The Seattle City Council voted 7-2 today to rescue Seattle's sinking bike share program, Pronto, and begin the process of turning it into a publicly funded service.
With limited stations and underwhelming ridership numbers, it became clear earlier this year that Pronto couldn't pay its bills. So, the Seattle Department of Transportation came to the city council looking for a bailout.
Last year, the council had set aside $5 million to expand Pronto, possibly by adding new stations or electric bikes. In response to Pronto's financial woes, SDOT wanted the council to spend part of that money—about $1.4 million—buying the system instead. The rest of the funding will go toward a contract with an outside operator to improve the system. In a committee vote earlier this month, the council split on that idea.
Today, a similar split emerged, pairing the unlikely duo of Tim Burgess and Lisa Herbold in a losing fight against the rest of the council.
Burgess and Herbold argued bike share is too financially risky for public funding and should instead be run by a private company. Burgess today claimed supporters of taking over bike-share were falling victim to "optimism bias" and scolded SDOT for already spending about $300,000 helping Pronto. "I don't think the council should ignore that kind of behavior," Burgess said. But the Burgess-Herbold plan to allow Pronto to fold failed to gain support from any other council members today. It went down 7-2.
The rest of the council argued that running Pronto with public funding will create a better system. As I explained last time:
The basic fight here was about whether the risk assumed by the city if it takes over Pronto is worth the public good. Both Herbold and Burgess are more comfortable with a private company taking on the financial risks of running bike share.
Council Members O'Brien, Rob Johnson, and Kshama Sawant, meanwhile, argued that a public system would better address equity needs (by placing stations in poor neighborhoods and offering discounted memberships, for example).
"When I look at privately owned systems, it does not result in the equitable outcomes we'd be able to ask [of a publicly funded system]," Johnson said.
Today, Johnson called the buyout a "modest investment" compared to public spending on other transportation modes like cars. "I fundamentally believe that with public support, bike-share is going to expand, increase membership, and be an integral part of [the city's public transit system]," Johnson said.
The council also approved a few other, smaller additions to the Pronto deal:
• Council Member Lorena González added language requiring SDOT to do outreach to low-income communities and communities of color to figure out how to better serve them with bike share.
• After concerns that Seattle's lack of safe bike lanes could be dampening bike-share use, O'Brien introduced an amendment saying the money for a new bike share system won't be released unless SDOT can show that a handful of downtown bike projects are on track to be finished before bike share is expanded.
• O'Brien also introduced an amendment clarifying that the decision about which operator should run bike share in the future will be up to the mayor and council, rather than SDOT alone. That was partially in response to concerns that SDOT Director Scott Kubly's past employment with the bike share operator that runs Pronto could create a conflict of interest.