Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: With Seattle’s program in jeopardy, Tacoma ready to consider bike share

Matt Newport, of Tacoma, a stay at home dad and bicycle advocate, rides with his smiling co-pilot, son Malcolm, 2, as they run errands in their North Tacoma neighborhood Wednesday.
Matt Newport, of Tacoma, a stay at home dad and bicycle advocate, rides with his smiling co-pilot, son Malcolm, 2, as they run errands in their North Tacoma neighborhood Wednesday.

As the saying goes, timing is everything.

And now is certainly an interesting time to for Tacoma to be delving into a conversation about launching a bike share program.

On Thursday, city officials will hold what’s being billed as a Bike Share Open House at The Evergreen State College Tacoma. As the city’s Active Transportation Coordinator Diane Wiatr explains, the event will be one of the first steps in a monthslong “broad public study” to determine whether a bike share program in Tacoma makes sense.

It’s an intriguing and potentially important question for the future of a city with progressive aspirations, but it’s raised with something of a black cloud from 30 miles to the north hanging over it.

Seattle launched its bike share program — Pronto Cycle Share — in late 2014. To date, it’s been a bumpy ride — to put things kindly. Hindered by a botched rollout and questionable management, Pronto ridership has failed to meet expectations. The program, not two years into its existence, now finds itself at a financial crossroads.

I think people are interested in bike share, for a number of reasons. It’s gotten a lot of media attention, I think because of the situation in Seattle.

city of Tacoma Active Transportation Coordinator Diane Wiatr

As Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat recently noted, in Pronto’s first year, people took 142,832 rides — which comes out to a mere 391 rides per day, across 54 stations. That means each station brought in an average $30 a day in revenue. Not exactly an inspiring start.

Pronto’s early failings mean the Seattle City Council now faces a decision that seemed all but impossible when the ribbons were cut in October 2014. Next week, the city’s nine council members are scheduled to vote on whether to bail out the bike share program, a move that, in a practical sense, would mean purchasing Pronto’s assets at a cost of $1.4 million.

If the city chooses not to save Pronto, Seattle’s bike share will be unceremoniously shut down. The city would also be on the hook for nearly $1 million in federal grant money it has already received.

All of these struggles raise a very obvious question: Why on earth would Tacoma want anything to do with bike share?

Apples to oranges

For a city that hates any comparison to Seattle, comparing the bike share experience so far in Seattle to what might materialize in the City of Destiny may not be fair.

Yes, there are obvious similarities, and a Tacoma bike share program would face many of the same obstacles that Seattle’s has experienced — most notably, a less than ideal climate for year-round biking, a downtown at the bottom of a formidable hill, and a law requiring the use of a helmet, something that has proved problematic for bike share programs everywhere such a regulation exists.

But bike share programs — which usually involve automated stations providing short-term bike rentals and are typically subsidized through a combination of grants, public and private partnerships, and sponsorship money — have blossomed nationally and internationally. In the United States, large cities like Washington, D.C., Denver, New York, Houston, and — for now, anyway — Seattle, all have large bike share programs, while smaller cities, like Tulsa, Oklahoma, have less ambitious operations.

Tulsa’s bike share program, which operates under the name Tulsa Townies and is privately funded by the William K. Warren Foundation, features three stations and a mere 24 bikes. Operating along a roughly 10-mile stretch of the Arkansas River, the service is open from March to November, weather permitting, and generates about 15,000 rides a year, according to spokesman David Wilson.

One thing that all bike share programs seem to have in common is a significant price tag. According to Wilson, Tulsa’s humble endeavor cost $50,000 per station to launch, and runs an annual tab of roughly $30,000 to operate.

While it’s not designed to be a legitimate transportation option for the city of nearly 400,000 people, and is instead geared toward tourists and general recreationalists, Wilson still says Tulsa Townies is considered a success.

It’s been well received. There really are no negatives about the program at all.

Tulsa bike share spokesman David Wilson

“It’s been well received,” Wilson says. “There really are no negatives about the program at all.”

Back in Tacoma, Kristina Walker, the executive director of transportation advocacy organization Downtown on the Go, cautions that if the goal here is to give people a real opportunity to get out of their car, and not just a recreational possibility to, say, rent a bike along Ruston Way, we’ll “need to invest much more heavily.”

“Bike share is meant for short trips and not just a joy ride situation,” Walker says. “A huge part of a transportation system that does not include your car, is that first and last mile. It makes short trips easier and more realistic, and it makes a huge difference in the circulation of people downtown.”

