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.
*$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.
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