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People Don't Like To Bike Uphill — And That's Where Pronto's 'Rebalance' Comes In

Monica Spain
"I’m a rebalance for Pronto Cycle Share," says Patrick Mulligan.";

Seattle’s bike share program has been up and running for about a month, and membership is growing. But it’s rare to see a cyclist taking on one of the city’s steep hills. So I took a ride to see where the bikes turn up, and how they get there.

Seattle is one of very few cities to put bike stations on top of hills. San Francisco skirted the issue by installing bikes in the flat areas of downtown. Paris isn’t so hilly, but one of its most famous churches, Sacre Coeur, sits at the very top of the highest point in Paris.

“People would ride the bikes down from Monmartre, but they wouldn’t ride them back up again,” says Liam Moriarty, a public radio reporter who covered Paris’s bike share the first year it was launched. “And they would have to redistribute the bikes from the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill at the end of every day so people would have them available to ride down the next morning.”

Seattle’s Pronto Cycle Share calls this “rebalancing.” And that’s where Patrick Mulligan comes in.

Mulligan’s job is to make sure there are bikes at every station.  He moves about 45 bikes each day driving a commercial van. Pronto has two vans operating 24/7. Mulligan drives from the International District through downtown, picking several bikes at each station. Then it’s time to head uphill.

“Twelfth and Mercer on Capitol Hill is our next stop. We’re dropping off nine bikes,” he says as he drives uphill.

When we arrive, the station is empty and Mulligan shepherds the bikes into docks, two by two.

“There’s definitely going to be some people who want to come from this more residential area down towards where some of the local bars are, where you can pick up groceries at — things that you would want to take a bike and go do,” he says.

While Mulligan restocks the helmets, Peter Cho, a Capitol Hill resident, eyes the bikes. He says even though they have seven speeds, operated by a flick of the handle, he’s not sure about riding one up a hill.

“I don’t have that much endurance, I’d probably ride it downhill and take Uber back uphill,” he says.

Pronto’s executive director Holly Houser says that’s one of the best uses of bike sharing since it complements the city’s transportation options.

“Maybe take a bus or walk up that portion of the hill you don’t feel comfortable riding up to, and then once you get to the top of the hill, go grab another bike at another station and continue your trip,” she says.

As bike sharing grows, Pronto plans to add more vans to move bikes around. The bike share also hopes to use trailers pulled by electric bikes to keep the stations full.