First Look at Pronto

Seattle’s bike share system launched today, with some 500 bikes spread across 50 stations. A couple of those stations are mere blocks from my office, so I took one of the shiny green things for a quick shakedown cruise.

The system operates similar to those found in other cities – insert your key fob (if you’re a member) or use the kiosk to buy a pass (if you’re a visitor), press a button to unlock a bike, adjust the seat height if needed, and off you go.

Unlike the bike share bikes I’ve ridden I flat places like D.C., Denver and Columbus (yeah, freaking Columbus freaking Ohio got bike share before Seattle!), the Pronto bikes have a 7-speed internal hub rather than a 3-speed. The shifting mechanism works well, but as you’d expect with heavy bikes that need to cater to a wide swath of people, the gearing is set pretty low. These things aren’t built for speed.

It remains to be seen how well the helmet system will work. Right now it’s on the honor system, with the dreaded helmet vending machines expected sometime next year. I really hope the system proves popular, and the stations expand around town. It’s a great addition to our already flexible transportation options, and I’m excited to use it more in the months to come.

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Nuts at Nutella

I’ve posted before about trademark bullying. It’s a classic example of letting legal process take precedence over good business judgment – and it illustrates starkly why it’s often a bad idea for a company to give their lawyers too much leeway.

The latest entrant in the trademark bullying hall of shame? Nutella, whose lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to a Boston smoothie joint for having the temerity to note on their menu that a certain smoothie contained the delicious chocolate-and-hazelnut concoction.

Which they’d been selling for 14 years, no doubt buying thousands of dollars’ worth of Nutella over that period, and driving free viral marketing for the brand.

So yes, by all means let’s make them stop that.

The Case for Multiple Bikes

So I was running a little late this morning, considering I planned a pre-work trip to the SODO Home Depot. Hopped on my daily ride, and got halfway down the block when I felt a wobble in the right pedal. I’ve experienced this once before, and it’s not good. Best case, the bike shop will be able to “shoot a coil” in the crank arm that will allow me to re-thread the pedal. Worst case means a new crankset. Whatever the case, I wasn’t getting to work on THAT bike.

OK, so out comes the rain bike. Hmmm – tires look really low. Well, it’s been really sunny in Seattle; I haven’t ridden it in weeks, maybe months. Except that as I pump I hear the hiss that tells me all is not well with my rear tire. And there’s a glassy piece of road debris, sticking out proudly. Damn. Changing the tire is a 15-20 minute process because (a) it involves removing the rear fender stays and (b) I’m slooow when it comes to bike repairs. Fixing the flat will mean shitcanning my morning plans.

So good thing I’ve recently acquired a third bike! Jumped on my coaster-brake equipped single-speed SE Draft for the trip. A bit dodgy dealing with SODO traffic on a bike better suited for laying down skids in the alley and tooling around the neighborhood, but hey – at least I got my ride in.

Helmets and Bike Share

As this excellent NYT article notes, one of the vexing challenges that urban bike share systems face in some cities (including Seattle) is how to comply with mandatory helmet laws – and how to get people to actually use the systems when helmets are required. And really, when you’re forced to contemplate “sanitized helmet dispensers,” it’s way past time to ask whether these laws need to be revisited.

This isn’t to say that riding with a helmet isn’t a good idea. It’s usually a wise choice, particularly for those of us who ride daily in traffic. The question is whether it should be mandated.

I’m a big believer in the accountability of regulation. Unless a law can “deliver the goods” in a meaningful way, it shouldn’t be on the books. To date, helmet requirements have skated along by being relatively minor impositions of the nanny state, the fact that large numbers of riders choose to wear helmets anyway, and lax enforcement. But once they start preventing – or imposing large costs or inconveniences on – bike share systems, it’s time to weigh what benefits these laws offer.

And despite the predictable “helmets r good!” arguments, there’s plenty of evidence that mandatory helmet laws are actually counter-productive. Such laws add little on the safety side of the equation, as cycling in general is not that dangerous, helmets are not proof against serious injury or death and most of those who ride frequently, at high speeds or in traffic are likely to wear a helmet anyway. On the cost side, they add friction by creating an impediment to riding and making cycling seem like a more inherently dangerous activity than it actually is. Add to that the actual costs imposed on bike share systems – and the lost opportunities in such systems not being able to work efficiently within such regulations – and helmet laws are sure to fail the test of good regulation.

So here’s a modest proposal: Instead of monkeying around with helmet vending machines and such, let’s take this opportunity to excise a well-meaning but misguided law.

Fair Weather Cycling

Not much rain in Seattle this summer (we had a 6 week stretch with nary a drop) and it looks like sun for most of the rest of the month.

That’s meant more cyclists on the street. Will that translate to more year-round commuters? Signs in my office indicate we’ve got a ways to go.

Typical day this summer:


The one day it rained:

Thugs in Congress

US Representatives Sue Myrick and Frank Wolf have written a letter calling on the law firm DLA Piper to not represent ZTE. In the letter, the estimable Congresspeople state that by representing ZTE:

“your firm is indicating it values the retainer of one contract over the legitimate cyber security and supply chain concerns of the United States government, as well as the oppression and persecution of political dissidents, human rights activists, religious groups, women, journalists, students and educators in Iran.”

Is ZTE a rogue state? Dr. Evil’s criminal organization? A banned foreign food additive?

No. ZTE is a Chinese electronics manufacturer. And like any company doing business in the United States, ZTE needs to have counsel over here. Counsel to help with contracts, with regulatory compliance, with litigation, with lobbying. With the million little legal details necessary to make an enterprise go.

It’s also the case that our American system recognizes and respects the right to counsel – even when the client is reprehensible, unpopular or vaguely rumored to be controlled by the Chinese government.

And it’s absolutely appalling that a couple of Congresspeople would write a letter like this.

Maybe they consider it payback for the kefuffle that erupted over the representation of a GOP Congress in the appeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Or maybe they are reactionaries looking to score some cheap political points at the expense of a target too risk-averse to fire back (although if I were DLA’s managing partner I would be sorely tempted to send a response along the lines of “snort my taint, you thuggish pricks”).

Whatever the case, Wolf and Myrick’s letter needs to be called out for what it is: un-American and unacceptable. Here’s hoping voters see fit to send these two lackwits back to the state legislatures where they can do less damage.