The Seattle City Council has until the end of March to save Pronto Cycle Share from financial collapse. Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog reports:
Ridership in the first year was lower than projected, though many people involved are now questioning how realistic those projections were. A little over half of operating costs are paid by user fees, less than was planned. That’s a problem, sure, but likely not insurmountable through adjustments in station locations, expanded marketing, winning grants, growing sponsorships and/or city investment.
The entire Seattle bike share system costs $1.4 million to purchase. Council Members Mike O’Brien and Rob Johnson, who sit on the city council’s transportation committee, both told The Stranger they’re leaning toward bailing out the program. Johnson says that since the city would have to return about $1 million in federal and county grants supporting Pronto if it lets the program die*, and he argues it makes more sense to spend that money on the program itself.
“We have to write a check to somebody this year for a little more than $1 million,” Johnson said. “So for me choice pretty clear. Let's spend the money and keep system alive.”
O’Brien is leaning in the same direction, but is a little less forgiving than Johnson.
“I’m definitely a big fan of bike share,” O’Brien said. “There’s no reason it can't be successful in Seattle. But we have a system that's struggling and some of reasons it's struggling are things we probably should have known when it started.”
Why is Pronto struggling? Last we checked, six months after its launch, Pronto's former director Holly Houser told us the service was doing "pretty well," with sales and fees numbers nearly meeting projections and covering 75 percent of its operating costs. Still, at that time, Houser emphasized that new sponsorships would be needed to cover the remaining costs and ensure sustainability. That was April of 2015. Here's how Houser explained what happened next to KUOW:
She says Pronto was doing pretty well when the city announced its intention to buy Pronto’s assets in May of 2015. At that point, she says Pronto started shutting down in preparation for the transition, which was supposed to happen on September 1. But …
Houser: “Things kept getting delayed, things kept getting delayed.”
Pronto had stopped selling station sponsorships in anticipation of the city taking over that role. Houser says that left them unable to pay for all their operating costs.
KUOW: “So it almost sounds like you’re saying the city killed Pronto, and now they're complaining that Pronto is dead.”
Houser: “Yeah. Those are your words, not mine, but I agree with them.”
The city's argument, on the other hand, seems to be that bike share managers should have secured those sponsorships earlier instead of going into debt.
Even if what Houser is saying is true, some dubious choices were made in the run-up to Pronto's launch. One was the decision to launch in late 2014, just as our rainy winter was getting started, rather than in spring. Another was the decision to invest $500,000 donated by Seattle Children's Hospital in a cockamamie helmet vending machine idea that never came to fruition. Pronto's managers attempted to work with King County's helmet law when they really should've challenged it. One budget document indicates that the service spent $83,000 last year on helmets, Fucoloro notes. All-ages helmet laws have a history of sinking bike share services by by adding costs and creating a barrier for riders. Recognizing this, cities including Dallas and Mexico City have repealed or scaled back their helmet laws to allow their bike share programs to succeed. As of the summer of 2014, in 23 million rides taken on dozens of bike share programs in cities without helmet requirements all across the country, not a single person had died. That remains true for New York City's bike share service as of December.
Houser did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
* There’s some possibility the city wouldn’t have to pay back these grants if it sold the bikes and equipment to another city, but it’s not clear whether any other cities are interested in Pronto’s gear.