Some obstacles in the path of a Seattle bike share system

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A partnership of government and private industry is starting down the road to launch a bike share system in the Seattle area.

Puget Sound Bike Share logo

First, however, they must overcome some obstacles that make Seattle unique among the dozen or so major North American cities with bike share — namely the terrain, the weather (rainy) and a mandatory helmet law.

Now I’ve been told that challenges should be viewed as opportunities, and that appears how the partners consider these potential stumbling blocks.

Although there’s no firm timetable to put a system in place, a business plan at the Puget Sound Bike Share website proposes the first bikes could be on the streets by 2013. Given that the bike share partnership has just advertised for a general manager (see the Seattle Bike Blog), that seems a little optimistic.

Alta Planning + Design, which is related to the company operating bike share systems in Minneapolis, Washington DC and elsewhere, prepared the business plan for the partnership.


— A phased roll-out, starting with 500 bicycles stored at 50 stations in the downtown core, south Lake Union, the University District, Sandpoint and part of Capitol Hill, followed by Lower Queen Anne, Fremont, and South of Downtown.

— Later, bike share stations would spread to communities on the east side of Lake Washington, as well as Ballard and Northgate for a total system using 2,200 bikes.

Typically bike share systems operate on an annual fee. Members get free use of a bicycle for short trips of 30 minutes to an hour; after that an extra fee is charged.

Helmet law

One of the major issues is what to do about the King County mandatory bicycle helmet law.

No other city in North America currently operates a bike share system with a mandatory helmet law, and the report authors expect some potential users — up to 30% — will not use the system because of it.

[A survey in Melbourne, Australia, for instance, found 25% of respondents said the helmet law was a barrier to using the system. Mexico City and Tel Aviv repealed their helmet laws before launching bike share.]

The report lists such options as repealing the helmet law, making helmet enforcement a secondary offense,  or excluding bike share users from the helmet law. The partners don’t support those options, however, according to the report.

Instead, the report recommends providing helmets through automated helmet vending machines at some or all of the bike stations. The helmets would be available for sale or rent; returned helmets would be cleaned and inspected.

“King County has a unique opportunity to be the first North American bike share system to operate with a helmet requirement,” the report states. “The bike share program has a unique opportunity to reinforce the existing helmet culture and increase the number of helmets in circulation. It is recommended that access to helmets be provided throughout the system.”


Hills are a challenge on any bike ride, and the same would be true of Seattle’s many steep hills. As happened in Paris, the report says bicycles would accumulate at bike stations at the bottom of hills and become scarce at the top.

While there’s no way way to change to area’s topography, the report authors suggest some solutions:

— Locate the stations so renters can leave a bike at the bottom of a hill, walk up the hill, and rent another bike there;

— Create a bonus or rewards program for cyclists who ride they bicycle up hill.

— Increase the number of gears on the bikes from the usual 3 to 7.

— Consider electric-assisted bicycles; this raises issues of maintenance, cost, recharging, and distribution if only a portion of the fleet is electric-assisted.

Wet cyclist


How the Seattle area’s weather will affect ridership is unknown. A study of Capital Bike Share system cyclists in Washington DC shows that ridership goes up with warmer weather, but drops with high humidity and rainfall.

“Although there are a larger number of cooler and  rainy days in Seattle, the intensity of rainfall is typically less than rain events in Washington D.C.  In addition, local residents may be more familiar and expectant of these conditions and be willing to ride in them.”

About all that the report can suggest is to provide bicycle saddle covers as a promotion to new members.


The partners include King County, the cities of Seattle, Redmond, and Kirkland, Sound Transit, the Puget Sound Regional Council, the University of Washington, and a number of other organizations including Seattle Children’s Hospital, Microsoft, and the Cascade Bicycle Club.

Let’s hope the partners can find a way to make bike share an accepted part of transportation life in the Puget Sound region. Bicycles promote health through exercise and reducing carbon emissions. And putting more bicycles on the streets makes motorists more aware of the rest of us on bikes.

More details about other aspects of the plans can be found in the Business Plan, as well as Seattle Bike Blog and the Seattle Times.

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3 pings

    • Brad Hawkins on August 15, 2012 at 11:53 pm
    • Reply

    This thing will never fly with the helmet law in place. Cascade swallowed the red pill to bring on suburban respect and they will have to live with it. Terrain is an interesting one, like giving a longer grace period to those going up in elevation, but the helmet thing is insurmountable and Cascade isn’t willing to help things.

    • Jonathan Callahan on August 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm
    • Reply

    As much as I would like to promote bikeshare in Seattle I think the plan has the rollout entirely backwards. There is no “last mile” problem in downtown Seattle. Look at the suggested bikestation map! The downtown core (First to Sixth Ave.s, Westlake to Yeslter) that has most of the bikes is:

    1) 1/3 mile wide and 1 mile long
    2) very high in vehicle traffic
    3) very high in pedestrian traffic
    4) steep
    5) well served by transit
    6) eminently walkable

    The business plan did a an exercise to identify the best area to begin a bike share program: “High demand areas were identified through a heat mapping exercise that allocated points to where people ‘live, work, shop, play, and take transit’.”

    Unfortunately, they forgot to include: “and where a final destination is too far to walk yet safe to bike to”.

    I have used Capitol Bikeshare in DC and absolutely love it but Seattle is nothing like DC in terms of geography. Riding a bikeshare bike from the Mall up the relatively gentile incline to Adams Morgan is not something for casual riders. A bikeshare system in downtown Seattle would inevitably become a “coasting system” involving a lot of one way rides from the Capitol Hill and Lower Queen Anne to downtown in the mornings and then from there to Pioneer Square in the evenings.

    For anyone that lives in Seattle neighborhoods the problem is not getting downtown or getting around in downtown. The problem is getting CROSS TOWN and getting the last mile home from the end of your downtown commute.

    Here’s an alternative rollout for bike share that has many fewer problems and a much higher likelihood of success than a downtown rollout: Connect the U District with Ballard

    Here’s a map to get people thinking:

    Why start the rollout like this?

    1) employment centers at the UW, UW hospital, Fremont, Ballard
    2) shopping at U Village, U district, Fremont, Fed Meyers, Ballard
    3) entertainment in U district, Fremont, Ballard
    4) outdoor venues at Arboretum, Gasworks, Locks, Golden Gardens
    5) high density housing in U district, Ballard
    6) bicycle oriented clientele, employers, infrastructure in U district, Fremont, Ballard

    Phase 1A) SPU, South Lake Union, Wallingford, EastLake,

    We shouldn’t be trying to put inexperienced tourists on heavy bikes in downtown traffic. Instead, we should be trying to get Seattle Pacific University students to ride bikes to Fred Meyers instead of driving a car. (Any idea how hard it is to get anywhere from SPU without a car?) We should make it easy for the people moving into the thousands of new apartments in Ballard and the U District (feet from the BG) to get to their bus stop, school, work, the doctor, a park, the library, their favorite bar, etc. without ever getting in a car.

    That’s where the last mile problem is.

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