Josh Cohen in Seattle
Tuesday 18 April 2017 07.00 BST
A small group of supporters, journalists and a city councilman gathered at the end of last month to take Seattle’s cycle share bikes 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 troubles and waning political support.
Sitting tall on the clunky, lime green bikes, our group of 10 pedalled through downtown’s heavy evening rush hour traffic, picking up a few more mourners on Pronto bikes en route.
“I’m sad to see it go. I think it’s disappointing that Seattle will be remembered – at least at the moment – for a failed bike share system. But I believe it’ll be back, and hopefully relatively soon,” says Mike O’Brien, the city councillor who joined the memorial ride.
News of Pronto’s 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 bikes. That plan has been scrapped, making Seattle the only major city in the United States to shutter a bike share system (other than cities with pilot programmes).
Helmet laws stop the serendipity of using the system. People want convenience
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 just 0.78 rides per bike per day. According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the national average for US bike share systems is 1.8 rides per bike per day. New York City’s CitiBike system gets nearly 3.8.
If you ask five people why Pronto had such low ridership, you’ll get as many answers. Some say Seattle’s helmet law discouraged use. Others say the system was too spread out and never got the expansion it needed. Some say it lost its political support both inside and out of city hall. More still think would-be riders were discouraged by the lack of bike infrastructure in downtown Seattle or the city’s notorious rain and hills.
In truth, all those theories are at least partially correct. It was a series of compounding problems that spiralled over time until the mayor had little incentive to fight to keep Pronto alive.