You’ve probably seen them by now, the bright green bikes and the bright orange bikes scattered randomly throughout Wallingford and other neighborhoods, signaling the return of bike share to Seattle. With the demise of Pronto earlier this year Seattle became the first American city with a failed bike share system. We are now getting a second chance with not just one, but with two new bike share systems: LimeBike (the green ones) and Spin (the orange ones).
The biggest difference between these two new systems and Pronto is that Lime and Spin are “free-floating.” Bikes are self-locking and are not parked at designated stations. They are both app-based and work much like Car2Go and ReachNow—open the app, look for a bike near you, and go for a ride. 30 minutes of riding will cost you just $1.
Another huge differentiation from Pronto is that these new bikes will actually serve Wallingford. I’ve spoken to representatives from both companies who have told me that the systems’ boundaries are currently unlimited. When I asked a Spin rep if I could ride one of the bikes to Cle Elum and leave it there, he replied, “Technically, yes.”
While I haven’t yet tested the geographic boundaries of the bikes, I have taken each of them for a spin around Seattle. Both companies’ bikes are solid and comfortable to ride. Spin bikes have an easily-adjustable (and long) seatpost, which makes riding easy no matter your size. They do, however, have only 3 gears, and frankly the lowest gear is not low enough for Seattle’s hills. Lime bikes have 8 gears, with the lowest one being super low and good for climbing, though I doubt I’d take one up the Queen Anne Counterbalance. A drawback of the Lime bikes is a short seatpost. I’m 5’9” and the bike barely fits me. A friend 5 inches taller found the seat much too low even when adjusted to its highest point.
Since the bikes’ locations can be tracked online, I’ve made a hobby recently of seeing where they congregate. Unsurprisingly the bikes typically wind up near the ship canal and Lake Union, the flattest parts of the city. This points to one of the failures of Pronto: by ignoring Ballard, Fremont, Wallingford and most of the Lake Union perimeter, Pronto didn’t serve the locations where people actually ride.
The Helmet Law
In 1993, King County passed legislation to require that all bicyclists wear a helmet when riding. Interestingly, this regulation initially excluded Seattle (I was once told that this was because of the lobbying efforts of bike messengers…remember them?), but in July 2003 the county Board of Health extended the law to include Seattle as well.
A big advantage of bike share is its flexibility. A common refrain I hear is, “I already have a bike, why would I use bike share?” This misses the point. I use bike share when I need to get somewhere but don’t want to have my bike in tow. Like to take light rail to the airport or go to a concert at the zoo. This helmet law takes a bite out of that flexibility, because I don’t necessarily want to carry my helmet with me to the airport or to a show.
I’m a big advocate of wearing a helmet when riding, but I don’t think it should be illegal for adults not to do so. Partly because bike safety is very contextual. Commuting downtown at 20mph on a road bike during rush hour is much more dangerous than riding the Burke-Gilman at half the speed on a heavy bike. Quite frankly the helmet law is frequently broken and rarely enforced. It’s essentially useless and should be repealed. Hopefully Lime and Spin will put some weight behind doing so.
“Is that your bike?”
Last week, after dropping off a rental car downtown, I picked up a Spin bike near Denny and Fairview. Strangely, the bike was parked on the lawn of the Seattle Police Department’s vehicle maintenance shop. As I went to unlock it, an employee poked his head out of the office and said, “Is that your bike? It was just left on the sidewalk so I moved it over here.” I explained to him that this was a bike share bike and leaving them on the sidewalk is pretty much how it works.
The gentleman’s confusion was justifiable. It is strange to see a random bike parked on a planting strip away from a bike rack, but that’s how it works. It is imperative, however, that users of these systems don’t block pedestrian access when parking the bikes. I have seen a couple of bikes parked in a manner that obstructed a walkway. If you see something like this, feel free to pick up the bike and move it out of the way.
Lime and Spin are currently in six-month pilot stages. Both companies were permitted by the city to launch with up to 500 bikes for the first month, with a starting date of July 7, 2017. During the second month they can expand to 1,000 bikes and then 2,000 bikes in the third month. After six months, SDOT “will analyze bike rental data and performance metrics” and “evaluate the performance and efficiency of the pilot and determine if it meets the standards to become a permanent transit program.”
I know cyclists are frequently mocked by some in Seattle, but whether you find bikes to be a childish annoyance or a wonderful way to get across town, I think we can all agree that traffic in Seattle is terrible and the buses are over-crowded. We need more transportation options. Let’s hope that these new bike share systems succeed and become a permanent transit program starting next year.