Bikeshare Delayed After Complaint from Magnolia Activist

Coming soon? Lyft wants in to the bikesharing market.

The city’s decision to do a full State Environmental Policy Act analysis of a proposed expansion of its bikesharing pilot program, which I reported earlier this week, was spurred in part by a request for a SEPA analysis by Elizabeth Campbell, a Magnolia activist with a long history of filing legal complaints against the city. Campbell sent a letter demanding a full SEPA review on August 6. Sometime that same month, SDOT decided to do the review—a process that likely added at least couple of months to the timeline for expanding bikeshare. SEPA reviews are typically performed for projects that exceed a certain threshold, in terms of their potential environmental impacts.  Projects that are generally subject to SEPA review include things like new apartment buildings and projects that involve significant impacts on city rights-of-way. (To give just one point of comparison, new parking lots for fewer than 40 vehicles are categorically exempt from environmental review under SEPA. The bikeshare program does not include any new permanent structures in city right-of-way.)

The city’s experiment with free-floating bikesharing began in 2017, with a pilot program that allowed companies like Lime, Spin, and Ofo to disperse thousands of rental bikes around the city. The city approved new permanent rules for bike share companies in June, and three companies applied for permits—Uber, Lyft, and Lime. Both Uber and Lyft told me that they had expected to launch their bike share programs in September. However, the city still has not announced a date for the official expansion or granted permanent permits.

In her letter to the city, which was addressed to then-SDOT director Goran Sparrman and bikeshare program director Joel Miller and cc’d to Mayor Jenny Durkan, council member Mike O’Brien, and the heads of the city’s parks and neighborhoods departments, Campbell enumerates what she sees as the likely public costs associated with the program. Then she requests a SEPA analysis.

“The sheer number of pieces of business equipment that are to be unleashed upon Seattle’s streets, up to 24,000 bicycles and cycles, coupled with the fact that the majority of the bike-share business operators’ business equipment is to be placed, stored, and located by a number of means, including by mischief or abandonment, at any one time on the City of Seattle’s right-of-ways, parks, lands, public commons, and/or upon private property has immense environmental implications,” Campbell wrote. “At a minimum a SEPA checklist must be prepared and a threshold determination made before the Free-Floating Bike Share Program proceeds.”

The SEPA review wrapped up earlier this month.

Campbell says she asked for the review because she considers the bikes “litter” and believes they’re cluttering sidewalks like so much “trash on the streets.” SEPA seemed like an appropriate avenue, she says, because it pertains to business equipment. “I used to run a bakery,” she says. “What if I took all my bakery carts and set them out on the sidewalks [all over the city]? Realistically, it is that kind of a practice. It’s not the same as, say, a taxi business, where you’re going to take your taxis back to your garage” when they aren’t in use, she says.

Support

I asked SDOT and the mayor’s office several times if a citizen complaint had influenced SDOT’s decision to delay the bikeshare program and  go forward with a full environmental review.  SDOT repeatedly denied there was any such complaint, saying that the city undertook the analysis in response to the results of two surveys (one by EMC Research conducted back in February, the other an unscientific online poll) and the gist of negative feedback from the public. “After continued conversations and community engagement around these concerns, the Department [moved] forward with SEPA in an effort to launch a formal program that not only enhances mobility, but also considers environmental impacts,” Hobson wrote. “I don’t know of any formal complaints.” Later, Hobson added that “the impetus for the SEPA review” was “the final evaluation that included the comments and concerns of community groups about safety.”

That final evaluation, which came out in August, is here. The complaints listed in the evaluation are mostly about bikes being left in places where they don’t belong, as well as the fact that many riders don’t wear helmets—not exactly the type of environmental impacts that the State Environmental Policy Act checklist is intended to address. The checklist, which is standard for all projects, includes questions about the impact a proposed project or development might have on erosion, air and water quality, native plants and animals, shorelines, and environmental health.

