A Pronto! Bike Share Success Story

Seattle’s Pronto! Cycle Share is on its way out. The system let people borrow bikes for 30 or 45 minutes at a time to ride between a small network of stations largely in the downtown, Capitol Hill, and University of Washington (UW) neighborhoods. After two-plus years of service, a city government bailout, and fruitless efforts to expand it, Pronto! will shut down at the end of this month. Many observers consider Seattle’s bike share to be a failure, but I don’t. It encouraged me to ride a bike regularly for the first time since childhood. Pronto’s demise motivated me to buy my first new bike ever.

Like many bike share programs, Pronto! had issues from the start. Bikes collected at the bottom of hills requiring vans to recirculate them, tourists were confused by the program’s terms and incurred huge unexpected late fees, and the bikes themselves were heavy-duty steel models that were burdensome to pedal up the city’s many hills. I was attracted to Pronto! because I could try it out super-cheaply. In 2015 I bought a helmet from Amazon for under $20 and a Pronto! day pass for $8. There was no need to worry about maintenance; I could swap a bad bike for another one instantly at any dock. I watched a few safety videos about urban biking and then hit the roads. Besides my lack of urban biking experience, I also had no clue about shifting a 7-speed bike like the ones Pronto! offered. Over the course of several weekend mornings, I improved my biking IQ and ruined my leg muscles.

I live on Capitol Hill and I work in southern Wallingford. Home and work are only about 3.5 miles away but they feel more isolated than that. It takes 30–45 minutes to commute to work using two buses in the morning. During evening rush hour, the hourlong walk home is often faster than car and bus traffic. Last year’s expansion of light rail service to Capitol Hill and the UW made my commute more reliable, thanks to its underground tunnel, but no faster. Several of my colleagues heard my complaints and suggested I get a bike within months of my joining Tableau, but I wouldn’t commit. For most of my time as a Pronto! member I hoped they would add stations near Tableau’s offices in Fremont and Wallingford, but I never got my wish.

My commute to work, downhill, is a largely peaceful affair along Lake Union in a brand-new protected bike lane. Rainy conditions make braking downhill a real gamble, but on clear days I can make it to work in about 20 minutes. That’s nearly as fast as it would take me to drive and I don’t have to deal with traffic. Strava tells me that my commute burns fewer than 200 calories, so I plan to walk in and go to the gym on some days, as I did before buying a bike. I’m also an unabashed cheater on the way home. Until I’m strong enough to go up Capitol Hill, I’m commuting over to the UW station and taking light rail to Capitol Hill, then coasting downhill to get home. This route is so popular, my local station is nicknamed the “Capitol Hill bike elevator.”

My colleagues happily recommended several local bike shops, or “LBS” in cyclist jargon, and I literally couldn’t breathe in half of them. I’m not used to the rubber-and-lubricant-drenched air of many LBSes yet. I ended up picking up a Public M7, a mixte (hybrid) bike, from a great newbie-friendly LBS that, sadly, will close this month. It works and handles much like the Pronto! bikes I learned on. Its steel construction also keeps me locked in the bottom 20% of Strava speed rankings. In the interest of everything in cycling being vaguely French, my pannier-toting commuter bike is named “Premier,” or “First.” I know it won’t be my last.

My goal this year is to get good at cycling. I’ve been assured that I can find a good route up Capitol Hill. I’m reasonably sure I won’t die on the roads, although I’ve already had a few close calls with cars, curbs, and my own shoelaces. Premier will most likely get destroyed or stolen, but considering it cost me the price of one car payment, I’m not really worried about that. I’ve already started thinking about my seconde.