Unlocking a Spin bike Image: Lizz Giordano

Two new bike shares will soon be rolling into town, participating in a pilot program with the city. Trying to succeed where Pronto failed, Spin and LimeBike have adopted a dockless system allowing riders to park just about anywhere. Bikes with the dockless system are self-locking: not even a bike rack or pole is necessary to secure bikes.

Both companies pointed to the limitations of bike share programs that rely on docking stations to secure bikes when asked why they think their bike share will succeed where Pronto failed.

“Spin is a lot more accessible and affordable than previous bike share programs,” said Randy Tovar, a market launcher with Spin.

Dockless models can serve a larger portion of the city and scale up much faster than systems that use docking stations, he added.

Image: Lizz Giordano LimeBike

“Pronto never got as broad as it should have,” said Gabriel Scheer, a bike commuter and director of strategic partnerships for LimeBike. He said many neighborhoods lacking Pronto docking stations made it inconvenient for riders to use the system.

With the dockless system, riders will no longer have to search for a nearby station at the end of rides to lock bikes, eliminating the geographical limitations Pronto faced.

“I’d love to see someone ride to Portland,” Scheer said. Spin was more cautious when asked how far riders could take the bikes, saying the bike share program was permitted by only the City of Seattle. But nothing will stop riders from leaving the city, except maybe cost. 

Both companies charge $1 for a thirty-minute ride.

Setting itself apart, LimeBike, designed for specifically for Seattle, will give riders eight speeds to tackle the city’s hilly terrain, rather than Spin’s three.

“We had to go bigger,”  Scheer said, “The bike was built for Seattle’s hills.”

Scheer sees bike shares being used in areas that are less served by transit. It’s not a silver bullet, not for everyone, he said, but it could move some people that last mile.

The Seattle Department of Transportation is giving companies until the end of the year to experiment with a new bike share models for the city. Companies can start with 500 bikes and add another 500 in the second month, and by the fourth month can expand beyond 2,000.

“This time period gives us the ability to look at the data, and figure out the best system for the city,” said Mafara Hobson, a spokesperson for SDOT.

As part of the pilot program, bike share companies are required to share real-time data on how bicycles move around the city. Which could help SDOT identify deficiencies in the bicycle infrastructure. 

Bikes for both companies are very similar, with a step-through frame with a front basket much like Pronto’s design, but lighter. The bikes use a solar panel, that also doubles as the bottom of the front basket, to power the lock and GPS system. And attached to the front is a pedal generated light. In the rear LimeBike has a flashing red light while Spin uses a red reflector. Both bikes use airless tireless to reduce the need for maintenance. Riders use a smartphone app to locate nearby bikes and scan the bike’s QR code to unlock. Helmets are required but not provided. 

Credit: SDOT Streetscape Zones

The real question waiting to be answered is where riders will park at the end of rides. SDOT requires bikes to be parked on hard surfaces within the landscape/furniture zone  – the area between the roadway curb face and the front edge of the walkway. 

Hobson said SDOT is ultimately holding the bike share companies accountable for making sure bikes are parked correctly. Rules dictated bikes parked incorrectly need to be removed with two hours of receiving notice during business hours, and within 10 hours during other times.

Both companies are ready to launch, each with a stash of bikes ready to the hit the streets once SDOT gives the final OK.

51 Replies to “Learning from Pronto’s Failure”

    1. Exactly this!
      Another magnitude of enforcement will be required through bike parking restriction signage and staff to enforce it.
      Then add on top the forced exclusion of everyone who does not have a smartphone and Sdot should be embarrassed to propose this as a component of transit for all of the citizens of Seattle.

      1. SDOT is not proposing it. It’s a private company for which SDOT has developed regulations.

      2. Fair enough point, however pronto was always framed by the city as a component of transit, so either the city and sdot no longer have the goal of bikeshare as a resource for all residents or they still do and should make that part of the requirements for operation.

      3. This is a private business with no direct subsidy. It would be unwise to put a lot of requirements on it when we’re not even sure if it’s profitable.

      4. And this is a pilot program to see how well it works. The London situation is about different parts of government disagreeing on what constitutes an “unnecessary obstruction” and what priority bikeshare is. London is split up into district councils, like boroughs, that have a lot of autonomy in housing and streetscape matters. In Seattle there’s only one city council that has the last word everywhere, so there won’t be this disagreement between the city and the boroughs, just SDOT.

    1. At least on my PC, firefox just remembers I added an exception. Chrome on my phone makes me click to separate buttons every time.

    2. My desktop Firefox gives me a choice whether to save the exception after the browser quits. My phone Chrome won’t save it at all, the message is scarier, and somtimes it asks twice in a row if I use the back button or go to the home page thrugh the menu.

