extension of Link. Unfortunately, it’s just one station. As a rule of thumb, anywhere the Burke-Gilman trail intersects a road within 3’ish miles of the Husky Link Station, there should be a bikeshare Station. The bikeshare stations need to be located immediately adjacent to the trail. This way, the hilly climb up out of the trail can be done on foot (possibly up staircases), with the bikes doing what bikes do best, which is faster travel along flat ground.

      1. I agree with everything that has been said. It is easy to just focus on contiguous density when it comes to mapping out an area where bikeshare makes sense. But you need to allow that for much of the city, biking is really bad, and other parts it is really good. The Burke is one of those really good places.

      2. Yes! Bikeshare works where there is low grade, low speed, low traffic, all ages bike infrastructure.

        Repeat after me:

        low grade, low speed, low traffic, all ages bike infrastructure
        low grade, low speed, low traffic, all ages bike infrastructure
        low grade, low speed, low traffic, all ages bike infrastructure
        low grade, low speed, low traffic, all ages bike infrastructure

  9. I have to laugh at how Seattle is pushing electric bicycles here – yet is one of the most unfriendly cities around for scooter and motorcycles including ones with electric power.

    – Parking rates and restrictions are just like cars.
    – Parking meter stickers get easily stolen.

    Special, cheaper metered parking with no stickers is badly needed.

  10. Seems like a summer only station at the Pier 91 cruise ship terminal could be popular.

    The only time I ever saw anyone on a Pronto was a group of three people wandering around in Magnolia on them. So, the Burke-Gilman isn’t the only bike path people are willing to use.

  11. How about a station at the new elevator from South Kirkland P&R up to The Trail, another one at Google, and another one at Kirkland Transit Center? And at whatever transit stops come in between Kirkland and Totem Lake, on the trail itself at the foot of stairs and elevators from bus stops on 405. Useful whether or not a street car line is every built along the trail.

    While they’ll probably always be there ’til the property owners take them down- their realtors must already be telling them the signs lower their property value, at least they probably won’t add pictures of electric bikes among the larger menaces. Though if they listen, a prospective buyer might insist a few dollars come off for noise of chain links, tires, and pedal bearings.

    Those bells have got to go. But since helmet laws persist, though maybe helmets can be molded shaped like wildcat skulls with headphones inside, maybe the music channel will also add a bicycle bell tone. Or a locomotive whistle. Or a streetcar bell, except Trail Savers will claim they can hear it anyway because their scanners pick them up.

    And those blinding rear fender reflectors will have to go.

    Finally, does ST-3 have plans to include bike stations at LINK ones, serving the entire region-wide trail network the project should also include? Itself including amenities, refreshments, and also bike repair?


  12. If they really see it as transit, why don’t they plug it into orca?

    It seems like the city is kind of wishy washy about bike sharing. I’m hoping this plan will improve.

    1. I’ve heard the system is technologically compatible with Orca cards, but negotiating fares with the other Orca stakeholders is likely a major hurdle.

      1. I’ve heard this before as an excuse for not doing something simple that will potentially benefit every subarea in the region.

        So tell me, what can anybody lose by letting ORCA cards work for the bike racks? Nothing to stop anybody from Burien from using them.

        And Angle Lake is right next to a park, isn’t it? Reason that, whatever happens with official bike-sharing, why not have bike supporters do scrap drives for parts, and assembler “beaters” to be ridden and left for the next person to find and ride?

        Understand they used to do this in California when it was still part of Mexico.


      2. It seems that it would be technically simple to support ORCA, but politically difficult to decide on the value of a transfer from a bike to another transportation mode, and vice versa. The state ferries sidestep the issue by not accepting any transfers, but they have a monopoly in their market and can get away with it. There’s lots of competition with bike share (private bikes/cars, walking, bus, train, etc.) so you really want to have a transfer to make it most useful but it dilutes the pot of money that fares represent.

  13. Should have mentioned that in old Mexican California, since neither bikes nor electronic doubloons had been invented, none of the subareas cared about apportioning revenue for the horses that vaqueros (cowboys) and also touristas like Robert Louis Stevenson, could always been found eating fuel.

    None of the Grandees like Zorro’s dad raised any objections. Or Zorro, though anybody trying to ride-share his horse got a Z carved in their rear end.

    Up in the Mother Lode, future Marin County was having enough trouble designing a burro-driven Harley. But this is where, for us, Rapid Ride comes in. SR99 and Pac Highway E and A lines go by enough relevant social establishments for for solid community input on their local form of ride-sharing.

