Seattle’s ‘Pronto’ Bike-Share Program Crashes Despite Millions in Tax Dollars

Elaine Thompson/AP
Elaine Thompson/AP
Seattle, WA

Once hailed as an answer to both traffic jams and global warming, Seattle’s troubled bike-sharing system, Pronto, is now slated for dismantling, city officials say.

After less than three years, and despite millions of tax dollars being dumped into the program, public bike-sharing system Pronto is slated to ground its 500-bike fleet this week, according to the Seattle Times.

The program has been a boondoggle since its $2.5 million launch in 2014, a price tag that included $1.75 million in state and federal funding. In addition, Alaska Airlines sunk $2.5 million into the system for a five-year advertising sponsorship.

Despite the glowing proclamations of politicians and the promises of the private partners in the project, the bike-sharing system was never a hit with the people of Seattle.

The program faced several problems, including a controversy over forcing riders to wear helmets, a law many felt would help kill Pronto. The helmet requirement forced the bike-sharing system to purchase hundreds of helmets and create a vending system to allow riders access, all at a heavy cost to the system.

The bike-sharing program almost immediately ran into financial trouble, and by 2016, operators said that if the city did not buy out the private interests for $1.4 million, Pronto would be forced to close.

Still, even as ridership increased last year, not enough people used the system to help it recoup costs. One problem the system faced was claims that the hilly topography of the city was not amenable to bike rentals. The complaint was enough to guide city planners to agree to introduce electric bikes into the Pronto system, a plan that never came to fruition.

Comparisons to bike-sharing systems in other cities also revealed how dismal Seattle’s numbers are. During its first year, for instance, Seattle’s Pronto saw just under 143,000 trips. But by comparison, Capital Bikeshare in Washington, DC, saw one million rides over that same period, reported.

Politics also weighed heavily on the program when its former head pleaded guilty to political corruption charges last year.

Scott Kubly, once chief of the company operating Pronto, later became Seattle’s transportation director. Then he presided over the city’s takeover of the service at a cost of $1.4 million to the taxpayers. By June of last year, Kubly pleaded guilty to an ethics violation and agreed to pay a $10,00 fine for not recusing himself from the city’s takeover deal.

It was ultimately such a mess that Mayor Ed Murray decided to shunt three million budget dollars earmarked for Pronto to other bike programs instead.

In a statement, Murray said the new direction “will grow Seattle’s bicycle and pedestrian network as we continue to lay the foundation for a multimodal transportation system that reflects our growth and our values.”

Pronto will end on March 31.

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