January 21, 2018

Just six months after Seattle’s Pronto! Cycle Share ceased operations, America’s second-hilliest city started its second experiment with bikesharing. First Spin, then LimeBike, then Ofo started deploying hundreds, then thousands, of bikes with built-in cellular modems and locks throughout the city. By the end of 2017, a bikeshare system that was too small to succeed had been replaced by one that has drawn complaints for being too large.

Pronto! was a docked bikeshare. Customers had to buy a daily or annual pass to take bikes out for 30–45 minutes at a time, with penalties applied to longer rides. Bikes had to be borrowed from and returned to docks in just a few Seattle neighborhoods; if a dock was full, you’d have to keep riding until you found another dock. Between the confusing pricing, the limited dock coverage, and the city’s $5 million bailout, Pronto! merited a 1.5-star average Yelp review before it collapsed entirely. Nevertheless, I found it useful and I still consider Pronto! to be instrumental in getting me back on a bike for the first time since when I was in grade school.

Now in Seattle, the bikes are back and the docks are gone. The new system works similarly to ReachNow’s and car2go’s point-to-point carsharing programs: I can pick up a bike wherever one is parked, ride it anywhere in the city, and lock it to itself at the end of my journey. The pricing is also simplified: Spin and Lime charge $1 per half-hour or portion thereof and Ofo charges $1 per hour. My 20-ish-minute ride to work would cost $2.75 by bus, but I can do the downhill ride for much less than that. The services are also very generous with freebies and incentives. I signed up for Spin during its beta test period, and thanks to some curious coding, I received over 1,000 free rides to use by the end of this June.

The result of this shift is that Seattle neighborhoods are awash in neon-colored bikes. These bikes have turned up in front yards, on bike racks where they needn’t be, in trees, in lakes, and in many other creative places. I’ve seen several homeless people using LimeBikes as luggage carts, having strapped many bags to the frame and with the lock jimmied open. These bikes have sometimes left the city limits and have been found in Duvall, a three-hour bike ride from Seattle.

Dockless bikes have primarily benefited areas that were bike-friendly to begin with: downtown, the area around the University of Washington, and downtown Ballard are all popular for trips, according to a December 2017 report based on data from June to October. I commute from Capitol Hill to Wallingford via the University of Washington and I see riders getting around the campus and its environs all year long. Tourists also really like LimeBike: I’ve seen whole families in Gas Works Park aboard bikes they rented for less than the cost of a rental car or Uber. In Seattle’s poorer southern neighborhoods, I’ve read that high-school students are using bikeshare to get to school without the expense and hassle of having a personal bike stolen. Although the bikes don’t have official “docks,” I’ve noticed that representatives of these companies neatly arrange dozens of bikes outside transit stations and tourist attractions. On any weekday morning I know I can find a bike to start a ride within a 10-minute walk. All I have to do is bring my own helmet.

People who hate bikes continue to hate bikeshare, but I’d like to believe it’s here to stay as long as its sponsors stay solvent. The most salient complaint is about parking and, in turn, about the commercialization of sidewalks by private companies. A recent windstorm knocked over most rental bikes, leaving piles of steel frames obstructing sidewalks and curb ramps. As with Pronto!, the current share bikes are heavy and hard to pedal up hills even in low gear, so they pool at low elevations and must be manually driven uphill by company employees. Both Spin and Lime have announced electric-assist bikes that can go up hills much more easily, but at a price of $6 per hour, triple that of the traditional bikes. Even then, a half-hour ride up a hill would be only 25–50 cents pricier than a bus trip with the advantage of no waiting for a bus and much easier parking than with a carshare.

There are many corridors where car traffic moves at walking pace during rush hour. To me this is where bikeshare’s biggest opportunity lies. On a recent Friday afternoon I rode a Spin bike from my office to the UW light rail station while my company’s shuttle was driving along the same route. The shuttle and I arrived at the same time. Getting from Fremont to South Lake Union by bus or car can take ages along three north-south avenues, none of which can be expanded because of the city’s hilly terrain, but there’s a wonderful new cycle track along the lake shore that takes just 14 minutes to traverse.

The future of transit is multimodal. Gone are the days of getting in a car at point A during rush hour, driving to a popular employment center at point B, and expecting free and plentiful parking when you get there. Even well-paying tech companies are getting out of the free-parking-for-all game in their urban offices. It’s less intimidating now than ever before to take a bus or train to the vicinity of work and to know that there’s a bike to traverse the last mile or two. Several apps now provide colorful, dense maps to show the intersection of mass transit and point-to-point cars and bikes. I don’t own a car but I have access to hundreds of them. I only own one bike but I can also ride over 9,300 of them. It’s great to have so many options.