I used bike share for the first time in November to get to a meeting on Harbor Drive, cycling over from Fourth Avenue and B Street. It was blissfully easy – the checkout worked great, bike mechanics were smooth, it was $15 cheaper than parking and somehow it felt safer than regular cycling. The experience of riding a bike-share bike in my hometown gave me a rush of pure joy — it felt like the world I’d only dreamed could be possible had actually come true.

And yet, despite its potential, the program in San Diego is moribund because of underuse and will surely die unless some major overhauls are made. Fortunately, anyone who cares about this program and wants to speak in support of the changes that could keep it alive will be well-armed: The challenges have been enumerated by a County Grand Jury report, and the city’s independent budget analyst has developed clear responses, including designating a city point of contact for the program, and allowing more stations in high-volume tourist destinations, like Pacific Beach and La Jolla. The City Council’s Committee on Smart Growth and Land Use will consider these issues and potential solutions on Wednesday.

Now, as I write this, I can hear the objections bubbling up. There is a very familiar line of logic in San Diego that says, “Hey, we tried to do the ‘right’ thing greenhouse gas reduction, bike share, all that jazz but it turns out people don’t want to use it! If they did, it wouldn’t be underused and failing.” Ah, San Diego. We have this image of ourselves as caring about “the right stuff,” like the environment and water quality – but when push comes to shove, we never want to open our wallets and actually pay the cost (or make the organizational changes required) that would allow something like bike share to truly succeed.

Allow me to bring up several exhibits on this point: A) Single-family homeowners in the city of San Diego still don’t pay for trash pickup, but somehow expect clean streets and a clean environment. B) MTS, our transit agency, and SANDAG, its governing body, continue to be so hung up on the idea of “fare box recovery” that we can’t develop a user-friendly transit system.

It is possible that many of our public programs could be successful, and could deliver on the results we claim we want – but San Diego rarely seems willing to pitch in the extra effort or money it would take to get those programs through their awkward teenage years.

In the case of bike share, this expectation that a new program shouldn’t need public subsidy or support is combined with opposition to the program from bike-rental companies that fear competition in places like Mission Beach. The Grand Jury report makes the case that bike-rental companies and bike share serve different markets: Bike-rental companies cater with a range of bikes, helmets, accessories, bikes for children and other equipment; whereas bike share is quite limited – it’s a transportation patch that allows the transit network to work more seamlessly. Existing bike-rental companies have profited for years by their access to publicly funded amenities (boardwalk, beaches, parks, street network) this needs to be clarified for them by our leadership. Given what they receive in public benefit, they need to accommodate bike share and regional transportation options it represents.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

As the report makes clear, without stronger incoming revenues, DecoBike, the bike-share operator, is going to need a significant public subsidy in order to continue operations. While the City Council is hedging on the significance of bike share to help accomplish the city’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, research suggests that bike share can play a significant role helping cities make the transition to cycling. This is important if San Diego is going to meet the ambitious goals set by the city’s Climate Action Plan.

But the ultimate bottom line: What would be sadder than seeing bike share disappear from our streets? On a bright day in July, I was time crunched getting out of the office, I picked up a bike-share bike in Hillcrest, cycled down Fourth Avenue, and managed to pick up my kid from camp in Balboa Park right on time. I parked the bike, and together we set off on foot to check out the Gem Society in Spanish Village. It was joyful, it was easy, there was no parking, it was cheap. This is a transportation option that honors the great city we are fortunate to have inherited. Let’s invest in making it work.

Carla Blackmar is a San Diego native currently living in Los Angeles, and a city planner who works to promote low-carbon transportation options in Southern California.

    This article relates to: Bike Policy, Opinion

    Written by Opinion

    Op-eds and Letters to the Editor on the issues that matter in San Diego. Have something to say? Submit a commentary.

