Seattle Bikeshare at a Crossroads Again

I’m a big fan of free-floating transportation. When I sold my car in 2007, I pivoted to using cars rented by the hour from Zipcar and, later, to cars rented by the minute from car2go, the now-defunct ReachNow, and LimePod. More recently I tamed my fear of urban cycling by riding Pronto! rental bikes. Pronto! went out of business in 2017 shortly after I bought my first bike.

After my move to Seattle’s relatively flat Ballard neighborhood, cycling has become a primary commute mode for me. My Public M7 has over 3,000 miles on it and is in generally good shape; only the pedals, tires, a few rear tubes, and fenders have needed replacement. At the same time, I’ve been curiously keeping tabs on the resurgence, and current peril, of free-floating bikeshare in the city.

In July of 2017, Spin and Lime launched the first dockless bikeshare systems in Seattle: for just $1 per half-hour, riders could pick up a bike from one of many neighborhoods and ride it anywhere within the service area. A month later, Ofo joined the fray and halved the price: $1 bought you a full hour of ride time on the company’s bright yellow bikes. These prices were subject to frequent discounts; by signing up for Spin during their beta period I received over 1,000 free ride credits, for example, and Lime and Ofo frequently distributed codes for free rides to encourage adoption. Images of “bike graveyards” in China, mountains of discarded or vandalized bikes, spread fears that Seattle could have an environmental nightmare on its hands if these fast-growing startups ran out of capital.

In 2018 the city of Seattle asked for a $250,000 annual permit fee from bikeshare operators, precipitating Ofo’s departure and Spin’s cessation of operations. That left Lime as a bikeshare monopoly until Jump bikes, owned by Uber, started service in Seattle in November 2018. By this time, the conventional pedal bikes had fallen out of favor. Lime-E and Jump bikes both feature electric assistance, good for going up hills, and a much higher pricing scheme. A regular Lime bike could be had for $1 for 30 minutes; Lime-E charged $1 to start plus 10 cents per minute at first, making a half-hour ride cost $4. Today the per-minute rate is 25 cents; that half-hour ride is now $8.50. Jump charges only slightly less. Public transit and Uber or Lyft rides are now cost-competitive with e-bike rentals. Tourists who ride Jump and Lime bikes could get a better deal with an all-day rental from a local bike shop.

The biggest disappointment with bikeshare, though, has been its effect on the pedestrian environment. On a recent Friday afternoon, I tried to ride a bike from my office to the local bike shop to pick up my own bike. The first 5 Lime bikes I tried wouldn’t unlock; one had a lock that wouldn’t fully unlatch, one had a seat post that wouldn’t adjust, two had batteries that were too discharged to be usable, one was leaking battery acid, and then I finally found a bike that worked. (Jump also had bikes near my office, but my account was blocked from unlocking any of them; Uber took over a week to resolve my support ticket.) It took longer to find a usable bike than it did to ride to the bike shop. What’s worse, many of the unusable bikes remained in their position for days, taking up space without providing any benefit.

I’ve seen way too many damaged bikes, vandalized bikes, e-bikes with the battery removed, and bikes obstructing sidewalks and wheelchair ramps. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) issued a stinging report showing that in the second quarter of 2019, over 17% of bikes presented an “obstruction hazard” while parked, well in excess of SDOT’s target of 3%. About one-third of dockless rental bikes were “parked incorrectly,” slightly exceeding the target of 30%. SDOT reacted to these violations by reducing Lime’s and Jump’s maximum fleet size, but tellingly, both companies were already operating below the reduced level. SDOT has accepted responsibility for building more designated bike parking zones, but even existing bike parking isn’t being used well by dockless cyclists.

Uber, facing billion-dollar quarterly losses, recently announced that it would pull Jump bikes out of several markets, though it continues to operate in Seattle. Seattle has also, after initial pushback, agreed to start a dockless scooter pilot, joining other cities (including a few Seattle suburbs) in permitting scooter rentals. I rented a couple of Lime-S scooters in San Jose last year. After wiping out just one block into my second ride, I decided that they weren’t for me — but many other people, especially schoolchildren, enjoyed a big mobility boost thanks to them. Scooters are smaller, lighter, simpler, and lower in cost than e-bikes are, so perhaps they’ll be better for their owners’ “micromobility” business model.

Seattle has notoriously bad traffic, very little transit that travels on rails or in dedicated lanes, and hilly terrain. No amount of taxi-like service or buses, whether public or private, will improve mobility on our roads unless the carrot (granting dedicated lanes to multi-passenger vehicles) or the stick (charging single-occupancy vehicles to travel on congested streets) gets used at the same time. For those who are able-bodied and otherwise eligible to do so, riding on a smaller vehicle — a bicycle, a scooter, a Solowheel-style unicycle, a powered skateboard — is a more viable way of getting around town.