  1. So a smartphone is going to be required in order to use these bikes? And will there be an annual membership option, or is it strictly a pay-per-ride model?

    1. Pay per ride. According to the Limebike web site you have to make a larger deposit into a ‘wallet’ against which rides are credited. The deposit is refundable. Spin does not say.

      Also appears to be smart-phone only, no card like available for ReachNow car share. Probably a simpler system on each bike than for car share.

    2. In practice, a free-floating system requires a smartphone anyway to tell you where the bikes are. Otherwise, you’re just stuck walking the streets until you happen to stumble upon one.

      I suppose there is some value in enabling the option for someone who doesn’t have a smartphone *and* happens to stumble upon a bike while walking down the street, but not enough to justify the cost of the extra infrastructure to manage it. Smartphones have gotten much cheaper than they were 10 years ago, and the vast majority of people have them. Those that don’t still have Metro’s frequent network to fall back on (the area where service is tolerable without phone apps like OneBusAway).

      1. I believe Citibike (in New York) doesn’t require a smartphone. Once you’re a member, you can use a smartphone or a ride code to access a bike. Obviously a computer helps, as you can view bike stations on a map. I would imagine a lot of people commute and plan things way ahead of time (as a means of getting from their train stop to their work). But I also think in Manhattan, you could get around just fine without a computer (because they are pretty much everywhere). Just walk towards your destination, bike towards it, and find a docking station nearby.

        For the non-docking types, a smartphone is a great advancement. In previous iterations, they would simply flood an area (e. g. a college campus) with bikes, and allow people to just grab one. Of course that meant that you had no idea where they were.

      2. Not all smart phones have the same functionality. I’m assuming you would also need a data plan. My last cheap phone constantly ran out of storage space for apps and was generally not reliable for things like finding a Car 2 Go.

      3. If more and more essential things migrate to smartphones, eventually the government will have to give free phones to everyone who doesn’t have them. Although I hope our society doesn’t get 100% phone dependent, because that breaks down when the power goes out or the phone breaks or is stolen or its battery runs down.

    3. I’m afraid that a smart phone with app installed along with reliable data network will be required. I am now live in China and there are tons of public bicycles in the city like this mode for people to use.

  2. Looking forward to trying the system out. Especially for trips down the Burke-Gilman between Fremont and U-district, which, under Pronto, was sorely missing.

    I have already confirmed through experimentation that simply jogging down the Burke-Gilman trail takes about the same amount of time as waiting 5-10 minutes for the #32 bus on a light-traffic Sunday afternoon. Riding a bike would only be that much faster, plus complete immunity from traffic jams and drawbridge openings.

    1. Right, but that points out the weakness of the system. In some ways it reminds me of hitchhiking. Let’s assume that you don’t feel like jogging (because your old knees can’t handle it). You choice is to take the 31/32 or grab a bike. But sometimes the bike is there, sometimes it isn’t. You really can’t count on it like you would with a typical bike share system. In such a system, even if your preferred station is out of bikes, you know there is another one with bikes a block or two away. If the people in charge notice that a station is always running out, they will add bikes as well.

      I suppose you can adjust on the fly (check the app for bikes and if there aren’t any nearby just take the bus) but the lack of a guaranteed ride really diminishes the value of this type of system.

    2. It depends on how many bikes there are and how many typically are in your area. The case of “No bike” is the same as “No Uber ride”. I’m told that Uber is ubiquidous enough in the city and inner suburbs that summoning a car is never a problem, while in the outer suburbs you may be SOL. If the same thing applies to these bikeshares, then areas around U Village may be fine. Unless most bikes go to UW or downtown in the morning and back in the afternoon. But with U Village being an all-day destination, there will be some people traveling to it mid-day, and some of them may live in the surrounding neighborhoods.

      1. If there’s no bike available, you get on the #32 bus. That’s fine. But, that doesn’t mean that being able to hop on the bike most of the time, when it is there, is not of value.

      2. What if it isn’t a case of “most of the time”, but only “occasionally”. What if the area is only served with a half hour bus, but a good bike share system solves the last mile problem? Now you are basically back to driving. There is a reason why there is a very strong correspondence between bike station density and ridership — folks know they can use the system to get where they want to. If this does indeed create adequate station density, then it will be great. But at the numbers they are talking, I doubt that will happen. On the other hand, with a decent investment in Pronto (a relatively small amount compared to what we pay for typical transit improvements) you could guarantee good station placement as well as adequate bike balancing.

  3. Very glad to at least hear a change regarding rental time and geographic span. Talked to a zillion folks in the transit community when Pronto was failing and consistently ran into this orthodoxy that insisted the problem was station density when it was pretty clearly a lack of neighborhood coverage. How you could expect bike share to succeed without serving Fremont or Ballard is mind-boggling. On top of that the 30-minute limit was so counterproductive to actually going anywhere in a city that is so spread out.

