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A Pronto bike-share station at the University of Washington student gym.

The fate of Seattle’s bike-share program will be decided later this month.

Photo by Kevin Lisota.
Photo by Kevin Lisota.

The city’s transportation committee on Tuesday voted 3-3 on legislation that would direct $1.4 million to buy out Seattle’s bike-share program. The ordinance will be sent without recommendation to full council for a final vote on March 14.

Those who voted for the legislation included Councilmembers Rob Johnson, Kshama Sawant, and Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the bill and chairs the committee. Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Tim Burgess, and Debora Juarez voted against it.

Update, March 3: The Seattle Times reported that the committee actually voted 4-2 in favor of the ordinance — Juarez voted “aye” into the microphone, but O’Brien thought she voted against it. So, the bill goes to full council with the committee’s recommendation to approve the buy-out of Pronto.

The existing bike-share program, called Pronto Cycle Share, launched in October 2014 as a public-private partnership. Late last year, the council originally set aside $5 million to expand the program, but plans changed after Pronto reported that it was “insolvent” due to operating losses ($1.2 million of debt) and fewer-than-expected ridership numbers.

If approved by full council, the city would spend $1.4 million to purchase Pronto Cycle Share from non-profit Puget Sound Bike Share (which owns it), acquire its assets, and using the remaining $3.6 million to expand the city-owned program over the next few years.

 (Kurt Schlosser, GeekWire)
(Kurt Schlosser, GeekWire)

The discussion at City Hall on Tuesday centered around who should be responsible for running a bike-share program in Seattle: the city, or a private company. Topics like equity and transportation infrastructure came up throughout the two-hour afternoon meeting.

The current program is essentially a Car2go for bicycles and allows people to rent one of 500 seven-gear bikes, pedal around, and then drop off the bike at any of the 50 docking stations in town spread around the University District, South Lake Union, Downtown and Capitol Hill.

Bikers can buy an $85 annual membership that allow users to rent bikes for 30 minutes at a time without any extra charges. Those that don’t need a year-long membership can buy a $8 24-hour pass or a $16 3-day pass.

Pronto was funded by grants, sponsorships and user fees. Alaska Airlines, Vulcan, REI, Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, and others put up money to sponsor the program. Brooklyn-based Motivate, which manages similar services in nine other cities worldwide — some of which are completely private — operates the program.

There are around 3,000 members today utilizing Seattle’s bike-share system. Here’s how it stacks up against other programs around the country:

Via City of Seattle.
Via City of Seattle. (click to enlarge)

Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Lisa Herbold both submitted amended legislation that rejected the Seattle Department of Transportation’s plan to buy out Pronto. Herbold said the money would better be used on repaying a federal grant and improving biking and pedestrian infrastructure, but her amendments were rejected unanimously at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The real issue appears to be this: should the public own bike sharing?” Herbold wrote in a blog post. “In practice, if Seattle purchases Pronto, it will become a part of our transportation network, which could result in additional ongoing costs.”

Herbold added that Seattle would be better off relying on a private company to run a bike-share program, similar to Car2go, which calls Seattle its top U.S. market with 75,000 members.

“I believe bike sharing can be a productive part of Seattle’s transportation network,” Herbold wrote. “However, I believe we would be best served by a privately owned and operated system, in the same way as Car2Go, the successful car-sharing program, is privately owned and operated in Seattle. Cities such as New York City, San Francisco, and Miami Beach each have wholly privately-owned bike share systems.”

Burgess’ amendment, meanwhile, would have shifted more fiscal responsibility to a private organization for a public-private bike-sharing partnership. It was also rejected.

“I totally agree that an effective bike-share program should be part of the public transportation system and I favor public ownership of that system,” Burgess said today, speaking to SDOT Director Scott Kulby. “If you knew in May 2014 that Pronto was at risk and might not be viable, why didn’t you start the process then to look at alternatives and do an RFP process, as opposed to coming to us now and saying, in many ways, ‘continue the risk, put more money in, we will run this RFP process, and we hope that it gets us what we’re looking for.’ How do I see through all that?”

Added Burgess, in his blog post: “Maintaining partial public ownership is preferable to an entirely privately-owned model because the City sometimes has policy goals – equity of access or distribution, for example – that may run counter to an enterprise focused more exclusively on profit.”

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