Seattle’s bike share system is dead (UPDATED)

Friday afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray made a surprise announcement that he is re-allocating the funds set aside for the re-launch of the city’s bike share system toward a series of bicycle and pedestrian improvements.  And so ends the saga of bike share in Seattle.

Let’s recap how we got here: with great fanfare, Seattle launched the current Pronto system in 2014, setting aside $5 million to pay for an expansion. A year ago Pronto was said to have grown to 500 bikes, 54 stations and 3000 users. But then we learned that SDOT had been quietly shifting money from other accounts to cover deeper losses at Pronto than had been previously acknowledged, and we later learned that the number of users was actually closer to 1900. But before that, SDOT forced the Council’s hand and they approved a buyout of the existing Pronto assets from the third-party company that had been running the program (and that SDOT Director Scott Kubly used to work for), using $1.45 million of the $5 million that had been set aside.  But then the champion for the bike-share system at SDOT high-tailed it back to Massachusetts, and SDOT announced that it had chosen a new vendor for the next phase that would build out a system of electric-assist bicycles — obsoleting the first-generation system that SDOT arm-twisted the Council into buying.

In the meantime, the Council was deliberating the city’s budget for the next two years. The Mayor’s proposed budget left the remaining $3.55 million in place for expansion, but Council members Herbold and Burgess, who both had opposed the Pronto buyout, had other plans.  Herbold pushed through an amendment that stripped $900,000 out to be used for other (unspecified) purposes, and Burgess sponsored a proviso on the remaining funds, preventing them from being spent on bike share (either the existing system or a replacement one) until the City Council approved a new business plan.

Bike share expansion as proposed in the Mayor’s budget, September 2016. The City Council amended it by removing $900,000.

The Mayor’s announcement on Friday promises “over $3 million,” but in truth at the moment there’s only $2.65 million (after Herbold’s budget amendment). The city hopes to sell off the remaining Pronto assets, which might cover the costs of removing the installed equipment and possibly add more into the pot to be redirected to bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

The announcement lists four projects which will receive funds:

  • Adding pedestrian safety improvements, including traffic calming and crosswalk improvements, at 19 schools through the Safe Routes to School Program.
  • Completing a missing link of the 4th Avenue bicycle lane and extension to Vine Street.
  • Accelerating design and outreach for the east/west connections in the Center City bicycle network.
  • Improving accessibility in Pioneer Square by adding curb ramps at key locations.

Both Burgess and Herbold were quick to praise the Mayor for his decision on Friday to kill off the bike share program. Burgess released a statement through a Council spokesperson:

“I support Mayor Murray’s decision to not advance a new bike share system at this time. Our limited funds can be better spent on school safety projects and continuing to expand our existing bicycle network.”

It’s unclear at this point whether the Mayor has unilateral authority to redirect the bike share funds to other projects without formal approval from the Council, especially given the existing proviso on the funds — which only explicitly prevents the designed funds from being spent on bike share, but implicitly signals the Council’s desire to have a say on how the funds are spent.  But in either case, Council approval won’t be hard to get: Burgess and Herbold have already voiced their support, Juarez has been campaigning hard for accelerating the Safe Routes to Schools program (especially for the north end of the city), and Johnson, Bagshaw and O’Brien have all been pushing for filling out the bike lane network downtown.  UPDATE: Council member Burgess, chair of the Budget Committee, confirmed this afternoon that the Council will need to approve re-allocating the funds.

Even though Murray says in his announcement that he remains “optimistic about the future of bike share in Seattle,” this decision removes all remaining funds that had been previously allocated. There’s clear logic in waiting until the planned bike network is built out before investing in a bike share system. But even when that is in place, a future revival of bike share would now require arguing for new funds, and that will be a tough sell. After the last year, there is no one at SDOT with the credibility (or political capital) to sell it, and there’s currently no one on the City Council who seems willing to champion it.

Expect Pronto stations and bicycles to disappear off the streets by the end of March.