Seattle welcomes new bike share program

SEATTLE -- Seattle welcomes bike share version 3.0 with a pilot program opening Friday and running through the end of the year.

As many as 10 companies are hoping to launch bicycles under the pilot program, including LimeBike and Spin, and none of them plans to have docks. Instead, the bikes will be free-floating, parked on the sidewalks over the city.

Seattle's Department of Transportation last week released regulations as to how the pilot program will be operated, including fees that ought to add up to hundreds of thousands in the city's coffers if all the new companies roll out the minimum of 500 bikes.

Also, if 10 companies launch with 500 bikes a piece, that's 5,000 bicycles on Seattle's streets (and the companies will be allowed to scale up in coming months).

As if the potential number of bikes crowding the crowded city isn't enough, there's the matter of helmets.

In SDOT's regulations for the pilot program, the department sets out that companies must notify users that helmets are required in throughout King County. SDOT's regulations do not, however, require that bike share companies provide those helmets.

King County's helmet law requires that any bicyclist riding on public streets or trails wear a helmet. That same regulation also requires that anyone who rents a bike to someone can only do so if the renter has a helmet.

Spin confirmed that it will "remind and require users to acknowledge that they're wearing helmets before riding," but won't be handing out helmets.

LimeBike, for its part, will give out 1,000 helmets to new users, a spokesperson confirmed by email Wednesday.

Permits under the pilot program will be good for six months, enough time for SDOT to collect data and see what works, including whether people carry helmets around in case they decide to use a bike share.

"What we're looking to achieve in terms of this pilot is to basically monitor and evaluate how this goes," said Mafara Hobson, director of communications for SDOT. "So, if we see that there are lots of people riding the bikes and they don't have helmets...there will be adjustments made."

SDOT already learned that at least one variation of bike share doesn't work in Seattle. The Pronto cycle share program launched in 2014 became a money pit that never seemed to gain the level of popularity its supporters hoped for.

At what was likely its peak in July 2015, the program had less than 3,000 members, and that number fell to roughly 1,800 by last July. The city bought out the failing program in March 2016, but ultimately ended it this past March, after spending more than $2.2 million over the course of the program.

"Three years ago, we launched a citywide bike share program in Seattle. And, no It didn't work," said SDOT Director Scott Kubly, in a news release about the new bike share pilot. "But our SDOT team never stopped working to deliver on our commitment to provide a bike share mobility option."

If the peak membership of Pronto was less than 3,000, it remains to be seen how 5,000 bicycles might get used during the pilot program, but companies are betting that the free-floating factor will make all the difference in getting people to use them.

Parking those bikes is another aspect mentioned in the pilot program regulations. Users can't just leave them willy nilly all over the sidewalk. SDOT will require that they be parked in the part of the sidewalk between the pedestrian walkway and the curb, otherwise known as the landscape/furniture zone.

Applications for the permits opened last Friday, and Spin estimated it may have approval as soon as Friday this week, while LimeBike estimated it would begin operations by mid to late July.