    Except without needing a tire chain or crowbar to get your next bike. Characteristic Harley engine sound effect can go through ear-plugs, though still draw noise citations. Really serious problems will be bus bike racks and hooks inside LINK cars. But ORCA should have no subarea related problems, because I’ve never met a single public official who did not want to live.


  14. One relatively quick way to essentially improve the station density:
    adopt a system to allow people to lock it to anything on the home area. See Pronto vs Biketown.

    It means no charging when disconnected from a station, but maybe give members an additional cash incentive beyond Biketown $5 with the assumption the electric assist battery will be dead?

  15. I hope the Council considers bike share (and the CCC streetcar) in the context of the many projects the electorate voted to support in fall 2014 ( TBD for transit service) and 2015 (Move Seattle levy for transportation capital) that seem under funded: pavement management, sidewalks, seven RapidRide lines, electric trolley bus overhead, bike master plan. Sidewalks on transit arterials that lack them seem a more critical investment than bike share; there the transit master plan and the pedestrian master plan complement each other and Vision Zero.

  16. I really want the bikeshare to work. My biggest issue is that the neighborhoods most in need of bikeshare are the ones that are dense but lacking light rail. I work in Fremont and I see people on Prontos over here all the time. I would use the lightrail at UW frequently from Fremont but it’s such a cluster to get there by bus when it would be easier and quicker by pronto. The pronto stations at UW have had the worst results because it’s easier to take the light rail from their downtown or to capitol hill, but if people could use them to get to Fremont and Ballard, I would imagine they’d be much more popular.

    Additionally, I do think some of the less dense areas should have a minimal number of bikeshare stations as a feeder into the Rapid Ride bus network. For instance, I live in the Interbay-Magnolia area and I am about 2 miles from the Rapid Ride. It’s a 40 minute walk, the bus service north is only during working hrs M-F and I refuse to ever take my actual bike on the bus. I’d be more than willing to walk 10-15 minutes to a bike share to get to Rapid Ride stop. Isn’t there a way they can provide minimal service to less dense areas so people can connect to transit?

    1. Why are they in Fremont?

      low grade, low speed, low traffic, all ages bike infrastructure

      1. Exactly! UW-Wallingford-Fremont-Ballard (to a degree) is the rare example of all ages infrastructure thanks to the Burke. More than anything, it’s the fact that it’s flat.

  17. I had a chance to ride another bike share system for the first time last week in Washington DC. There were a lot of differences with Pronto including station density, the layout of the city, helmet laws, the size of the system and the “numbers” effect of seeing other riders everywhere. However the biggest difference I noticed was that for essentially the same bike, riding in flat DC took far less effort.

    Bike share has hopefully reached critical mass by now as a transportation option nationwide and worldwide (Seattle may need a few more years to let this sink in). With systems in Vancouver, Portland, the Bay Area, LA, etc. there’s no longer any danger of an “it can’t work on the West Coast” roadblock. So I see no reason to assume this will be the last expansion. And the expansion area will inevitably contain hills with various levels of difficulty. We’re going to switch to an electric system at some point. It probably makes more sense to switch now rather than when we’re looking at a system five or ten times as large. My biggest fear with an electric expansion was that it would be used as an excuse to get token coverage from Ballard to Sand Point as well as the Rainier Valley while sacrificing the usefulness of the entire system, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. Let’s get this expansion done well and then tee up for more.

    1. Including one of the nations premier urban separated bike trails in the service area is not “token coverage”.

      Here is what a 2013 USA Today ranking had to say:

      “This former rail trail is a bike-obsessed city’s pride—and as far as urban bike paths go, arguably the nation’s. Its paved 27 miles begin on Puget Sound in North Seattle and trace the shoreline along the canal and up Lake Washington all the way to the town of Bothell. (A 1.5-mile gap in the Ballard neighborhood is the “missing link.”) One of the most heavily ridden multi-use paths in the country, it’s often called the “backbone” of Seattle’s cycling infrastructure, and its flat terrain, beautiful views, and plentiful access points invite casual cyclists and alley cat messengers alike.”

      Now, in 2016 the BG intersects with the northern terminus of our wildly popular light rail system, the most heavily trafficked cycling bridge in the city, the brand new Westlake separated cycle path as well as the Queen Anne side ship canal trail.

      The UW, lower Stone Way, Fremont and Ballard are densifying incredibly quickly with not only apartments but also office buildings. And cross-town bus routes between these neighborhoods leave much to be desired.

      Not including the Burke Gilman in the Pronto service area is absolute MADNESS!

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