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City of Seattle rolls out rules for private bike shares

Bike-share programs will grace our streets once again

A line of shared bikes in Beijing.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) announced a set of regulations on Friday that will govern how private companies operate their bike shares. With multiple companies almost ready to launch in Seattle—we profiled the companies that we know of so far—that means we could have bikes ready to ride within the next couple of weeks.

The top-level summary: The new regulations outline safety requirements, parking rules, and minimum service levels while protecting the city financially and ensuring an open line of communication.

“We’re dealing with equity issues, we’re making sure that the bikes are well maintained, we’re making sure that they’re kind of balanced around the system and meeting our public policy goals,” SDOT director Scott Kubly told Curbed Seattle.

By establishing a permit process instead of choosing one vendor for a city bikeshare, said Kubly, the city is “giving them a chance to get up and running a lot faster” than they would under a Request for Proposals process, which could take six months to a year.

With the permit system, Kubly said, as soon as you can demonstrate you have the proper insurance requirements and you’re in compliance with the permit, “you can get up and running as quickly as you can.”

“What we hope is by doing that we’ll have multiple operators and more bikes than we could get using public money, and because it’s competitive the customer’s going to be getting the best service and we’re still going to be able to meet our public policy goals,” he explained.

Kubly was also at the helm for Seattle’s failed Pronto bike-share program—both during its inception as a nonprofit and after the city bought the program out.

There are a few lessons there, Kubly said: First, “just the logistical lessons, like we needed a greater density of bikes in the service area so that it was easier for people to pick up and drop off bikes so they’re available.”

He said that dockless bike shares might work better for our topography, since you don’t have to worry about parking a bike at the bottom of a hill to get to a meeting at the top of a hill, for example.

“The big lesson that I hope people working in SDOT take away from this is just because we try it and it didn’t work it doesn’t mean you have to take it away,” he summarized.

The hills get to a major issue with Pronto: Hills and accessibility. Kubly told us that a few electric bike companies have approached SDOT about working with them.

“If we’re going to do bikesharing for everybody, we think that electric bikes are critical to that,” explained Kubly. “We’re going to find out if it’s the number of bikes that’s the difference or electric bikes or both.”

The regulatory framework is, as far as they know, a first-in-the-country program. San Francisco passed an ordinance to establish rules, but they don’t have any in place yet.

“They just asked for a copy of ours,” said Kyle Rowe, who manages bike-share programs for SDOT.

Kubly is also vice president of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) board. “We were just on a call last week talking about NACTO funding a study for how we would do something like this,” he told us, “and we’re getting a jump on it.”

The program is a pilot, so the rules are subject to change. “Some of it’s going to go great, some of it’s going to be lessons learned when we roll into a permanent program,” said Kubly. “As this rolls out, we absolutely recognize that there are going to be some folks who say you have to tweak this, that, or the other.”

“We want to make sure to get the best possible outcome,” he said.

Kubly told us SDOT will be evaluating the program in real time, but the pilot runs through the end of the year. “If the pilot is successful,” he said, “we’ll try to figure out that transition [around] January from a pilot to a permanent program.”

SDOT is already adapting the rules to prevent problems other cities have seen, like in San Francisco, when large numbers Bluegogo bikes were abandoned on the street in the Castro—or in China, which has seen multiple instances of piles of damaged bikes abandoned by the side of the road.

“One, our policy doesn’t allow for broken bikes on the street,” explained Rowe. Second, he said, those problems arise because companies deploy a large amount of bikes at one time, hoping to generate revenue from them until they break.

A situation like that, he said, is “not possible, because they wouldn’t even get a permit approved based on everything we’re requiring that we want to see.”

“Imagine a scenario where they’re not being responsive to complaints about broken bikes, we’ll just impound on the bikes,” Kubly added. “If those bikes aren’t being taken off the street and maintained, we’ll take them off the street and they can pick them up whenever.”

We’ve summarized the bike-share framework below in a few categories. You can read the full licensing requirements here.

Fleet size and service scope

Bike-share operators need to have a minimum fleet of 500 standard bicycles—there’s no minimum for electric bikes—with a service area not exceeding 340 bikes per square mile.

This means on rollout, bikes will need to have a certain service area size.

At first, operators launch with no more than 500 during the first month of the pilot, relative to a start date of July 7. In the second month, they can expand to 1,000, and increase to 2,000 after the third month if they fulfill all other requirements.

The phased-in rollout, Kubly said, is “so we can adapt our policies on the fly... and adapt and be responsive as we can as we learn more about the system.”

Regardless, if a bike share has 2,000 or more vehicles, they’re required to include Tier 1 Priority Hire neighborhoods, a list that identifies economically distressed ZIP codes, in 20 percent of their service area. While that includes some softball locations like parts of Downtown, Belltown, and Capitol Hill, it also includes parts of north Ballard, the Central District, and Rainier Beach.

Most of Pronto’s service area was in Tier 1 ZIP codes—so will this address the equity problem at all?

