Seattle’s novel bike-sharing pilot is crossing the finish line as 2017 comes to a close. With the training wheels off, Seattle’s now-ubiquitous neon bicycle fleets will continue operating on city streets and expand.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) launched the program in May, creating a special permit that private companies could obtain to use Seattle streets for bike sharing. By July, bright orange Spin bikes and neon green LimeBikes hit the streets. The pilot allowed each company to roll out its fleet slowly, starting with 500 bikes apiece. As of mid-December, each company had 3,000 bicycles in Seattle.
In August, a Chinese company called Ofo joined Seattle’s newly-crowded bike sharing market with its own fleet of yellow bicycles. Ofo told GeekWire it currently has 5,000 bikes in operation in Seattle.
Update: Ofo clarified that it has a fleet of 5,000 bikes total but only 4,000 are in operation in Seattle, in compliance with city rules. The additional 1,000 bikes are on standby. The company also said it is offering free rides in all U.S. cities during January.
“Seattle has been a bellwether for dockless bike-sharing in the U.S. and we’re thrilled by the incredible response we’ve seen for this more convenient, greener way to get around,” Ofo spokesperson Taylor Bennett said in an email “We look forward to continuing our partnership with the city and expanding access to Ofo so that all corners of the Seattle area have more transportation options.”
Despite a saturated market and Seattle’s notoriously un-bike-friendly winter, none of the bike sharing services reduced their fleets. But that’s not to say the companies rolled through the pilot program without any bumps in the road.
SDOT slapped LimeBike on the wrist for exceeding the number of bikes allowed on city streets during the second month of its permit, according to a letter obtained by GeekWire. SDOT threatened to penalize or revoke LimeBike’s permit if the issue wasn’t addressed. LimeBike spokesperson Jack Song said the snafu was due to a technical error.
“We corrected that issue immediately because working closely with local government is in our DNA,” he said.
Spin laid off an undisclosed number of employees during the pilot but is actively hiring again.
“We are indeed streamlining our operations, and by streamlining this means that our operations have gotten more efficient, to provide better service to our riders,” Spin CEO Derrick Ko said in a statement.
Despite hiccups, Spin, LimeBike, and Ofo are plowing ahead in 2018. All three have confirmed plans to continue operations and grow their fleets. Plus, the permitting process created to allow private companies to launch transportation systems in Seattle in the first place is becoming a model for other programs.
Austin, Texas-based VBikes told GeekWire it also plans to launch its service in Seattle but is awaiting a permit from the city.
It remains to be seen whether Seattle can sustain three or more bike sharing companies with thousands of bicycles each. Song, of LimeBike, doesn’t think there’s room for everyone on the road.
“This is a competitive but exciting landscape,” he said in an email. “What you will likely see in Q1 and Q2 of 2018 will be some companies will not be able to make it.”