    23 comments
    Daniel Smiechowski
    Daniel Smiechowski subscriber

    We have failed leadership on our San Diego City Council. While various groups promoting alternative transportation including SANDAG and Circulate San Diego self impose ridiculous mandates in getting us out of our cars, the opposite effect is more likely. In this case, if you build it they will not come unless you live in Denmark. What a crock of goods you good folks are being sold. I do not own a car, walk everywhere, take public transportation, ride my bicycle as a triathlete and to the store, run when I can and swim often. I have devoted my life to this very issue of alternative transportation but the second half of the equation is missing. Demographics , social stigma, sociological factors, psychological and cultural issues so ingrained in our society currently foreclose on the notion of getting people out of their cars. Last I heard, car sales are at an all time high in the good old USA. Everyone has a bike in their garage but not under their legs. For the minority out there that understand my words, God bless all of you. Decco Bikes is a joke. Let our local bike shops take the lead in bike rentals. Isn't that what they are for in the love of God. What is education for? Some neighborhoods work well with all this get out of the car mentality, others do not!!! So, one size does not fit all as proposed by Circulate San Diego. The community of Clairemont across the board does not even know what a bike looks like....exaggeration intended. So, Danny is one of the few people on the planet being a member of the one million mile club....walking, cycling, running and swimming...I know my onions or transportation... lol Lets build our collective consciousness through education and strong clear leadership before we mandate all these unattainable benchmarks. Will you all stand with my campaign for D2 of our San Diego City Council in 2018...you can even call me Danny! God bless all of you, Danny@John Thurston 

    John Thurston
    John Thurston

    First and foremost lets be perfectly clear on why the Bike Share program in San Diego is a financial failure. Cost.

    Even in supposed Bike un-friendly Los Angeles the prices are much less. $3.50 for 30 minutes vs $5 for 30 Minutes, and only $20/month. Why? Incredibly stupid decisions made by the City.

    Perhaps in LA it is subsidized, something the paying for expenses taxpayers in San Diego are loathe to do.


    There is a simple solution somehow overlooked by the geniuses who drafted the contract with Deco Bike...Advertising and or Sponsorships!

    In Chicago the entire system sports the logo of Advertiser and Sponsor Blue Shield. What a concept, a Health Care provider promotes a healthy way to commute for visitors and residents alike and in doing so makes the cost significantly  lower than here and a tremendous financial success despite 5 months of lousy weather. 

    Why not Scripps Health or Sharp Health Care, Or even Qualcomm as an advertiser here? It only take a spark of intelligence or creativity to figure that one out. The Solar Kiosks, originally placed in the shade and then moved, are devoid of ANY advertising. WTF?


    It isn't so much that the idea of Bike sharing wont work here, its just that this implementation was doomed from the outset to failure in its positioning of stations, lack of sponsorships, and therefore its pricing.

    Get a grip and get smart before it gets scrapped for the wrong reasons, and the officials responsible are not held accountable.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Some thoughts on this piece.

    Ms. Blackmar doesn't specify the address of her destination in the first instance (Harbor Drive), but Google Maps suggests she could have taken the trolley or walked, which would have been much cheaper. A walk to the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, for example, would have taken 23 minutes.

    Ms. Blackmar says that the experience, "felt safer than regular biking." This is pure, unadulterated hooey. The assertion is buttressed by a link to a website that states that a woman who usually walks in LA feels safer when she rides a bike because, "she no longer gets harassed by seedy characters along the way." OK, but that's not safer than regular biking, it's an assertion that a woman feels safer biking than walking. Ms. Blackmar conveniently ignores that fact that Deco Bike doesn't offer helmets. Most serious cyclists wear helmets on any commute and certainly in downtown traffic. So the bottom line is that Deco Bike is probably substantially less safe than regular cycling, especially considering that head injuries to bicyclists are a significant public health issue.

    I support public transportation and would like to see it expanded. I use it whenever feasible. I don't mind subsidizing it. But in each instance, a cost/benefit evaluation has to be made. That is: Is this a feel good exercise or is it the best use of public funds aimed at expanding public transit. 

    All that Ms. Blackmar has demonstrated in this piece is that she thinks on-street bike rentals (it's not sharing, it's a business renting them) are nice and we should subsidize them. She should start with facts and then move to advocacy.

    Bill Davidson
    Bill Davidson subscriber

    @Chris Brewster : Genuinely serious cyclists who've bothered to do the research on helmet effectiveness often choose not to wear helmets because they aren't actually all that effective.  They offer marginal risk reduction in a narrow set of circumstances.  One friend of mine who's around 50 and rode 17,000 miles last year and is faster than most serious riders in their 20's does not wear a helmet except in races or other organized events where they are required.


