Seattle may have a bikesharing system after all

By Robbie Webber

Despite the fact that the city pulled funding for the Pronto bikeshare system this spring, leading the system to shut down, Seattle might not have to wait long to once again have bikesharing. Several companies have expressed interest in moving into the city, but this time, the systems will be “dockless,” i.e. there won’t be fixed stations where bikes will be picked up and returned. The new systems also will be privately funded and run.

Bikesharing has become well established in many cities across the U.S., but almost all of them feature kiosks or stations where the bikes must be checked out and returned. This assures that the operator of the system knows how many bikes are in any area of the city—shifting bikes around as needed, and the stations also allow customers to know consistently where to find a bike when they need one.

But establishing locations for the stations can be costly and require time to negotiate agreements to place large installations—usually requiring electricity—in public rights of way or on private property. The physical and financial requirements of the stations may keep the bikeshare system from expanding outside the densest areas of the downtown or the established bike-friendly neighborhoods, sometimes leaving large part of the city without service.

Dockless systems do not require that bikes be picked up or dropped off at specific locations. The bikes are outfitted with GPS and self-locking features, and customers find the closest bike on an app and either scan a QR code or type in a numeric code to unlock the bike. They are then free to leave the bike anywhere at the end of their trip.

Three companies have now expressed interest in entering the Seattle market, and city elected officials and the Seattle Department of Transportation are working to develop guidelines or ordinances by mid-June to assure a smooth and orderly operation. They also have four criteria for any system operating in the city:

  1. Although it might not happen during an initial pilot test, geographic equity should assure that bikeshare is accessible to everyone around the city.
  2. Rights-of-ways and existing bike parking must be protected; the city does not want giant mounds of abandoned bikes on the sidewalk or clogging bike racks, as happened during periods of intense competition in some Chinese cities.
  3. The bikes must be well-maintained and safe.
  4. The companies must collect data on where the bikes are used so that the city can invest in new bicycle infrastructure.

These concerns are not unwarranted. The National Association of City Transportation Officials issued a warning about “rogue operators.” NACTO recognizes the importance of bikesharing as a part of a strong, multimodal transportation system, but they also cautioned cities to be careful with new operators. “The group offers a list of what bike-share systems should provide a city, including a cohesive network of safe, routinely maintained bikes; equitable access; methods of rebalancing bikes and repairing or removing broken bikes; and ongoing collaboration with local governments to ensure connections to transit.”

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.