Seattle has been setting trends for a long time. Being near the water and having a bounty of lumber, it has always been a place for new ideas and emerging markets. The birthplace of the grunge music scene, the idea of paying $5 for a cup of coffee, the $15 minimum wage and most recently, the first city to allow Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize.
Earlier this year, Seattle broke new ground again by being the first city in the US to institute a dockless bike share program. Capitalizing on the "gee-whiz factor" of GPS enabled, always-connected internet devices, venture capitalists from Silicon Valley swooped in to fill the void left by the (short-lived) Pronto bike share in Seattle's beautifully condensed city.
It may not be the most friendly when it comes to hill and elevation change but that's how we get those sweeping vistas we love so much. Seattle led the latest push to normalize cycling with two newly founded companies, Spin and Limebike, joined by established Chinese powerhouse ofo later in the year. With a brand new set of bikeshare city permit codes, drafted by Kyle Rowe, Seattle began to see public bike usage grow for the first time.
The program is pretty straightforward. You shoot a laser into space and an app goes to your phone; enter your card information and with a barcode scan you unlock the rear wheel, allowing you to bike for $1/30min ($1/hr with ofo). This is about as simple as you can get to operate and in the first year, I have seen it used pretty frequently. Chances are, you’ve seen a wobbly rider on the trail or street and noticed the bright green, yellow or orange frames.
Having a well-fitting bicycle and no phone, I haven’t had a chance to test the service personally, but can attest to its convenience when hanging out with other non-cyclists. Avoiding the common “meet-you-there” scenario that normally plays out, I’ve had friends simply locate a bike around the corner and ride along to another location. Riding together allows the freedom to be sidetracked and explore out of spontaneity. One of life's great pleasures. Even if pulling over is simply to gawk at a small dog.
The adoption of this program in Seattle has led to its rapid growth. The current city permit stipulates 500 bikes are allowed the first month, 1,000 the second, 2,000 the third, etc. This could potentially mean upwards of 10,000 bikes by the end of the year, and with the increase of instances of neglect, this could develop into a bigger problem.
I stand conflicted with this current state. On one hand, I support any attempt to de-fetishize cycling. I’m against the divide it elicits in people when considering public road use or right of way. I've seen so much aggression when people takes sides in the "car vs cyclist" debate. Many people treat bicycle ownership like a secret club that only the enlightened can take advantage of. This just creates more division. But on the other hand, it puts too much faith in the inherent respect people have for something they are implicitly responsible for. Many of these bike share bikes are being used and enjoyed but then immediately after, tossed aside with no regard to the public space. The current model simply has no way to incentivize proper storage of bikes after riding.
If I were tasked with solving the problem, I might suggest something that includes discounted riding tokens if you can take a picture of your bike parked in a place where it isn't impeding anyone. You could even add a "leaderboard" element to this to get people to compete to find the best existing spaces to park the bikes. Even get involved with the city and specify bike parking preferences with signage or "corrals" where you get vouchers by filling them with nearby bikes. But I'm no city planner, so I'll just leave that to the professionals.
It's annoying to see bike share riders simply dismount at a bike rack and position the bike in way that blocks the rack from being used by people who brought their own lock and bicycle. I’ve even seen bikes abandoned in the middle of Fremont Bridge! With the many times a day the bridge raises, the responsibility of the bike becomes that of the bridge operator and that isn't cool. Not that you could go anywhere once you got to the middle of the bridge anyway.
Many people have pointed out that the success of the current systems is due to the disregard the companies have for the mandatory helmet law. Ostensibly, the current permits require that bike share companies only inform people that there is a law, not to supply anything. The implication was that people will bring their helmets with them as they use the bike share program on the way to work. Honestly, when trying to launch a convenience-based business, adding an extra level of inconvenience can mean the difference of somebody choosing to ride a bike or not. I believe that the lack of helmets on riders of the programs will create a precedent of more helmetless rides in general for the future.
And I see this as a good thing.
Before I lose you entirely, I support helmet use. It's protection and can prevent potentially lethal injuries while partaking in the inherent danger of piloting a bicycle. However, it isn't logical to criminalize those who forgo the foam hat. There is an abundance of research that supports the idea that compulsory helmet use doesn't support cycling proliferation and in the cities that fully embrace the bicycle in mainstream culture, helmets are not mandatory. Removing the barriers of entry is an effective ways to normalize the idea of cycling to the average non-cyclist. A helmet requirement to the bike share program doesn't allow cycling to be a spontaneous convenience, the main pillar of its success.
All said, I still own a helmet and any time I go on longer rides where traffic is present, I'll wear it. But for the mile commute to and from work, my helmet tends to stay dry at home. Despite my personal choice, I will always advocate for the safety a helmet can offer and with the recent introduction of MIPS technology, helmets will constantly decrease the likelihood of concussions.
Ultimately, the bloom of the bike share programs in Seattle is good for all cyclists, casual and dedicated. Not only does its presence make everybody else safer, but it will increase the number of people who buy bicycles after they experience the untailored discomfort of a "universal fit" bike share bike. The more people who bike on the road and demonstrate how bikes need their own lane, the quicker our city will construct and approve projects for ease of transport. I, for one, look forward to seeing how our city will grow alongside the biking community given this explosion in bike riders throughout the city. As city congestion levels raise, we will see our city infrastructure adapt to accommodate alternative methods of transport. Ones that don't need fossil fuel.
Ones that allow you to literally stop and smell the roses.
(All opinions expressed are that of the author)