    Even those of us who wear helmets regularly tend not to when riding at low speeds such as we would when riding a cruiser or one of these Decobikes.

    Those of us who've done extensive study on bike safety know that helmets aren't even in the top 10 things that cyclists should do to make themselves safe on the road.  They are the "hail mary" play of bike safety.  They might help, but it's more likely they won't make a real useful difference.  As for my own study, I've taken 5 different bike safety classes, read 3 different bike safety books, read dozens of bike safety studies and regularly participate in online discussions with some of the top bike safety experts in the nation.  Safe riding is something I care about which is why I've put effort into learning it.

    Someone who's regularly commuting by Decobike and wants to wear a helmet can and will bring their own.

    In spite of the lack of helmets, bike share around the country (and the world) actually has a pretty good safety record.  That's largely because of the low speeds of most of the riders.  Riding at higher speeds pretty much requires some education to do consistently safely and most people never bother to do any bike safety training or even reading.  The Dutch and the Danes have among the highest bike mode share in the world in their major cities and only a tiny percentage of riders  wear helmets in those places.  They tend to ride heavy slow commuter bikes that are not that much different from bike share bikes.

    23 minutes is actually a significant amount of time walking.

    Most cities with successful bike share systems do subsidize those systems.  Lower prices make them more attractive.  Yes, it is sharing.  It's a distributed system that creates convenience and allows a single bike to be shared by many people every day - something that normal bike rentals cannot do.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Davidson: Thanks for this. I agree that there is debate about helmets. Nevertheless the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flatly states, "Bicycle helmets reduce the risk of head and brain injuries in the event of a crash. All bicyclists, regardless of age, can help protect themselves by wearing properly fitted bicycle helmets every time they ride." 

    I also agree that people are influenced by experience. In my case that includes riding 100+ miles in a day in some cases, but the only serious injury I've sustained was slow riding on a beach cruiser without one. Regardless, anecdotal evidence is statistically meaningless.

    That said, the author of this piece stated that the rental felt MORE safe than regular cycling. She offered no evidence of this. I don't think there is any.

    I agree that 23 minutes may be a significant amount of time walking, but with the rental bike one must walk to the rental stand, wherever it may be, go through the process of the rental, then ride to the rental stand nearest your destination, turn it in, then walk to your ultimate destination. It has not been demonstrated in this piece that walking would have been slower. It would clearly have been cheaper. This piece is written as though it is obvious that it would have been faster, but that's not shown.

    The issue of terminology (sharing v. renting) is something of an ongoing issue. VRBO would like us to consider their system to represent house sharing and Uber would like us to consider their system to be car sharing. My view is that if you rent a car, you may be sharing it in the big picture, but it is a commercial transaction. Same as for the others. Sharing, in my view, is me letting my friend drive my car.

    Regarding subsidizing, as I noted I am not opposed to subsidizing, but a case has not been made here that it is more cost effective to subsidize bikes than other forms of public transit. There may be.

    Bill Davidson
    Bill Davidson subscriber

    @Chris Brewster : For the regular bike share user who has a membership, it's pretty fast to get a bike and check it back in.  They only have to walk from the bike share station to their destination.  The idea is to have lots of these stations all over so that you never have more than a few blocks to walk.  Coverage is not that great yet in most places other than downtown but it's getting better.

    For a regular bike share user, a 23 minute walk can easily turn into less than 10 minutes of getting a bike, riding and turning in the bike at the nearest station to their destination provided that there are stations reasonably near the begin and end points.  The more stations the better.

    You are correct that anecdotal evidence is statistically meaningless.  Like I said, I've read a lot of safety studies.  I know how crashes tend to get set up and I know how to avoid the situations that tend to set them up and I am especially cognizant of how drivers tend to do the wrong things around cyclists and know how to avoid becoming a victim of most of their bad behavior.  This does far more for my safety than a helmet ever could.  They are nothing but a bit of styrofoam and they are not going to make much if any difference if you get crushed by a car.  Yes I still wear one while riding my road bike or my touring bike.  If I still rode off road I'd wear one too.  Like I said, it might help, maybe, though I don't put too much faith in it.  Even not considering protection, helmets are also nice for mounting lights and cameras.

