If you walk down Interlake Avenue, just north of 36th Street, there’s a good chance you’ll see a hive of bright green, two-wheeled activity. That’s because the bicycle share company, LimeBike, has made this Wallingford warehouse its operational hub in Seattle. I recently spoke to Gabriel Scheer, who is in charge of LimeBike’s strategic development in Seattle, to ask him why the company chose Wallingford for its main facility in Seattle. Turns out it has less to do with our proximity to the Burke-Gilman Trail (which is a nice side benefit) than it does with how hard it is to find centrally-located warehouse space in Seattle these days. The building on Interlake happened to fit LimeBike’s needs.
LimeBike’s operational hub, which employees around 30 people, is used primarily for the maintenance and redistribution of its fleet, which is currently around 3,000 bikes (a number which could increase to 4,000 sometime soon). While most maintenance is done in the field, bikes with major mechanical issues or that need to be parted-out, come to the Wallingford site. Redistribution is done in primarily two ways: pre-balancing, such as making sure there are bikes available at light rail stations and major events, and re-balancing, which mostly means moving bikes from the bottom of the hills to the top (“Almost no one rides a LimeBike up Queen Anne,” says Gabriel).
Theft of Lime bikes hasn’t been a big problem. Gabriel says that occasionally someone will break the locking mechanism on a bike’s back wheel and steal a bike. Or sometimes a rider will accidentally forget to lock a bike as they’re hurrying to catch a Link train, and someone else will come along and take the bike for a joy ride. But these instances are rare, and since the bikes are GPS-equipped, they are almost always recovered (though sometimes in a tree, on the Troll, or underwater in Lake Union).
Ridership and “Litter”
LimeBike’s ridership thus far has exceeded that of Pronto, Seattle’s failed station-based bike share system. LimeBike averaged 5 to 6 rides per day per bike over the summer. That number has dropped to around 2 as the days have gotten shorter, but even that smaller number exceeds the busiest of days for Pronto. Gabriel attributes LimeBike’s solid ridership numbers to the “habit” that is forming for commuters, who are now using bike share regularly to complete that “last mile” to their workplace or their home. And he expects that habit to continue for many riders even through the winter months, except during mini-monsoons like we experienced toward the end of November this year.
A complaint I have heard both from people I like and some whom I do not is that the accumulation of green, orange (Spin), and yellow (ofo) bikes on planting strips, in parking lots, and alongside the Burke-Gilman Trail is beginning to seem like “litter.” Gabriel’s response to this complaint was nearly identical to what I’ve been saying to my friends and foes alike: 100 years ago seeing an automobile parked on the street was not normal (“Hey, your car is blocking my horse!” quipped Gabriel), but now we don’t think twice about it. Gabriel feels that a “paradigm shift” is needed in the way we view bicycles, and as we build out parking, lanes, and other infrastructure for bikes, urban biking will be normalized and seeing a bright green (or orange or yellow) bike parked next to a sidewalk will seem no more unusual than having a stranger’s Prius parked in front of your house. This is certainly the case in Amsterdam, where bikes rule the streets and are parked absolutely everywhere.
The Future of Bike-Share in Seattle
With the successful launch of stationless bike-share, I asked Gabriel what he thinks the future of LimeBike in particular and bike-share in general in Seattle is. His hope can be summed up in a single word: expansion. He and I agree that one of the great failures of Pronto was the unwillingness and inability to expand the network much beyond downtown, Capitol Hill and the U-District, never getting into bike-centric neighborhoods like Fremont and Ballard. Gabriel believes the ideal bike-share network in Seattle would have 20,000 to 30,000 bikes, far above the combined number of Lime, Spin and ofo bikes that are currently on the streets.
Aside from the potential outrage from a segment of the city which views these bikes as public nuisance, another roadblock to expansion could be capital. Bikes are expensive to build and maintain, and one bike-share company that had its eyes on Seattle, Bluegogo, has gone bankrupt. I asked Gabriel if he thinks that bike-share will be a “winner take all” operation in Seattle, or if three (or more) bike-share companies can co-exist. He replied that the city and their permitting process will have something to do with that. In fact, this month marks the end of the city’s “pilot program,” after which SDOT will analyze the bike-share data collected over the past six months and recommend what a permanent program will look like.
Undoubtedly for every voice like Gabriel’s or mine who hopes for expansion, there will be others wishing for bike-share’s demise. But traffic in Seattle is terrible now, and it’s getting worse. Buses are over-crowded now, and they’ll be more crowded tomorrow. We need more transportation options, not fewer. It’s time to shift our thinking into a different gear, where a random bike parked on your corner is not considered litter or an eyesore or a nuisance, but is a step toward a less car-centric culture. Starting in Wallingford.