Alum’s bike-sharing company spreads its wheels in Seattle

When Steve Durrant joined UW’s fledgling Master’s in Landscape Architecture program in 1980, he was drawn by a compelling and complex challenge: how to give people greater mobility while minimizing the toll on the environment.

An avid cyclist—he commuted to classes on his custom-made Rodriguez along the Burke-Gilman Trail—Durrant has long believed that pedal power could play an important role in urban transportation. This fall, Durrant is helping Seattle take a big step by unveiling the city’s first bike-sharing program through a partnership between his company, Alta Bicycle Share, and Puget Sound Bike Share. Under the new program, called Pronto! Cycle Share, an initial fleet of 500 emerald green bicycles, sponsored by Alaska Airlines, will be dispersed among 50 stations across Seattle, including about a dozen on or near the UW campus.

Seattle presents special challenges, including a county law mandating helmet use and steep downtown terrain. The success of the program will depend on a continued commitment from City Hall to improve local cycling conditions as well as a robust enrollment, especially from those who live and work in the city. The initial targets are about 9,000 annual and 50,000 “casual” subscribers.

The idea of bike sharing intrigued Durrant after he joined Portland, Ore.-based Alta Planning+Design, a firm dedicated to accommodating non-motorized vehicles, in 2005.

“I was sensing that the stars were aligning for a resurgence of cycling as an everyday form of mobility,” Durrant recalls. What particularly caught his attention was the concept of citywide networks of automated rental stations where people could retrieve (and return) sturdy bicycles for short commutes.

Durrant’s introduction to “bike share” took place the year before, in Germany, when he saw how riders could unlock special bicycles at train stations by texting for a code. He realized that a program with built-in user accountability might succeed, whereas free lending systems had failed due to rampant vandalism and theft.

His budding interest in bike sharing blossomed in 2007, after Paris launched an innovative program known as Velib, which furnished the blueprint for a successful citywide operation.

In 2008, Durrant helped plan Nice Ride, one of the first bike-share programs in North America, in his hometown of Minneapolis-St. Paul. That effort, which was officially launched in 2010, was similar to networks in Washington, D.C., and Montreal.

Convinced that more cities would be adopting bike-share programs to promote public health and provide an alternative to traffic congestion, Durrant pushed his partners at Alta Planning+Design to create a new company dedicated to bike share.

In just four years, Alta Bicycle Share has implemented systems in Melbourne, Australia, Washington, D.C. (replacing the original program), Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and New York, as well as Columbus, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tenn. Many more are under development, and the growing company has already defied skeptics who scoffed that it would never turn a profit.