    The thing about bike share is that it can give better coverage than mass transit, at least in dense areas like downtown.  Look up "the last mile problem" for transportation.  Having buses on every street and stopping at every block is inefficient.  Most transit users are going to be at least some distance from their destination and bike share can fill that gap.  Bike share is more of a complement to mass transit than an all out replacement for it.  The bikes aren't designed for long distance riding or riding up steep hills.  They're meant for short range rides and they're designed to be extremely durable.  They're heavy and their lowest gear is not very low.

    It's also available 24/7 which no normal bike rentals are and even mass transit is not (at least not in San Diego).

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Ms. Blackmar: Thanks for this. My reading of this is that when there are more bicycles on the road, the safety of bicycling (and walking) improves. (At least that's what I could get out of the free abstract.) You certainly see this in Amsterdam, where there are huge number of bicyclists, so drivers are hyper-aware of their presence. However, your opinion piece did not discuss this issue. It stated that riding a rental bike felt safer than riding a regular bike. 

    Carla Blackmar
    Carla Blackmar subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster  You're right, this was a very subjective Opinion piece.  I have no proof that riding a bike-share bike is safer than a regular bike.  When bike share first popped up in other parts of the country, I, (like a lot of other people), thought it was essentially 'lambs to the slaughter'-- especially in places like Manhattan.  I was surprised when I tried it, though, that motorists seemed to behave in a more accommodating and cautious way than they did/do when I'm on my regular, non-bike-share bike.


    I think that the blog I linked to did a good job of articulating some potential reasons-- but the one that makes the most sense to me is that bike-share riders are viewed are 'casual' users-- people who could be 'just like' the motorist. Perhaps the motorist has been in a situation where they also needed a short trip travel solution, or has tried bike share or bike rental somewhere else while on vacation, or something-- for whatever reason, it felt less hostile than what I experience in my day-to-day as a cyclist.  (And I'm not a spandex cyclist-- I'm a plainclothes cyclist and my regular bike is a $50 former bike rental bike that I often have attached to a bike trailer with a 7 year old on it--LOL). 


    Here's what that link had to say about that 'feeling of safety' on bike-share:

    "You get more respect on the road — For whatever reason, drivers seem to behave more respectfully and cautiously around Metrobikers than they do around traditional cyclists. Perhaps it’s because Metrobike sidesteps the aggressive, “scofflaw cyclist” stereotype. Or maybe it’s that drivers perceive Metrobikers as potentially less experienced cyclists who need a little more room on the road. Or maybe Metro’s endorsement of such a highly visible bicycle program lets drivers know that bicycles are not only welcome on the road, they’re actually encouraged. Regardless of the reason, Metrobike feels more welcome and accepted on the road than traditional bicycles."

    Harry
    Harry subscribermember

    I think Mr. Brewster is a former head lifeguard, so I think he can do math. Normal walking speed is 2 mph. Normal cruising bike speed is 10 mph. Do the math. Assume a 1 to 2 block walk to a bike stand and the same at the other end. The Deco bike is conservatively 5 times faster, not to mention less effort. Assuming ignorance on such a obvious point is not appealing or persuasive.

