Bike share is back

Spin, LimeBike jostle for market as part of city's pilot program

Less than four months after the final ride of Pronto, bike share has rolled back into Seattle.

Already, there are more bikes out on Seattle streets than there were during that system’s 30-month run, and none are anchored to docking stations or city funding.

Those are the major changes in the city’s approach to bike share as part of its new pilot program. So far, two companies — San Mateo, Calif.-based LimeBike and Spin out of San Francisco — have launched with their fleets of “dockless” bikes.

Both share a similar model: Use a smartphone app to locate the nearest bike, scan the bike’s QR code to unlock it, and ride at the rate of $1 per 30 minutes of use. Spin has also unveiled a $29 monthly membership program for unlimited 30-minute rides, while LimeBike is working on a similar effort.

Both companies are limited to a fleet of 500 bikes until Aug. 6, at which point they can expand to 1,000 (they both plan on doing so). In early September, they can expand to 2,000, and can go as far beyond that as they choose come October.

“We’re excited to see how it works,” said SDOT pedestrian and bicycle transportation planner Kyle Rowe. “And then after the six months of the pilot, we’ll evaluate and we’ll figure out how to make it a permanent program.”

That could mean that the city chooses just one company to move forward, but Rowe said his guess is that allowing competition — a la ReachNow and Car2Go with car sharing — is the likelier outcome.

In the meantime, Spin and LimeBike are jostling for position in the market, one they both believe is primed for their efforts despite the demise of Pronto.

For Gabriel Scheer, LimeBike’s director of strategic partnerships, the dockless model means a cheaper system to operate — without the upkeep of stations — and can be scaled up quickly. Because the bikes can be parked wherever a ride ends, it also provides what Scheer referred to as “certainty of mobility,” in tandem with other modes of transportation.

“Let’s say you took a LimeBike, to go out for a drink with friends, and then at the end of the drink you realize, ‘Yeah, I shouldn’t be biking home,’ so you get a Lyft,” he said. “What you still got was certainty of mobility. You still got too and from where you needed to go, and I think that’s what we think we can beat, or do better, than what Pronto ever could.”

Meanwhile, Spin co-founder Derrick Ko said while Pronto was effective for those “very-specific use cases,” where people had reason to travel between stations, there are clear advantages to a free-floating system.

“I think the benefit from a stationless system [is it] allows us to hit a wider variety of neighborhoods, and not really be constrained by the availability and density of the station network,” he said.

Though both Spin and LimeBike have a similar usage model, where the differences start to emerge is in the bikes themselves.

The bright orange Spin bikes are of the three-speed variety, but based on early rider feedback the company will roll out the ‘Twelve’ this month, with an adjusted gear ratio among other changes.  

“We have a really nimble supply chain that allows us to quickly adapt our bikes and upgrade our bikes,” Ko said.

Meanwhile, LimeBike offers green eight-gear bikes, which were designed to best handle the city’s terrain, Scheer said.

“We worked really hard on two things,” he said. “The gears — the number of them — and then also the gear ratio, to try to make it as easy possible for as many people as possible to climb Seattle’s hills.”

The companies also took a slightly different approach to their launches. Spin was first out of the gate, and recorded more than 5,000 rides in its first week, with the highest concentrations of bike pickups downtown, in Fremont and in the University District. LimeBike followed about a week and a half later, with its official launch last Thursday, and logged more than 2,000 rides in its first 48 hours of having a full fleet on city streets.

Scheer said the company “wanted to make sure we learned enough to launch right.”

“We’ve actually been going door-to-door to small neighborhood businesses here in Seattle, to talk to people and let them know, ‘Hey, this is coming, this is what this means, we want you to know about it,’ and I think that’s to me our approach in a nutshell, is trying to be very deliberate, very intentional, very engaged, and then go live,” he said.

LimeBike is also distributing 1,000 custom-designed helmets to encourage riders to use them, in accordance with King County’s mandatory helmet law. Unlike Pronto, the companies are not required to provide helmets with their bikes.

But Spin is also touting community engagement as something that sets it apart. Ko noted the company’s ‘Spin Cities’ project, pledging a portion of ride revenue to improving bike infrastructure.

“We feel [it] really will create a virtuous cycle of both producing more bikers, creating better bike infrastructure, and just keep feeding itself, and it will get Seattle to really be a top-tier bike city, not just in the U.S. but globally,” Ko said.

The company also seeded that program with $10,000, and is collaborating with Bike Works on some of the nonprofit’s youth and adult programs.

Ultimately, Ko said, the goal for him and his company is to “create a system where there’s always a bike where anyone needs [one].”

That’s not far off from what Scheer hopes for LimeBike.

“Dockless offers a new opportunity to rethink what bike sharing is and does,” he said, “and it is the opportunity to create such a big network that in fact it could become an alternative for a lot of people who might not now use their bikes as their main source of transportation, or frankly as even a secondary source.”

Though Spin and LimeBike are the two current participants in the city’s pilot, they’ll probably have more competition in the coming weeks. Rowe said last week that the city is reviewing two more applications.

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