Wiatr says building a bike share program with 15 stations in Tacoma would cost an estimated $2.7 million over five years. She guesses it would take three to five years, if given the go-ahead, to launch one.

And when it comes to Tacoma’s imposing hills, she says that electric pedal-assisted bikes are a “real possibility,” while noting that acquiring them would increase the cost.

Excitement and skepticism

Coming a year after Tacoma spent just over $7,000 to have Portland-based Alta Planning produce what Wiatr calls an “initial feasibility study,” the city recently hired consultants at the Toole Design Group, which bills itself as “the nation’s leading planning, engineering and landscape architecture firm specializing in bicycle and pedestrian transportation,” to take the next step. That means a large-scale Tacoma bike share study and outreach effort, coming at a cost of $60,000.

According to Wiatr, the goal is to get input on questions including, “What would be the desirable outcome of a bike share program in Tacoma?” focusing specifically on how bike share might align with citywide goals for economic development, tourism, equity, mobility and culture.

“It is an exciting possibility,” she says, describing the reaction so far as a 50-50 mix. Instead of raising red flags, she believes the unresolved situation in Seattle provides opportunities for Tacoma to take notes. “I think what’s important to keep in mind is that while Seattle is facing challenges right now, bike share is operating successfully in many, many cities across the country. While there may be this moment of pause with what’s going on in Seattle, I don’t think it is necessarily representative of a failed system.”

$2.7 million over five years The estimated cost of a 15-station bike share program in Tacoma over five years

Still, even raising the conversation has resulted in a predictable amount of skepticism, especially given the ongoing bike share debacle up north.

As Kris “Sonics Guy” Brannon tells me, “If (Seattle) can’t make a bike share work, how is Tacoma going to make it work? And who is going to use it? What this reminds me of is Tacoma doing something just simply because Seattle does it.”

And forgetting Seattle for a moment, there’s even hesitation among some bike advocates.

“I’m not sure Tacoma is ready,” Matt Newport, a 35-year-old stay-at-home dad and the former bike coordinator for Downtown on the Go, tells me before we take off on a Tuesday morning bike ride from Peoples Park on Hilltop.

While Newport fully supports having a community conversation about the possibility of bike share in Tacoma and what it could mean for the transportation future of the city, he cites a lack of simple things like clearly painted bike lanes, dedicated trails and easily accessible connections throughout the city as realities that must first be addressed before a bike share program can succeed here.

“I think that if you’re going to have bike sharing as the ultimate goal … then you have to look at the bigger picture: What do we need to have in place in terms of infrastructure to host a bike share program, and a successful one?” Newport says.

Others, like East Side resident Terry Wilmer, worry that pursuing a bike share program might distract the city from more pressing needs, like bus and transit service in underserved areas of the city. He’s also worried about where a bike share program might go — and, more specifically, where it might not go.

“I don’t think the city has ever really discriminated against East Tacoma. The problem is they start projects up north, and then they run out of money or gumption by the time the get to this side of the freeway,” he says.

I don’t think the city has ever really discriminated against East Tacoma. The problem is they start projects up north, and then they run out of money or gumption by the time the get to this side of the freeway.

East Side resident Terry Wilmer

What’s next?

According to Wiatr, having all these conversations now is part of a robust public process. While she can certainly see the value of a bike share program — in terms of increasing transportation options and potentially reducing greenhouse gases — she’s also maintaining a neutral stance while things play out.

“I am doing my best work on this so we have an accurate and positive outcome,” she says of the city’s role with the study.

Public meetings, like the one scheduled Thursday night, along with an online survey, will attempt to gauge, “Who would use (bike share) and how they would use it?” Wiatr says.

The results are expected be forwarded to the Tacoma City Council in late May. Elected officials then will decide whether to pursue a bike share program, hold off, or potentially find a middle ground — like launching a small pilot program to “to give us an understanding of how bike share might work more broadly,” Wiatr explains.

In other words, everything is on the table.

“It’s about what we want the transportation system in Tacoma to look like. It’s not about creating any one thing for any one group of people,” Walker says.

“The people who will use it might not know they need it yet.”

What: Bike Share Open House.

When: Thursday, Feb. 25, from 5-7 p.m.

Where: Tacoma campus of The Evergreen State College, Main Hall, 1210 Sixth Ave., Tacoma.