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LimeBike bike share rolls out in Seattle

The bike-share program is launching—just slowly

LimeBikes at a test-ride location in South Lake Union.
Sarah Anne Lloyd

On Monday, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) approved two permits for private bike-share companies: Spin and LimeBike.

Almost instantly, hundreds of orange Spin bikes hit the streets ready for riders. But LimeBike has been slower to let out its appropriately lime-green bikes. The program is functional—the app, available on iOS and Android, finds bikes available to unlock and ride—but the bikes themselves are few and far between, for now.

A screenshot of the LimeBike app.

“We’ll be deploying 500 very soon,” said LimeBike CEO Toby Sun. (500 is the fleet size dictated by the first phase of SDOT’s pilot program.)

Sun said they’re “taking very careful steps to test out” the program instead of “just doing an immediate rollout of those 500 bikes.”

LimeBike has been putting 10 new bikes out on the street in different locations, “then [letting] it flow for a day and see how it goes.”

“Then we’ll take this collective data and do the full rollout,” Sun explained. “Our plan is going to be any time end of this week or early next week, depending on the confidence of our plan. So if we collect enough data, we know this area requires a little more bikes, may require a little less based on usage.”

He said they’re also comparing data and user patterns from Pronto and watching how the bikes interact with their locations: “For example, some area has higher elevation so it may or may not be a good fit to deploy a lot of bikes... if the data just shows a bunch of people just showing people riding really fast down hill.”

“We tend to be responsible and scientific on the phase-in process,” he explained. He said even when working with colleges and smaller cities they do a phase-in approach, even though “the risk level of rolling out more bikes is relatively lower” than in Seattle.

“We want to make sure we manage an operation well,” he told us. “We want to do the same for Seattle... by following what we’ve learned in the other markets.”

What that means at first: When they’re only allowed 500 bikes, Sun said, they’ll mainly be distributing bikes around the downtown area. “We’ll stack them there then let the bikes flow,” he said.

Letting the bikes flow means that users can take them anywhere in the city for a kind of organic distribution. They don’t have any intention to set boundaries about where the bikes should be dropped off. “There’s only kind of plans for initial deployment [of the bikes] based on the data and useage,” Sun clarified.

“We’ve seen people riding bikes to West Seattle and to neighborhoods we thought people might not be riding to,” he explained. “So I think this is a great opportunity to learn and prepare ourselves before we do a dump of 500 bikes. This is a chance to learn and be responsible.”

Sun said he wants the bikes to “really become a part of people’s lives at [their] convenience”—and part of that is letting people take the bikes where they need to go.

In phase two, Sun said, they’ll start putting bikes out beyond the downtown core.

“We are flexible and we can deploy bikes to anywhere there’s a need,” said Sun. “So we’ll be covering the whole city, and if there’s more demand from neighborhoods outside Seattle, we’ll meet that demand too.”

“If there’s still a lot of people opening the app and cannot find a bike... or if there’s a number of bikes underutilized we will [distribute] them to the underserved area.”

The bottom line, said Sun, is that they want as many people as possible to be able to ride their bikes. He told us that solutions for people without smartphones or credit cards are in the works—and perhaps discounts for low-income communities.

He said the next generation of bikes will include a keypad, allowing people without bank accounts to pay with cash at a separate location and unlock a bike later. They’re also putting together a web portal so people without smartphones can pay online in advance, then call to unlock a bike.

“Throughout the pilot program we’ll also do a lot of consumer research to find out what the other equity user requirements we need to provide to get more people to use our service,” he said. With a dock-based bike share, he said, “sometimes it’s just serving a small percentage of people because of the coverage, because the abilities are not as good as ours. We’re trying really hard to improve the service and product to get more people covered.”

We asked Sun about one of the bigger sticking points for Seattle bike-share programs: King County’s mandatory helmet law. He said LimeBike respects the law: “We realize some of the area is really steep,” he said. “We think the city regulations protect people, which is great.”

He said there’s information in the app to help people know about the law, and that they’re giving away 1,000 “well-designed, Seattle-customized” helmets during their launch.

“I think this is just the beginning, but in the future we’ll work with the city closely to educate and promote the on-bike safety thing,” he said.

Sun said that the more bikes are on the road, the safer things are—so they hope by putting more bikes on the road, they’ll help improve Seattle bike safety overall.

“From the other markets feedback and observation, we do think that the more people that are riding bikes, the less dangerous it is for the riders on the street because the drivers are paying more attention and the infrastructure will be improved because more people are riding the bike,” he explained. “We think it’s kind of a positive loop if we have a supply of dockless bikeshare so people are riding more.... and it makes the riding environment safer.”

Their bikes were designed to be safe, he said. We initially noted that LimeBike’s Seattle design is geared low, allowing riders to go up hills more easily—but that ratio on a hybrid bike has another effect, too. “You can’t go really fast with our bikes,” said Sun. “It’s not a road bike or racing bike. That’s something we do to protect the user.”

He added that the bikes have all gone through an 800-pound pressure test and passed.

Since they’re building the bike supply slowly, their big launch event is still more than a week off—but the weekend of July 29 they have what Sun calls “LimeRide Weekend” (another employee told us “Tour de Lime”), partnering with local businesses to create biking destinations.

Riders will be able to collect stamps at these locations to win prizes.

He said they “created the company with a [goal] to solve the first and last mile problem in the US”—a term that describes getting that last mile from a transit hub to home.

“We hope by working with Seattle and a lot of the communities within Seattle, for example the University of Washington and the neighborhoods and the nearby cities we can really establish a role model... to provide a service to get more people to use green transportation, and we’re really excited about that.”

Watch for a sea of green bikes enveloping the city soon. In the meantime, trying out the bikes might be a little easier at their test-ride locations: July 20 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Gasworks Park, July 21 and 22 from noon to 7 p.m. at Seattle Center between the fountain and Key Arena, and July 23 at the west end of the Fremont Market from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.