On Tuesday, I asked SDOT representatives again whether Campbell’s request was the reason, or a reason, for their decision to do a SEPA analysis. Initially, Hobson responded that this was “the first [she had] heard of” Campbell’s letter and request for SEPA analysis. Later, I heard back from another SDOT spokeswoman, Dawn Schellenberg, who said in an email, “After hearing some concerns, including written correspondence from Elizabeth Campbell … and wanting to do our due diligence, the department decided to complete a SEPA analysis and confirm there were no items of significance we needed to address.”

Conceivably, the city could have decided to do a full SEPA review back in August based solely on survey results and subsequent “concerns” expressed by many citizens, incidentally including Campbell. It’s also possible that there were other specific requests for a SEPA analysis. (I have a records request in to the mayor’s office and SDOT for all communications from the public that contain negative feedback on the program).

But it’s worth noting that Campbell isn’t just any random citizen: She’s a perennial thorn in the city’s side. Over the years, Campbell has filed many complaints against the city, including several that are still working their way through the legal process. For example, the city hearing examiner is currently considering complaints filed by Campbell about a tiny house village on Port of Seattle-owned property in Interbay and a proposal to build affordable housing at the Fort Lawton site near Discovery Park in Magnolia. Campbell, in other words, has been very effective in the past at delaying and deterring projects. This fact alone could give her complaints more weight at the city, which does not typically do full environmental reviews for projects with minimal impact on the natural or built environment, like the addition of a few thousand bikes throughout the city.

The SEPA review concluded with a determination of nonsignificance (DNS), meaning that expanding bikeshare has no significant negative environmental impact. Campbell, who says she was not aware that the city had decided to do a SEPA analysis, says she was disappointed to learn that the window for appealing the DNS closed on October 18; had she known, she says, she might have appealed. “They did a quick and dirty and they didn’t really address the things that I was talking about, which is that [the bikes] are disruptive,” Campbell says.

She says she’s still deciding whether to find another avenue to appeal the bikesharing program. “I’m kind of not known for letting things go,” she says.

Bikeshare Program Expansion Delayed by Environmental Review, Parking Concerns

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

If you’ve been wondering when the city plans to expand its bike-sharing pilot program to allow more companies to participate, you’re not alone. After Ofo and Spin, the companies with the yellow and orange bikes, respectively, announced they were pulling out of the Seattle market—both citing the city’s new $250,000 annual permitting fee—other companies such as Uber (which acquired the bike-sharing company Jump in April) and Lyft (which acquired the bike sharing company Motivate in July) have been waiting for the city to officially expand last year’s pilot program.

The city approved new rules for bike share companies in June, and both Uber and Lyft told The C Is for Crank that they had expected to launch their bike share programs in September. However, the city still has not announced a date for the official expansion or granted permanent permits to the three companies (Uber, Lyft, and Lime Bikes) that applied.

City officials gave varying reasons for pushing back the anticipated expansion date—which, they say, does not represent a delay because no formal date for the expansion was ever announced. Among the reasons: Uber’s bikes, unlike those owned by other bike-share companies, include locks that must be secured to a bike rack when they’re not in use, and the city says it’s concerned about bike rack availability.

“When we did the pilot, the locking technology was not available to us,” SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson says, referring to the fact that the existing bike-share bikes are meant to be left unlocked. “SDOT is currently evaluating rack capacity and will install additional racks as appropriate.”

Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley says the company believes that requiring riders to lock up their bikes “cuts down on theft and vandalism and bikes ending up where they’re not supposed to be.” Uber’s proposal prompted the city to initiate an inventory to find out how many bike racks it has, to see if there were enough to accommodate up to 5,000 new locking bike-share bikes.

Another reason for the delay: After reviewing feedback from Seattle residents over the year-long bike-share pilot as well as the results of a survey conducted for the city by EMC Research, the city decided to do a full environmental analysis of the program under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). This extra step involved evaluating the potential negative—and positive—impact an expanded bike-sharing program would have on greenhouse gas emissions, water quality and habitat, and added an unknown amount of time to the approval process. Hobson says the SEPA review was prompted by an evaluation that was made public in August; the review process just wrapped up with the close of the public comment period on October 11.

