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Proponents make the case to purchase Seattle’s bike-sharing program

The City of Seattle is considering purchasing the Pronto! bike sharing service for $1.4 million. (AP)

A Seattle City Council committee heard arguments to spend $1.4 million to purchase the city’s bike-share program on Tuesday.

“Sometime this year, ideally before March 30, we have to write a check to somebody,” Council member Rob Johnson said as he broke down what Seattle is facing.

“We either write a million-plus dollar check back to the federal government and King County for the grants we’ve received and shut the (Pronto!) system down. Or we write a million and a half check to Pronto! to take on the assets and allow the system to live for another year while we determine its financial feasibility,” he said. “Either way we are writing a check.”

Related: Who is using Pronto?

While the City of Seattle has been supportive of Pronto! and partially assisted with getting it rolling, it does not own any part of it. The purchase the city is considering would be to buy the non-profit’s assets &#8212 the bikes and the stations. The city would then ride out a contract with Motivate, a third party that operates the system. After that, the city will shop around for the best deal to manage and operate the bike share.

But that is if the city purchases the bike share. So far, at least one council member &#8212 Rob Johnson &#8212 who also serves on the Sustainability and Transportation Committee currently vetting the plan, wants to kick it into gear for the council to vote on it.

Council member Mike O’Brien has also been favorable of the proposal.

“I fundamentally believe that bike share is one of the multi-modal transportation tools that cities need to have and Seattle absolutely can be successful in this,” O’Brien said.

“However we decide to proceed, I believe ultimately we are going to have one of the best bike share systems in the world right here in Seattle,” he said.

The proposal to purchase the program remains at the committee level. The Sustainability and Transportation Committee will meet with city staff at its next meeting and possibly vote to forward it to the council.

“Myself and my colleagues are going to have to make some decisions about what happens next, and part of that is understanding what went wrong the first time and what can we learn from it, and are we confident in the second iteration those same mistakes aren’t going to happen,” O’Brien said.

Under consideration

Active Transportation Director Nicole Freedman briefed the council committee Tuesday and said that Pronto! has struggled in its short lifespan so far &#8212 just over a year &#8212 but that struggle can easily be alleviated.

For example, Freedman notes, Pronto’s government was not running inline with best practices that other peer cities use. It is a non-profit and as such, it would have likely been better run if it managed its own system instead of hiring a third party. That sort of model is better if a much larger entity, like a city, operated it, she said.

Freedman also said that when Pronto! started out it had “unrealistic expectations for its ridership.” Pronto’s ridership is perfectly acceptable for a ride share system of its size &#8212 54 stations. But projects went beyond that and based on those projections the bike share took out loans it then paid for through sponsorships.

“The projection we had were optimistic and there was an expectation we would get more sponsorship than we did,” Freedman said.

But that doesn’t mean Pronto! is not a good buy, Freedman said, noting that part of what has held the system back from full success is its small size. Other cities with successful bike share systems had to grow to their success.

Freedman referred to other cities similar to Seattle &#8212 with populations of roughly 600,000 &#8212 their bike share systems and how they grew.

• Denver: 40 stations to 86 stations
• Minneapolis: 65 stations to 169 stations
• Boston: 61 stations to 150 stations
• Washington DC: 49 stations to 339 stations
• Chicago: 75 stations to 476

The meager size of the program might be why some Seattleites haven’t used the system yet, because while the bikes are located around popular destinations, they aren’t located where Seattleites actually live, in places such as Wallingford, Roosevelt or the Central District, for example.

Standing in front of the Amazon campus in South Lake Union, near a Pronto! station, Jonathan Wahlgren said he might be riding a Pronto! bike to work, but there aren’t any near him.

“I live over in Ballard and there is no Pronto! stop up there,” he said. “If there were, I might consider using it for commuting. But because there isn’t I haven’t had a strong incentive to give it a try.”

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