Did Seattle’s mandatory helmet law kill off its bike-share scheme?

Seattle has become the first major US city to shut a public bike share strategy. Was it the helmet law or the lack of cycle lanes and the citys notorious hills and rain?

A small group of supporters, journalists and a city councilman gathered at the end of last month to take Seattles cycle share motorcycles out for one last spin. Mayor Ed Murray had pulled the plug on the Pronto system after two-and-a-half years of low ridership, financial difficulties and waning political support.

Sitting tall on the clunky, lime green motorcycles, our group of 10 pedalled through downtowns heavy evening rush hour traffic, picking up a few more mourners on Pronto motorcycles en route.

Im sad to see it run. I think its disappointing that Seattle will be remembered at the least at the moment for a failed motorcycle share system. But I believe itll be back, and hopefully comparatively soon, says Mike OBrien, the city councillor who joined the memorial ride.

News of Prontos closure came in January just a few months after heated budget negotiations led to a plan to spend$ 5m to fully revamp and expand the system with electric-assist motorcycles. That scheme has been scrapped, constructing Seattle the only major city in the United States to shutter a bike share system( other than cities with pilot programmes ).

Fundamentally, low ridership killed Pronto. The system had 500 bikes at 54 stations. In its first year of operations, there were 142, 832 trips or an average of simply 0.78 rides per motorcycle per day. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the national median for US bike share systems is 1.8 rides per bike per day. New York Citys CitiBike system gets virtually 3.8.

If you ask five people why Pronto had such low ridership, youll get as many answers. Some say Seattles helmet statute discouraged utilize. Others say the system was too spread out and never got the expansion it needed. Some say it lost its political subsistence both inside and out of city hall. More still believe would-be riders were discouraged by the lack of bike infrastructure in downtown Seattle or the citys notorious rain and hills.

In truth, all those hypothesis are at least partially correct. It was a series of compounding problems that spiralled over day until the mayor had little incentive to fighting to keep Pronto alive.

A Pronto docking station before the programmes closure last month. Photo: Alamy

From the start, advocates worried that Seattle was the only bike share system in the US affected by a helmet law. King County, where Seattle is located, has a helmet statute that applies to all riders, regardless of age. Prontos solution was first to offer free helmets at every station; then offer helmets for$ 2 with the acquisition of a day pass. Pronto staff collected dirty helmets from return bins and replaced them with clean ones.

I dont guess the helmets were fundamentally a problem. People chose to either utilize a helmet or didnt, but it wasnt necessarily a factor in using[ Pronto] or not, preserves Andrew Glass-Hastings, director of transit and mobility at Seattles Department of Transportation.

Few proponents guess the helmet statute alone killed Pronto, but Russell Meddin, co-founder of The Bike-Sharing Blog, is among those who think helmets hurt the spontaneity that makes bike share successful. Helmet laws stop the serendipity of using the system, he says.People want convenience. The more convenient a system is, the more its used.

Mexico City and Tel Aviv both scrapped their helmet statutes before launching their successful bike share systems. Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia, on the other hand, forged ahead with their bike share programmes despite having helmet laws and have suffered from poor ridership. Sydney mayor Clover Moore has said she would love to launching a share system if it werent for Australias helmet law .

A Seattle cyclist wearing the compulsory helmet. Photo: Bruce Yuanyue Bi/ Getty Images/ Lonely Planet Image

One of Prontos biggest flaws was its lack of station density. According to Meddin, successful systems need 20 to 28 stations per square mile. Seattles had closer to 12.

Pronto never got a fair shooting to succeed, tells Blake Trask, policy director for Cascade Bicycle Club advocacy group. It was meant to grow to fulfill motorcycle share best practices. But that expansion plan for a variety of reasons never constructed it to fruition.

Other cities saw ridership growth after expansion. Bostons Hubway started with 61 stations and 600 bikes and had 142,289 trips in its first year. It now has 140 stations, 1,300 bikes and insures virtually 1.2 million annual trips.

Seattle applied for a $10 m federal Tiger transport grant to quintuple the number of bikes, but did not receive it. The proposed 2017 system relaunch would have come with 1,200 bikes.

Another factor was politics. When it launched in October 2014, Pronto had broad support from city political leaders and cycle advocates although, as with any bike project, there were plenty of skeptics as well. That supporting started to erode when the city began considering taking ownership of the Pronto system from the non-profit that started and managed it for the first year.

In February 2016, as the city council debated whether to acquire the system, Prontos fiscal woes came to illuminate. Ridership had fallen short of projections, leaving the system with less fare revenue than planned. On top of that, the non-profit had stopped trying new sponsorships in 2015 because theyd expected the city to take over sooner than they did. When it came time to vote, Pronto was nearing insolvency and the city needed to spend $1.4 m to acquire it and pay off its debts.

Cascade and Seattle Neighbourhood Greenways organised a big pushing at city hall to voice support for bike share. We wanted to see if we could make it work if we bought it out and expanded on it, says Gordon Padelford, policy director at Seattle Neighbourhood Greenways.

The council eventually voted to acquire Pronto, debt and all. Then just a few months later, SDOT director Scott Kubly was investigated and fined for an ethics violation over a potential conflict of interest.

Bike share would have been more successful if it incorporated better with the citys expanding light rail system. Photograph: P Wei/ Getty Images

The final straw arrived when it emerged that Seattle was going to have to scrap all Prontos equipment to move forward with its expansion schemes. All the leading proposals from the tender process called for starting fresh with new stations and bikes, and the winning bid from Bewegen called for an all-electric assistance motorcycle share fleet. That definitely frustrated some of the more fiscally conservative members of the council who felt like we were had. Bad press leads to bad policy have contributed to bad outcomes and it spiralled, explains Padelford.

Mayor Murray set$ 5m in his 2017 budget proposal to fund the system relaunch. Money were given the green light pending city council approval of the final plan from Bewegen in January. But instead of rolling out that plan for a new system, Murray announced Pronto would shut down, with the funds instead used for motorcycle and pedestrian infrastructure downtown and for a Safe Routes to School programme.

We are disappointed that bike share is not going to happen right away, says Trask. But at the same hour, were pleased that the mayor is use the funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects. We heard from a lot of leaders and members that the lack of a safe bike network was a big barrier.

Glass Hastings is also confident Seattle will someday have bike share again although he would like to see it better integrated with the new light rail, bus rapid transit, and streetcars the city is currently constructing. We learned a lot from the Pronto system. What it did well and what some of the imperfections were.

Some cycle experts in the city believe new Chinese private bike share companies will set up in the city. Operating on an Uber-like model of implementing first, asking forgiveness later, they have been launching without permission in cities around the world: BlueGoGo launched in San Francisco recently, while Ofo is headed for Cambridge.

I suppose one of those systems will come to Seattle and experience many of the problems Pronto experienced, says Padelford. Long term, the lawsuit for an expansive electric bike share system is just going to get better as Seattle continues to grow and get more dense and people struggle to get around the centre of the city.

Seattle might end up with a new motorcycle share system whether the city wants one or not.

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