The SDOT 2017 Bike Share Evaluation Report found that while three-quarters of those surveyed (both by EMC and in an unscientific online poll by the city) were generally in favor of the program, many expressed concerns about safety and right-of-way access. “After continued conversations and community engagement around these concerns, the Department [moved] forward with SEPA in an effort to launch a formal program that not only enhances mobility, but also considers environmental impacts,” Hobson says.

The city’s report also looked at comments from people who emailed or called the city about the program on their own. According to the city’s report, almost all of those comments were negative. The top five complaints were “bad/incorrect parking,” “pedestrian access and safety,” “Ugly/Clutter/Garbage Bikes,”  “unresponsive company,” and people not wearing helmets.

The EMC survey’s list of “top drawbacks” was similar. People complained about seeing bikes in places where they didn’t belong, cyclists riding without helmets and cyclists “who don’t know or follow the rules.”

The SEPA checklist does not specifically ask about the issues people brought up in response to the city’s surveys, because the checklist is confined to the impacts a project will have on the environment.

In its SEPA analysis, SDOT did address the most common complaint that bikes were parked on the sidewalk or in other places where they weren’t supposed to be— including in response to a question about how much parking (for cars) an expanded bike share program would add or eliminate. The city wrote: “The evaluation determined that while between 70 to 80% of bikes were parked correctly, 15 to 25% were incorrectly parked and 5% fully blocked pedestrian access.” They also noted that the city plans to impose new requirements (the rules adopted back in June) that will hold bike share companies responsible if too many bikes are parked in the wrong places.

It’s unclear whether specific individual complaints played a role in the city’s decision to do a full SEPA analysis, if the survey results and voluntary negative feedback were the primary reason the city took this step, and what the “continued conversations and community engagement” about the feedback looked like in practice. I have filed a records request for any additional complaints the city has received about the proposal to expand its bike share program.

The city issued a Determination of Non-Significance on the bike share program—meaning that the proposed expansion won’t have a negative impact on the environment—on September 27. The city still has not said when the bike-share expansion will happen.

Morning Crank: “Dominated By Loud and Demanding Extremists”

1. According to a new analysis of the first six months of the city’s dockless bikeshare pilot program, which unleashed thousands of Starburst-colored rental bikes around the city, bikeshare users logged nearly half a million rides between July and December of last year, and roughly a third of the city used one or more of the three bikesharing services—Ofo, Lime, and Spin—at least once during those six months. Seattle bikeshare users took 3.6 rides for every 1,000 residents, a number that dwarfs the successful CityBike program in New York City (2.6 rides per 1,000 residents.) Those numbers, in fairness, are partly due to the fact that Seattle has the largest free-floating bikeshare system in the nation, by a lot: Of 44,000 bikes spread across 25 cities, nearly a quarter—10,000—are in Seattle.

The evaluation, which was done in collaboration with the University of Washington, also concluded that while ridership was concentrated around the University of Washington, the Burke-Gilman Trail, and downtown Seattle, the bikes are also more popular than expected in the Rainier Valley and Georgetown, two neighborhoods that weren’t included at all in the city’s original Pronto bikeshare system, which required users to return their bikes to designated parking spaces. (Unlike traditional bikeshare systems, “dockless” bikes can be left on the nearest bike rack or parking strip when a rider ends their trip.) People of color were just as likely to use the program as white users, and while just 24 percent of riders reported using helmets, the bikes did not seem to contribute to higher crash or head injury rates, adding another data point to the mounting evidence that the county’s mandatory helmet law does little to protect rider safety. While very few people (just 7 percent) used bikesharing only for recreational use, a huge percentage used the bikes to get to work or to access transit (75 percent), an indication that bikesharing may be able extend the “walkshed” for transit much further than the standard quarter-mile.

The news wasn’t all positive. The vast majority of bikeshare riders—68 percent—were male, a statistic that lines up with the skewed demographics of cycling in general. About four percent of bikes were parked in a way that fully blocked pedestrian or sidewalk access—a number that Seattle Department of Transportation bike share project manager Joel Miller noted might seem small, but “four percent of 10,000 bikes is certainly a lot of bikes and a lot of obstructions out there.” Perhaps predictably, 85 percent of the calls and emails the city has received about bikesharing have been negative, with most people complaining about bikes they believe were parked improperly, people who fail to wear helmets, and that the bikes themselves are ugly. The city can’t do much for people who are offended by the colors orange, yellow, and green, but they have set up designated bikeshare parking spots in Ballard on a pilot basis, and plan to expand that pilot project around the city.

