Lessons in Problem Solving from Seattle’s Bike Share Fail

By Jon Miller Updated on September 26th, 2022

In March of this year, the City of Seattle put an end to its taxpayer-funded experiment in bike sharing. The Pronto! bike share program allowed members to pick up and drop off one of 500 bikes from 50 stations across Seattle. When the program failed to gain traction, the City purchased the program from its operator, then shut it down soon after rather than continue to waste money. According to the City of Seattle, the expenditure for the program was $2,227,726 with more than half being on capital expenses, and the rest on operations.

Flawed from the Start

Why did the Pronto! bike share system fail? It seemed like there was no real plan or strategy from the start. Who were these share bikes intended to serve? Bicycling is popular in Seattle, but don’t cycling enthusiasts already own bicycles? How realistic was it that visitors to downtown Seattle would want to see the city by bicycle while searching for a bike parking station? Was the City counting on the beautiful weather of the summer months to make up for the majority of revenue?

Had the people promoting the bike share actually ridden a bicycle in Seattle? Seattle is not only wet much of the year, but it is also hilly. When I lived in Seattle’s Central Area, due east of downtown, I could go screaming downhill for 1.5 miles, losing 400 feet of elevation to sea level in the process. The ride back uphill was a proper workout. The ride uphill was a fun, sweaty challenge. I doubt that the politicians promoting Pronto! could make it uphill. But the bicycling activists and community support no doubt had the thighs to reassure the mayor & co. that Seattleites were up for the climb.

It didn’t work. The Pronto! system employed people driving vans, called “re-balancers”. The re-balances picked up bikes dropped off by riders at sea level and drove them back to the stations uphill, because too many people wouldn’t bicycle uphill. Again, rather than address the root cause, the City added costs to patch up the problem.

What Problem Does This Solve?

What problem was City trying to solve in promoting and propping up Pronto! bike share? Bicycling is more eco-friendly than gasoline-driven vehicles. But so are walking, hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, horses, and electric bicycles. So why bike sharing? There are health benefits to pedaling a bicycle. Riding a bicycle is a faster means of transportation than walking. Sometimes it is faster than riding a car, bus, or taxi for a short distance through a congested downtown core. While these types of benefits were hinted at, the City did not articulate a clear problem they were trying to solve.

More disturbing is the fact that Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly previously served as president for Alta Bicycle Share, which owned and operated Pronto! bike share. Kubly failed to disclose this conflict of interest and was fined for an ethics violation. In addition, the Seattle City Council was given false data on the Pronto! service’s membership, claiming they had about 3,000 members when they in fact had about 1,900. It seems they were pushing a solution that they fit with their ideology and personal interest, regardless of whether there was evidence that bike sharing solved a practical problem.

Try Again

Today the City is allowing private sector bike sharing companies to give it a try again. One company is Spin, which just planted 500 share bikes across Seattle. It has a promising business model. Instead of a membership, it works like Uber through an app, locating an available bike and charging $1 per 30 minutes of use. Spin bikes seem to be off to an okay start with positive reviews from riders. Spin is responsive to customer feedback. Keep in mind that it is July, and we are in the midst of a 36-day run without recorded rainfall (the record is 51 days, in 1945). Whether people will hop on a Spin bike in wet, cold November remains to be seen.

What need is Spin addressing in Seattle? What problem does Spin aim to solve, specific to the areas of Seattle where the orange bicycles are being placed? How will they avoid the pitfalls that did in Pronto? Cui bono? These are questions the leadership of Spin is well-advised to ask themselves before they sink too much money into Seattle.

What Can We Learn?

We can take away some general lessons in problem-solving from the City of Seattle’s failure at bike sharing. These are applicable anywhere – municipalities, hospitals, businesses, non-profits, communities, and families.

  1. Be clear and specific about what problem you are trying to solve.
  2. Understand what causes the problem.
  3. Identify possible ways of addressing the causes.
  4. When there is a push for a technology, ideology or solution, question who benefits.
  5. Get the facts and data to support or disconfirm a proposed solution.
  6. Go for a test ride. Up the hills. In the rain.
  7. Roll it out at the minimum profitable scale, not less and not more.
  8. Take customer feedback, improve and expand if warranted.

And a bonus lesson: don’t promote a technology, solution, or business model that depends on your customers pedaling uphill in the rain.

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