    And good god those Pronto bikes were horrific. That the new bikes seem nimbler, less bulky, and weigh less should help too. Saw one on the street the other day and it looked much more like something you might conceivably derive some pleasure from riding.

    1. It was both station density and coverage. It isn’t clear whether the new bike share plans will have either.

      1. Yes, there could have been better station density. The idea, though, that the lack of density was the sole or even primary problem was dead wrong. And that’s what people associated with the program kept insisting right up until it died. And even after.

        “It isn’t clear whether the new bike share plans will have either”

        Did you read the post? You can leave a Limebike anywhere in the city. The post itself says the new system “eliminates the geographical limitations Pronto faced.

      2. But that doesn’t mean I can pick up a bike anywhere. Good station density and good coverage means precisely that. It means that I can walk out of my house, or my office, or the restaurant — basically anywhere in the city, and find a bike share docking station within a short walk. If all the bikes are taken, there is another one a block away (and folks are busy trying to shuttle bikes to that station).

        Without that, it is like hitchhiking. Sure, you might get lucky and get a ride fairly soon, or you might be sitting by the side of road for hours. Or you simply find another way to get there.

    2. The service-area model was wrong: it was based on sponsors’ locations rather than the most promising bike corridors. Another bikeshare could have started along the Burke-Gilman trail and expanded from there.

      1. Yes yes and yes. Starting at a university well-served by transit and where everyone already owns a (much nicer) bicycle was never a winning idea. Only connecting the university to downtown and not installing stations in Wallingford, Fremont, Ballard, and along the Burke-Gilman doomed the program from the start. The density argument pretends tweaking the system to generate incremental growth would have made a difference.

      2. My impression was that it was mainly downtown and adjacent areas, while the UW and Children’s were more outposts. I don’t understand the station density argument because I saw stations every few blocks; it was only between the outpost islands that didn’t have them. But 43nd to the Hub and Husky Stadium and U Village is a fine length for a bike ride so i don’t see a problem there; the problem was the huge gap between UW and downtown, and the 31-minute surcharge that made traversing that expensive.

        Not “everyone” owns a bicycle. I lived in the U-District for 18 years and had a bike for 13 of them; we were a one-bike household for 3-5 people so my roommate sometimes borrowed it. If I moved to Fremont or Wallingford I might not get a bike right away, and might use a bikeshare occasionally to Ballard, UW, Laurelhurst, or Magnuson Park. It’s certainly better than using Pronto from Bellevue Ave to 5th Ave, which always seemed silly to me when you can walk or bus.

      3. >> I don’t understand the station density argument because I saw stations every few blocks;

        OK, this is much tougher because Pronto has taken down their map, and I can’t find it on the Wayback Machine (Internet Archive). But trust me, i did the numbers, and it was nowhere near what they recommend — https://nacto.org//srv/htdocs/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NACTO_Walkable-Station-Spacing-Is-Key-For-Bike-Share_Sc.pdf.

        There were also huge areas where technically there was coverage, but the station density was so low, it was practically useless. I remember no stations in the U-Village, despite being well within their coverage area. The U-District was poorly covered as well. But probably the worst omission was First Hill. Give the Pronto people some credit. While they obviously ignored hills and bike paths, they at least focused on population density, and serving First Hill and Capitol Hill made sense. Except they served it so poorly — with so few stations — that it was practically useless, even for a simply trip from the Capitol Hill Link Station and most of the Seattle U campus! This was a fairly flat, fairly safe ride, and in most cases, you just couldn’t do it.

      4. Starting at a university well-served by transit and where everyone already owns a (much nicer) bicycle was never a winning idea.

        Bike share systems don’t compete with transit, they complement it. Get off the bus (or train) and ride the bike to your destination. Take a bike a few blocks while at work (instead of taking a bus). Meanwhile, bike ownership is irrelevant, and has nothing to do with bike share systems. I own two bikes, but I would use a good bike share system, because neither of my bikes would magically appear where I am when I need them.

        Only connecting the university to downtown and not installing stations in Wallingford, Fremont, Ballard, and along the Burke-Gilman doomed the program from the start. The density argument pretends tweaking the system to generate incremental growth would have made a difference.

        It is not tweaking, it is simply building what every report on the subject says works. Density matters. Of course you want more coverage. That is exactly what they had planned. But without more station density, it was bound to disappoint, just as it did before. Put it this way, what if they did add Fremont, Ballard, Laurelhurst (oh, that area is critical) and Magnuson Park, but only added one station in each neighborhood (similarly to how they treated First Hill)? Do you really think that would have saved the system? Of course not. On the other hand, imagine the opposite, and imagine that Capitol Hill, First Hill, the U-District, the UW, downtown and South Lake Union (and all places in between) all had a bike share station on each block. Of course you would see a big increase, as it would simply work for a lot more trips.

