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Seattle City Council may pick failed bike business over homeless

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council must decide if it'll spend $1.4 million to buy a bike share model. (AP)

Though not a surprise, we’ve learned that the Pronto Bike Share program is insolvent, just a year into operation. Perhaps more surprising, in the midst of an emergency with the homeless (so bad the mayor wants to raise taxes to pay for more services), the city may actually buy this failed program.

On Tuesday, the Seattle City Council must decide if it’ll spend $1.4 million to buy a failed bike share model. Most savvy business people would say no, but we have a city filled with activists who govern on dreams, not reality. To that point, the Seattle Department of Transportation wants the city to purchase the bike share before they even present a successful business plan.

“We’re asking for city council to approve the purchase of Pronto assets, stabilize the system, and then come back with detailed expansion information,” SDOT’s Nicole Freedman told The Seattle Times.

Related: The road to Murraysville: Seattle’s homeless crisis

So buy first, then put together a plan later? That’s not risky at all.

Their plan, however, is more of the same. The basic argument is you give them more locations to pick up and drop off bikes, more people will use it. Yes, and if only Blockbuster Video kept expanding, despite Netflix showing newer technology is killing their business, it would still be in business. The reason this bike share isn’t viable has nothing to do with locations; it has everything to do with who they need to attract to stay afloat.

Why did the bike share fail in bike-friendly Seattle? Serious bicyclists are needed to keep a business like this afloat. Serious bicyclists – the one who will make rain-soaked commutes – already own bicycles. And when they don’t feel like riding in an inhospitable climate, they will either bus or drive.

This leaves Pronto casual bikers and tourists, none of which will use the service enough to be financially meaningful; nor should they. It’s rainy and full of hills – that’s not fun, particularly when you can hop on a bus to get around. The city’s hills are so inhospitable to your average bike rides, SDOT even wanted to add electric-bikes to the Pronto stations. They’re so desperate for this to work, they’ll make bad business moves to try to save their dreams.

Just putting a bike station in Northgate or Renton doesn’t mean people will hop on bikes for the commute. This form of transportation, when it comes to daily commuters, is niche. If you’re going to commit to that kind of commute, you’ll buy your own bike, not rent every day.

It makes so much more sense to drive, bus, or use a ride-sharing service in this city. Riding a bike works for very few people (only 3.1 percent of Seattle commuters bike to work, per SDOT data; this is down from the previous Commute Seattle survey). Do we really think this isn’t growing because of lack of Pronto locations? Or is that what bike activists want to believe?

Pronto could have worked if they better controlled costs and realized this has limited appeal, not treating it like it’s offering a service everybody wants. Not even bike activists can claim with a straight face that there is a huge demand for rentable bikes. They don’t even use them: most of them own their own bikes. But instead of making a business that would appeal to tourists and the casual users (a smart business, I would think), they’re hell bent on pretending this is something that tens of thousands would use.

Some will argue that this is also about there not being enough bike infrastructure in place. This is a moving argument, though still based in fantasy. You can have all the protected bike lanes in the world, people still won’t bike their kids to school in the morning, then get to work on time, when they’re commuting from Delridge or Windermere to Downtown. Fremont to South Lake Union or Seattle? That’s doable and the city has accommodated. But can we stop pretending all commutes are the same?

Let’s also not forget we’re in the midst of a homeless crisis. Is now the time to buy a failed business – so bad the federal government refuses to give us grants for – when we could be using the funding for more shelters? Even if you want to keep the funding in the transportation category (we can, after-all, attack homeless and transportation issues at the same time), wouldn’t this money be better spent on expanding bus services, something that actually works and is in demand? We should be doing more for buses, not for bikes.

Shame on the City of Seattle if they purchase Pronto on Tuesday. Too bad ideologues tend not to feel shame. What’s worse, the typical Twitter activists will dismiss anyone who says no to this idea, turning to insults rather than dialogue, and reason will be cast aside as this bad purchase is made.

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