The Good News and the Bad News About Bike Share
The Project Will Be Useless in the Neighborhoods Where It's Needed Most if Businesses Don't Step Up Soon
Let's say you work in Pioneer Square and want to meet up with an Amazon-employed friend to sample South Lake Union's famous fleet of lunchtime food trucks. Or you live in South Lake Union and want to hit up Pike Place Market for fresh produce. Here's the problem: Two-mile distances like these are too far to walk for quick trips, busing isn't direct, and parking in popular areas is a hassle. All of these factors discourage people from branching out of their neighborhoods for short jaunts.
But Puget Sound Bike Share (PSBS) could change the way we navigate through our city. By May 2014, PSBS hopes to open 50 bike stands stocked with 500 bikes throughout downtown, Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, and the University District.
Here's how it would work: Bikes would be available to rent for either a small monthly fee or an annual fee (around $85) or a 24-hour membership of around $9. Don't carry a helmet around with you? No problem—the bike stands will rent those for around $3. Imagine grabbing a bike from a stand blocks from your home or office and biking downtown for a work meeting or to the weekend farmers market in the University District. Wherever you end up, you'll find another PSBS bike stand within a few blocks of your destination to check that bike in. No bike locks necessary, no parking hassles, no long bus waits. When you're ready to go home, check out another bike and ride home (or take the bus). This is the future of Seattle and, eventually, of Puget Sound.
At least, it should be. But there's a problem.
PSBS was developed as a countywide public-private partnership, yet the business community isn't stepping up to help fund it.
"We've seen a lot of initial excitement with little follow-through," says Holly Houser, director of PSBS, who's been in talks with the region's largest companies to sponsor the program since last fall. While Seattle Children's Hospital has stepped in with a $500,000 donation, Houser says that companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, Alaska Airlines, Capitol One, BECU, Cambia (Blue Cross/Blue Shield), and Microsoft have declined to sponsor PSBS, or have simply ignored their inquiries. (I contacted each of these businesses for comment. Only a representative for Vulcan responded, saying, "Your info is off—PSBS has not discussed sponsorship opportunities for that event with Vulcan." Houser insists otherwise.)
Meanwhile, Seattle's politicians have embraced bike share. In early September, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance allowing bike share in the public right-of-way.
But as it now stands, PSBS only has $1.75 million in federal and state grant money to open 12 stations in the University District and 17 stations in South Lake Union. Which means that if bike share doesn't find a company willing to commit to investing $1.5 million annually for five years by mid-November, the scope of the program will be cut to 29 stations and 290 bikes and limited to the South Lake Union and University District neighborhoods. In other words, this new, smaller bike share would be virtually useless to most of the city.
Eliminating 21 bike-share stations (and 210 bikes) from the densest neighborhoods—Capitol Hill, Belltown, Pioneer Square, and downtown, according to 2008 estimates from the Department of Planning and Development—would effectively downgrade a useful commuting tool to a barely useful novelty for University District and South Lake Union employees. You know, kinda like the South Lake Union streetcar.
"It's been really frustrating—especially dealing with Amazon," adds Houser, because South Lake Union is destined to get bike-share stations around the Amazon campus regardless of the rest of the city. "It's going to serve their employees," Houser says, "but so far, they're not willing to support it."
Title sponsorship isn't an altruistic venture—it comes with the boon of picking the name and color of the bikes, and having their brand paraded around Seattle. Think Starbikes. Amazoom. Alaska Airbikes.
By the end of 2014, more than 30 cities in North America will have bike share. It's just hitting the West Coast—San Francisco, Vancouver, and Portland are all working to launch their own bike-share programs—but it's been successfully implemented in big cities like Chicago and Washington, DC. Citigroup invested $45 million in NYC's "Citi Bike" program, the nation's largest bike-share program, which launched last May with 6,000 bikes. It was quickly branded a "marketing triumph" by advertising firms. In the bike share's first month alone, the number of riders doubled expectations. In four months, New Yorkers have taken 3.3 million rides covering more than seven million miles—each mile serving as a traveling billboard for the bank.
"With all the brands we have in Puget Sound, it's shocking that no one has stepped up," says Eddie Rehfeldt, creative director for the public relations firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.
"For us, supporting this was a no-brainer," says Paulo Nunes-Ueno, director of transportation and sustainability for Seattle Children's Hospital, the only local business to invest a large sum of money in PSBS. "The experience in other cities is really clear, there's so much unmet demand for bike share... We see sponsoring bike share as part of our commitment to being kind, responsible neighbors and good stewards of the planet."