Kubly told us that more stringent service area requirements could be coming in the future. “What I anticipate with this is if the pilot is successful we come up with a more robust equity program,” he explained.

He brought up car-sharing as an example. When they lifted the cap on the number of cars on the street, he said, they did so under the condition that car shares had to serve the entire city.

“We’re trying to make sure with the pilot that will have [an equity] component to it,” he said, but with a full program “we’ll try to make sure we’re serving the city equitably.”


Bike shares won’t be required to do a Pronto-style helmet share, but they will be required to have visible language telling users about helmet laws and to yield to pedestrians on the sidewalk.

All bikes have to meet federal and international sets of safety guidelines, and electric bikes have to meet a few more: “fully operable pedals, an electric motor of less than 750 watts, and a top motor-powered speed of less than 20 miles per hour when operated by a rider weighing 170 pounds.”

Bikes also have to comply with Washington’s bike light laws, which currently require a white light in the front and a rear reflector in the back.

There needs to also be a way for riders to let the bike-share company know when there’s a maintenance issue with a bicycle. Any bike that’s inoperable or unsafe needs to be removed within 24 hours of notice.


Bikes need to be upright when they’re parked, so no “horrible piles” of broken bikes on the side of the road.

Free-floating bikes—like the dockless bike shares currently getting ready for business—can only be parked in the “landscape/furniture” zone of the sidewalk or on an SDOT bicycle rack. If that landscape zone is less than three feet wide, it’s a no-go. On blocks without sidewalks, bikes can be parked in a way that doesn’t impede pedestrian or vehicle traffic.

Bikes can’t be parked on or adjacent to parklets, streateries, bus stops or shelters, loading zones, curb ramps, or driveways. Basically, they can’t get in anyone’s way, and it’s SDOT’s call whether or not the bikes are, in fact, getting in someone’s way.

Bike-share operators are required to inform riders of the rules, and if a bike is incorrectly parked, the operator has two hours to correct it between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. most weekdays. That extends to 10 hours during all other times.

They’re free to figure out other parking zones on private property, as long as they work with whoever owns it to coordinate and display signage.

SDOT also carved out an ability to geofence bike-share parking locations.

“We heard candidly from people… our block, it’s too busy,” said Rowe. “Maybe in the long future when we have so many bikes that in the downtown core maybe we only operate in station and [outside] its free floating. That’s a plausible future but we don’t really know until we get a pilot out there.”

Rowe told us that while there’s “plenty of sidewalk space today,” they can’t predict future needs as more employers move in and the city grows.

Communication, data, and customer service

The city needs to get real-time data on the bikes in a way that allows them to share bike availability in real-time (and make sure the programs are being managed efficiently).

A Spin bike in Downtown Seattle.
Courtesy of Spin

More specifically: They need to share their data with the city through a standardized API, giving real-time info as to bike location, ID number, bike type, and, if they’re electric, fuel level. They’ll also have to share anonymized user demographic data.

Bike-share companies have the option of either providing this information directly to the city or providing it to the University of Washington’s data collaborative, which gives them the option of not sharing specific data with their competitors.

“[Data sharing] is something Uber and Lyft resisted, because ‘what if our competitor gets a hold of us?’” said Kubly. He hopes this can set a model for how the city operates with other services.

Operators are required to have a 24-hour customer service line where riders can report issues and have a “staffed operations center in the City of Seattle.” They also need to provide a contact for SDOT to call for staff to “relocate or rebalance” bikes.

Financials and insurance

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Here’s what it’ll cost for a bike-share company to do business here, and how the city’s protecting their own dollars: Each annual bike share license costs $149, plus an hourly fee for reviewing the permit and $15 per bike. If the bike-share program has docks or needs use of the street, they need to go through extra review and permitting.

Operators need certain types of liability insurance with minimum limits of $3 million, both per occurrence and aggregate, and include the city on that insurance.

The city is also requiring a performance bond of $80 per bicycle, with a $10,000 cap, or at about 125 bicycles. Kubly compared this to a security deposit. They won’t tap into this for routine repairs or maintenance, but if a bike share program, for example, ends service, the city won’t be financially on the hook for cleaning up after them.

If the city’s crews need to relocate or remove bikes from prohibited locations or fix city infrastructure broken as a result of the bikes, they’ll charge the offending bike-share company 115 percent the crews’ hourly rate. Rowe tells us that this isn’t unusual or specific to the bike-share program.

Depending on whether bike-share companies are storing their wares in Seattle or California, and depending on how long it takes for them to get insured, bike-shares could be up and running in Seattle again incredibly quickly.

While talking to us, Kubly seemed optimistic that a permit program is a better way to go.

Pronto wasn’t financially feasible as a nonprofit, he said, and the public program didn’t work “for a lot of valid reasons,” but “you pick yourself up, dust yourself up, and say, ‘we know this is going to be a good part of our transportation system and we’re going to try to find a different way to do it.’”