People who consider bikes (or any form of transportation other than cars) to be “clutter” can rest easy on one count—transportation committee chair Rob Johnson said he has no interest in allowing electric scooters, which have caused  intense civic handwringing from Austin to San Francisco, on Seattle sidewalks any time soon. “I’ve started to watch a couple of the companies, particularly Lime (green) and Spin (orange), work with other cities on electric scooters, and I think that for us as a city to stay focused on bikes and make sure that this program goes from a successful pilot to a successful permanent program is the right progression for us, as opposed to something that could lead to the rollout of a scooter system,” Johnson said.

SDOT will present a new proposed permit plan for the post-pilot dockless bikeshare system to the transportation committee on June 19.

2. A new poll is testing campaign messages for and against a proposed referendum to repeal the $275-per-employee business tax that Mayor Jenny Durkan signed into law last month. Amazon, Starbucks, Kroger, and other large corporations have pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to overturn the law, which would impact about 585 companies with revenues above $20 million a year. Much of that money is currently being spent on paid signature gatherers, who have been parked outside grocery stores across Seattle and have reportedly clashed with pro-tax organizers who are encouraging voters to “decline to sign”; those organizers, meanwhile, have accused signature gatherers of misleading voters about what the tax will do, falsely implying that it is a tax on groceries or that it will come directly out of workers’ paychecks.

The poll asks whether the following messages, among others, would make the respondent more or less likely to vote to repeal the head tax:

• What Seattle has already tried to do to fix homelessness hasn’t worked, and it seems like homelessness has been normalized. The city need to stop enabling those who refuse services, camp illegally, and dump trash like used needles and condoms in our public spaces.

• Homeless sweeps don’t work. They just shuffle people around. Most people want to come inside but there aren’t enough options. We need to have compassion and fund housing, treatment for addiction, and behavioral health services.

• The city of Seattle is wasting hard-earned tax dollars by spending tens of millions on the homeless and super expensive bike lanes. The city keeps promising big results and not delivering. Without a comprehensive plan for homelessness, we shouldn’t give them another cent.

• Complaints about government waste are a smokescreen and an attempt to distract. Homelessness is complex and will take time to fix. Big corporations are shamelessly and purposely spreading confusion to avoid paying a tax that they can afford to pay.

• City Hall is dominated by loud and demanding extremists led by demagogues like Kshama Sawant.

• The homelessness crisis isn’t going to get better without more housing and services. If big corporations don’t chip in, that means more property or sales taxes. The head tax isn’t perfect, but at least it’s not regressive.

• With rents up an average of $600 a year, low-income people can’t afford to have their jobs endangered by this tax.

• Amazon’s construction halt was a selfish attempt to hold the city hostage. We need to call Jeff Bezo’s bluff, overturn his effort to repeal the tax, and show that Seattle will make sure that megacorporations like Amazon help solve problem they’re creating.

• The city keeps asking taxpayers for money for homelessness, but they don’t have a plan. The city has spend over $60 million a year in the past five years and homelessness has only gotten worse. Our tax dollars are being wasted on things that don’t work.

• The mayor and city council and nonprofit providers are moving forward with a plan that is starting to  work. It got 8,000 families into housing last year. But the city needs an additional $410 million a year to tackle homelessness, and this tax will help.

• Low-margin, high-volume businesses will have to pass the tax on to consumers, meaning higher bills for food. We don’t need another back-door tax on food.

The poll also asks about a number of potential replacements for the head tax, including a “surcharge” on companies whose CEO makes 100 or more times what the average worker makes; a larger head tax; a tax that “only applies to employers who pay wages so low their employees qualify for public assistance”; and a business tax based on how much square footage a company occupies in the city rather than the number of people they employ.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.