Seattle to take over and expand bike-sharing system

By Robbie Webber

The Seattle Department of Transportation is proposing to take over Pronto, the year-old non-profit bicycle-sharing system, in order to better integrate it with the transit system and invest in a significant expansion. The system has seen low per-bike usage, and city officials hope that an expanded city-managed system will make it a more attractive option for local trips.

No one model is right for every location, as some systems are geared more toward visitors or recreation, while others are geared toward integration with transit and transportation demand management. But Seattle’s move is a signal that SDOT feels transportation for residents and employees is their primary goal.

Mayor Ed Murray’s budget proposal calls for a $5 million city contribution to purchase 2,000 new bicycles to go with a potential $10 million in matching federal grants for stations and other needs. Sponsorships would add $3 million. The city is also applying for federal funding for a new bicycle-pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5, and $10 million for citywide bicycle infrastructure improvements.

With bike sharing relatively new in the U.S., cities and local organizations are still experimenting with models for funding and managing these popular services. As a 2014 report by the Mineta Transportation Institute showed, there are a wide variety of models for financing both the capital expenses to set up a bike-sharing system as well as ongoing operations and management. Some systems feature a joint owner/operator by a non-profit or a private firm, but most publicly owned systems are operated by a contractor.

Both FTA and federal highway funding is available for capital investments in bike-sharing systems, but operating expenses are not eligible. To fund day-to-day operations cities may look to sponsorships, advertising, or grants in addition to user fees and memberships. The Mineta report also surveyed these funding models and finds them as varied as the target audience for the system.

Seattle will also contract directly with an operator for day-to-day services, but plans to manage the program as part of the city transportation department. Stanley Kubly, SDOT Director, explained, “Seattle is making a major investment [in expansion]. We wanted to make sure along with that investment we were actively engaged in day to day management of the bike-share system.”

Kubly is hoping that city management will give them better access to federal funding, a more integrated approach to station placement, and more media coverage. “So much of a successful bike-share system is about marketing,” he notes. The major expansion hinges on the TIGER funding. There will be a much smaller expansion if they don’t get the grant, but Kubly feels that Seattleites will one day not be able to imagine city transportation before bike sharing.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.