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Lessons Vancouver can learn from Seattle's bike share program

The Seattle bike share program, launched in 2014, has some shortcomings, says a local bike blogger, including size, accessibility and 30-minute return times.

Vancouver's Mobi public bike share launched in July and by the end of summer expects to have 1,500 bikes and 150 stations.

Matt Kieltyka/Metro File

Vancouver's Mobi public bike share launched in July and by the end of summer expects to have 1,500 bikes and 150 stations.

Since Seattle started its bike share program two years ago, cycling advocate Tom Fucoloro figures his walking time has increased as has his transit use, but his actual cycling time has gone down.

For Fucoloro, this was a strange and unexpected outcome and the author of Seattle Bike Blog, calculates it all comes down to laziness.

“Before I would bike a block or two to the grocery store because I didn’t want to walk,” he says. “I bike because I’m really lazy. But the bike share access means I end up walking more to get bikes and taking light rail more. Getting my own bike on the rail was a headache.”

Pronto, the Seattle system, has been in place since 2014 and is still hitting its stride, according to Fucoloro, who is a member and a fan but clear-sighted about its shortcomings.

“Vancouver and Portland went big, Seattle went middle and that’s why it’s not the success it should be,” he says.

Vancouver’s Mobi, our city’s version of bike share, which started a few weeks ago, will have 1,500 bikes and 150 stations by the end of summer. Seattle’s system, which began in 2014, has 500 bikes and 54 stations, about one third the fleet and docking areas as Vancouver.

Does size and accessibility matter? Seattle hasn’t hit its sweet spot yet, Fucoloro believes.

Seattle’s odd system of forcing a return every 30 minutes is puzzling. Residents who own memberships that cost $7.95 a month get 45 minutes to return the bike after complaints were lodged that some stations were too far apart to make a half hour trip reasonable.

The system, as is Vancouver’s, is designed to appeal to both residents and visitors. Seattle has its own foreign tax, apparently, with non-residents paying $8 a day. In Seattle, foreigners subsidize local residents. They have to return their bikes every 30 minutes to a docking station or get charged for going over the half hour mark.

If bike shares are to work, Fucoloro believes the formulation has to be lots of people makings lots of short trips and calculating that a 5-minute bike ride is preferable to a 15 to 20 minute walk.

Whether Vancouver’s program will be able to do that is still unknown. Getting people from sidewalks to bike lanes may be one measure of success as well as increased use of SkyTrain and the bus system. As Fucoloro believes, the more choices available that don’t involve a person driving is an automatic win.

Vancouver and Seattle’s bike share systems also share another thing in common. Both are the rare jurisdictions that have helmet laws. That forced both Pronto and Mobi to add in extra measures of securing helmets and bikes that are unheard of in other major North American cities. As anyone walking by one of the Vancouver Mobi stations this summer have already found out, the surest place to find puzzled tourists have been around the docking areas.

Not everyone is used to wearing helmets and the bike share program in Seattle has sparked renewed discussions about whether it’s time to repeal the law there.  By hard numbers alone, Canadian bike share programs are more dangerous than American ones.

A study by the Mineta Transportation Institute released in March of this year found that of more than 23 million bike shares in North America, not a single death occurred in the United States at the time. That number has since changed.

In Chicago in July, a bike share user was in a fatal accident, the first bike share death in America. That still makes the United States a safer bike sharing place than Canada.

The Mineta study found that the only three deaths that were known to have occurred by bike share users were one in Mexico and two in Canada. Fewer bike sharing users, it would seem, doesn’t mean a safer ride.

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