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Despite complaints, most of Seattle likes those neon-colored rental bikes

Complaints have poured in over the yellow, green and orange bikes that have sprouted like mushrooms across Seattle, yet 74 percent of Seattleites have a favorable opinion of the rapidly expanding bike share program, according to a Seattle Department of Transportation survey.

One out of every three people in Seattle hopped on one of the city’s brightly colored rental bikes in the second half of last year.

The proliferation of Lime, Ofo and Spin rental bicycles has been hard to miss: from zero a year ago, when Seattle was the only major American city without a bike share program, to 10,000 bikes on city sidewalks and streets today.

“This has happened super, super quickly,” Seattle Department of Transportation bike share program manager Joel Miller told Seattle City Council members on Tuesday.

Now, Seattle is home to nearly one out of every four of these “dockless” rental bikes in the entire United States.

Later this month, the council is expected to decide whether to extend the pilot project into a permanent program — and how to revise it if so.

To date, the dockless bikes have been paid for by the bicycle companies and their customers.

The pilot launched after the city’s short-lived Pronto bike share system — in which bicycles had to be returned to docking stations — imploded for lack of users in 2017.

“Companies approached Seattle to pilot this product without competing with a legacy system,” Miller said.

The city permitted two companies from San Francisco (Lime and Spin) and one from China (Ofo) to scatter their free-standing rental bikes around town.

User data gathered by the bike companies and analyzed at the University of Washington showed that more men than women ride the bikes, but people of all races are using them, and in most parts of the city.

The Pronto system served a much more limited area.

Thirty-six percent of Hispanic and African-American Seattleites have used bike share, slightly more than the 32 percent of Asians and whites who have used it.

“That just changes my perceptions on who bikes and who doesn’t bike,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said.

Miller said the city was seeing more riders than anticipated in Rainier Valley, Georgetown and Seattle’s industrial district, but that lower-income neighborhoods at the northern and southern ends of the city were experiencing little use. He said the companies needed to do more to reach underserved neighborhoods.

In the city’s survey of 600 adults, Seattle residents said they liked that the bikes don’t harm the climate, they make getting around town fun and they free users from worrying about having a bike stolen.

The biggest gripe? Too many bikes toppled over or left where they don’t belong.

Miller said 70 percent of bikes were being parked correctly and 4 percent were found completely blocking a sidewalk, business, bus stop or curb ramp.

“The 4 percent sounds like a small number, but 4 percent of 10,000 bikes is a lot of bikes and a lot of obstructions out there,” Miller said. “This is definitely an area that we know we need to compel the companies to do better."

Some people surveyed also complained that the bikes endangered pedestrians, especially the disabled, and were ugly clutter. They also said the bike companies were unresponsive to complaints.

While the space taken up by 10,000 rental bikes grew dramatically and noticeably in just the last six months of 2017, it still pales next to the 397,000 motorized passenger vehicles registered in Seattle and the roughly 500,000 city-owned parking spaces kept available for cars and trucks.

Other findings:

  • 468,000 rides in 6 months
  • Riders are 62 percent male, 38 percent female
  • Most riders between 25 and 44 years old
  • Only 24 percent of riders reported using helmets (as required by law)
  • 5 collisions and no serious injuries reported
  • 75 percent of users rent bikes to reach transit
  • 85 percent of email and phone comments on the program were negative
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