On a recent visit to New York City, I marveled at the sheer bravery of the people using Citi Bike, New York’s bike-share program.
Or maybe it was their audacity that struck me. Many of these helmetless people weaving around delivery trucks and taxicabs and metro buses seemed to be my age — which equates to “was alive in the ’50s” — and I remember thinking, “You’ll never catch me riding a bike around Manhattan.”
Heck, you’ll never catch me riding a bike around Seattle. I do a lot of car driving and bus riding in Seattle. Bike riding? Not so much. For all of Seattle’s pronouncements that it’s a bike-friendly city, I have concluded after years of observational research that bicyclists here might as well be riding around with targets on their backs. Because someday, unless they’re incredibly lucky, these poor two-wheel types are going to have a run-in with a beefier, brawnier vehicle or a badly designed city street. Or both.
So it was with equal parts amusement and confusement that I read about Seattle’s own bike-share system, Pronto, being in trouble. Seems the program needed an infusion of $1.4 million — pronto — just to keep the tires inflated and the chains lubed. By the time you read this, the City Council likely will have voted on a Seattle Department of Transportation request to take over Pronto from the nonprofit Puget Sound Bike Share that has operated it since its launch 18 months ago. (That nonprofit actually pays another firm called Motivate to run the day-day operations.)
The city’s options are to just say no to bike sharing and let the experiment die a natural death, or to pick up the $1.4 million tab and let Seattle DOT come up with a way to keep the system afloat. Most proponents of the latter option say it would require expanding the network beyond downtown Seattle, where ridership is OK, if not robust, and the University District, where ridership is abysmal. Adding bike-rack stations in other neighborhoods, the theory goes, would help create an honest-to-goodness system that encourages people throughout the city to consider bicycling a viable first option when commuting to work, running errands or just having fun.
Detractors say bike sharing will never be a huge success here because Seattle is so goshdarned hilly. Motor-assisted bikes might help blunt that argument, of course. Or we could just regrade those hills into Puget Sound and become flatter than a Chicago accent. We’ve done it before.
Seriously, the idea of expanding ride share only makes sense in a city that’s serious about bicyclist safety. I don’t see Seattle as a safe bike city. Maybe I’m simply becoming too skittish in my dotage, but you couldn’t pay me enough to cruise down the Second Avenue bike lane at 8 in the morning with cars and trucks whizzing past my elbow at 30 miles an hour.
Forty-five years ago, I drove in Manhattan. Totally unintimidated. Twenty-five years ago, I bungee jumped. Totally unhinged. Today, I’m totally sane. And I don’t bike in Seattle.
Perhaps a more comprehensive bike-share network operated by the city will help usher in improvements that eventually turn Seattle into Amsterdam West. And maybe then I’ll be less skittish about riding a bike downtown. Or across the Ballard Bridge. Or on Capitol Hill. Until then, consider me bikeless in Seattle.
John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.