  4. “Helmets are required but not provided.”

    This is the part the most confuses me. How many people own a bike helmet but not a bike?

    1. Or better yet: who walks around with a bike helmet all day because there is some small chance they might use bike share?

      They’re saying what they have to say legally, with the tacit understanding that SPD (thankfully) isn’t expending resources enforcing bike helmet laws.

      1. who walks around with a bike helmet all day because there is some small chance they might use bike share?

        Well said. That really is the nature of this system — maybe there is a bike, maybe there isn’t. I can definitely see value in that. When I miss my bus, I start walking. If there happens to be a bike there, then great, I’ll take it. But there is no way I’m carrying around a helmet all day when I’m not sure if there will be a bike within a mile of where I am.

    2. I did like that Pronto provided free helmets. Personally, even if riding without a helmet were legal I wouldn’t want to do it. Riding around downtown with traffic and train tracks can be dangerous.

      They could just leave a helmet on the bike itself… you would need to worry about lice if it weren’t cleaned regularly though.

      1. Actually, that is a pretty good idea if they could figure out a nice liner for it. A bike helmet is heavy, and thus no one wants to carry it around. You do if you have to, but not if you can avoid it. But a nice liner could easily fit in a purse, backpack, or even a pocket, if the material was thin enough. Something like a surgical cap, perhaps. There seem to be some cool ones out there, too: https://surgicalcaps.com/collections/surgical-caps/products/surgical-caps-lighting-strike

      2. That’s what Vancouver does for its Mobi bike share system since BC has a mandatory helmet law. They provide disposable liners at stations and the helmet is stored on the bike.

      3. What you want is a basic cycling cap. I wear one under my helmet all the time. The cap is washable and keeps the helmet from getting sweaty, it provides a useful visor, it prevents the worst forms of “helmet head” (my hair still gets matted down, but at least it gets matted down evenly), and it’s small and flexible enough to stuff into a pocket when not in use. Cycling caps are also better for running than most running caps, because they’re actually designed to not catch the wind, whereas running caps are like baseball caps, you have to put ’em on super tight or they’ll blow away.

        The downside is that they tend to be subject to the markup that all “bikey” things are — so they’re unjustifiably expensive for their typically sloppy construction and cheap materials. Maybe prices would come down if they were more of a mass-market practical thing.

    3. “How many people own a bike helmet but not a bike?”

      None, but buying a helmet is not the main problem, you can invest in it for the next couple decades like you do with anything else. The problem is carrying it around everywhere. I did that when I owned a bike and parked it somewhere for a few hours, but I wouldn’t take it around if I weren’t sure I was going to bikeshare that day.

      1. Might change with bikeshare?

        20 years ago, who would have thought there were people who had drivers licenses and drove all the time, but didn’t own a car? (albeit a bit different)

      2. I like my head, and always ride with a helmet. I’m unlikely to carry it around with me just in case I wanted to bike share. If they’re not providing helmets, I’ll be significantly less likely to ever use it. I suppose we’re just supposed to be grateful that it’s not bring your own brakes as well.

    4. Actually, two of my helmets had a ventilation hole large enough for a U-lock, so i strung the helmet in the lock, along with a lightweight jacket sometimes, so i didn;t have to carry them. But when I carried it I closed the straps around one of the main straps on my backpack..

      1. Anyone have any recommendations for thin, light bike helmets that are easy to carry around in a bag all day?

  5. I saw one of the orange ride share bikes in lower Queen Anne this morning. That’s sooner than I expected!

  6. Its worth a try. Maybe cruise ships and hotels in Seattle can start keeping bike helmets that their guests can check out when they rent bikes.

  7. Welp, I tried to sign up for LimeBike, fat fingered some credit card info when entering so it didn’t authorize, there was no retry and no way to go through it again. I went to support thinking there may have been something I overlooked but no:

    “Thank you for contacting LimeBike customer support. I have looked over your account customers are not able to add or remove credit card information once the account has been created. You can create a new account with your information if you need to immediately. If you have any other questions or concerns, do not hesitate to reach out, we’re happy to help.”

    12 million in VC funding (announced in March) and they made an app where you can’t change or update your credit card information, and they don’t even have the customer support to facilitate it either (hope your card doesn’t get lost or stolen or expire). LimeBike is not ready for primetime, I guess they must have rushed out what they had because Spin was coming.

    Spin, meanwhile, has a functioning payment methods section AND bikes in my neighborhood which Pronto never reached before. (8 million in VC funding announced in May, for anyone curious.)

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