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Seattle’s Pronto bike-share announced last week a new partnership with nonprofit housing provider Bellwether Housing to expand its fledgling subsidized membership program. Pronto says that, along with original housing partner Capitol Hill Housing, the move gives around 5,000 low- and moderate-income Seattle residents access to reduced-priced annual bike-share memberships.

Pronto launched its subsidized membership program three months ago (seven months after system launch in October 2014). It has been slow to catch on. To date, Pronto has only sold 34 subsidized memberships.

“It’s been a long process. A lot of these nonprofit housing providers are really short-staffed and incredibly overworked. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to offer this program to their members, but it’s been a little slower going in terms of set-up,” says Pronto Executive Director Holly Houser.

Pronto’s unsubsidized annual memberships cost $85. They’re offered on a sliding scale to Seattle residents living in subsidized affordable housing, at $20 for those earning 30 percent or less of area median income (AMI), $30 at or below 50 percent AMI, and $40 at or below 80 percent AMI. For perspective, Seattle’s AMI was around $70,000 in 2013.

Houser says they decided to only offer subsidized memberships to those living in subsidized housing in part because Pronto simply didn’t have the capacity to vet applicants’ incomes.

“We essentially are counting on them to qualify their residents based on their AMI, which transfers over to us being able to offer reduced-rate memberships,” explains Houser. “We may have the resources to do that in the future, but right now we don’t.”

In addition to simplifying the qualification process, Houser says the partnerships give them better access to a key audience.

“It gives us a great platform to do bike 101 trainings at those locations and actually go and meet with members, make sure people know about bike-share,” Houser says. “There are a lot of bike-share programs that offer reduced-rate memberships, but people don’t take advantage of them because they either don’t know about them or don’t know what bike-share is. This gives us a way to focus our efforts a little bit.”

Pronto Marketing Manager Shae Healey didn’t put a number on their outreach, but says, “We plan to conduct outreach for our affordable housing membership program at an equal rate to our other corporate membership programs [employers, hotels, residential buildings].”

Houser’s thoughts on outreach echo something Seattle DOT’s active transportation director, Nicole Freedman, told me in an interview this spring. Freedman was the head of Boston’s bike program when the city launched Hubway bike-share in 2011. Hubway’s subsidized membership program is among the most successful in the U.S. — they’ve sold 1,921 of the $5 memberships to date. Freedman credits the success to aggressive outreach as much as anything.

“We did specific outreach in low-income neighborhoods. We worked with existing social service agencies, nonprofits and public housing [organizations]. About 200 partners helped to spread the word about subsidized memberships,” says Freedman.

Houser says subsidized memberships are just “one part of a larger menu of ways we [plan to] address equitable access to bike-share.”

Among the ideas being considered: reciprocity for Seattle residents with the reduced-fare regional transit pass Orca Lift; increased resources to help unbanked residents get bank cards through nonprofit Bank On; and potentially, establishment of a cash payment option, though Houser says that requires a huge investment in equipment.

Beyond that, the city hopes to expand the system from 500 bikes at 50 stations to 2,500 bikes at 250 stations. Doing so would increase the Pronto service area from five to 42 square miles, taking bike-share beyond the whiter and wealthier city center into a broader array of neighborhoods. The $18 million expansion is contingent on Seattle receiving a federal Tiger grant this fall.

“It’s a difficult challenge, but equitable bike-share access is a top priority for every bike-share city,” says Houser. “I don’t think anyone has figured out the golden ticket yet, but everybody is trying a number of different solutions.”

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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