    Daniel Smiechowski
    Daniel Smiechowski subscriber

    @Chris Brewster We have failed leadership on our San Diego City Council. While various groups promoting alternative transportation including SANDAG and Circulate San Diego self impose ridiculous mandates in getting us out of our cars, the opposite effect is more likely. In this case, if you build it they will not come unless you live in Denmark. What a crock of goods you good folks are being sold. I do not own a car, walk everywhere, take public transportation, ride my bicycle as a triathlete and to the store, run when I can and swim often. I have devoted my life to this very issue of alternative transportation but the second half of the equation is missing. Demographics , social stigma, sociological factors, psychological and cultural issues so ingrained in our society currently foreclose on the notion of getting people out of their cars. Last I heard, car sales are at an all time high in the good old USA. Everyone has a bike in their garage but not under their legs. For the minority out there that understand my words, God bless all of you. Decco Bikes is a joke. Let our local bike shops take the lead in bike rentals. Isn't that what they are for in the love of God. What is education for? Some neighborhoods work well with all this get out of the car mentality, others do not!!! So, one size does not fit all as proposed by Circulate San Diego. The community of Clairemont across the board does not even know what a bike looks like....exaggeration intended. So, Danny is one of the few people on the planet being a member of the one million mile club....walking, cycling, running and swimming...I know my onions or transportation... lol Lets build our collective consciousness through education and strong clear leadership before we mandate all these unattainable benchmarks. Will you all stand with my campaign for D2 of our San Diego City Council in 2018...you can even call me Danny! God bless all of you, Danny

    Miyo
    Miyo subscriber

    Everyone wants the tourists to save San Diego, whether it is DecoBike or stadium supporters. DecoBike is focusing on the low hanging fruit, the tourists. To help alter the percentage of San Diegans who use bikes as a means of transportation, DecoBike needs a better network of stations. And bike riders need a better network of bike lanes that will connect them with jobs, schools, and shops. To get a sense of the frustration of actual DecoBike users, one should read their Yelp reviews. Many of the complaints are about the lack stations at their intended destinations. And my bike riding friends complain about the lack of safe routes between home and their destinations.

    DecoBike has run into our common problem of our eyes wanting the flashy new projects while ignoring our lacking infrastructure. We need to spend money first on the infrastructure - safer roads for bikes and cars. Yes, I said spend money. Not many things in life are free. All the free parking for our cars or even a DecoBike station is subsidized by the City, which means we are silently paying for many things we call "free".

    We invited DecoBike to the party before we were ready to be proper hosts. Our challenge is, do we keep DecoBike at the party while we finish getting our roads ready for the bike riders? And how much money do we want to spend on our "free" choices.

    Harry
    Harry subscribermember

    Ride share bikes are not substitutes for mass transit. They are substitutes for the short trip that is too long to walk and not served by mass transit. They save getting a car out, driving and parking. The charge for over 30 minutes is because the design is for short trips. Of course they should be subsidized, in the same way that drivers, airlines and trains are subsidized.

    Bill Davidson
    Bill Davidson subscriber

    @Harry : Yep.  Many people don't seem to realize that the single most heavily subsidized form of transportation is actually the personal automobile.

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    It is a poor model, cost too much, is intended to encourage biking in situations where walking is just as doable and takes up valuable real estate. The solution is not 'free' but that will be the argument that enthusiast offer. Dump DecoBike and invest in improvement of trolley and rail service both of which should run more frequently and in this day and age without conductors and engineers. 

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Does this pitch sound familiar, like rapid transit advocates who, faced with low ridership, pronounce the solution to be more trolley lines, more bus routes, more...... 

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Bill Bradshaw Thanks for the link; I found it very interesting.You have to wonder if anyone in the transit authority thinks like this.


    Speed as cost saver, in addition to your comment on frequency, is another important factor.  In my area, frequency is pretty good.  I can catch a bus to Old Town about every 20 minutes, but then have an additional 10-15 minute wait for a trolley (My bus route used to go downtown, but when they set up the Old Town Transit Center they decided to make me transfer).    Getting to Old Town is slower than it needs to be because there are, to me at least, an inordinate number of stops, which increases travel time.  


    I find the transit system here pretty good, but I’m retired and seldom in a big hurry.  Most potential riders are, which possibly explains the current ridership, a lot of elderlies, tourists, students and very few 8 to 5ers.      

    joseph
    joseph subscriber

    They simply cost too much to use. If one wanted a bike to commute on any sort of regular basis it's significantly more cost effective to own a bike

    Charles Hudak
    Charles Hudak

    @joseph They aren't designed for end to end commuting, just last mile. And I believe that if you get a pass then the price is much more reasonable than paying the one time fee.


    IOW, they are a great solution for someone who takes the coaster down from north county and then needs to get across downtown to an office. Heck, I used to work downtown and parked 10 blocks from our office. I had to walk back and forth every day. I'd have used bike share to save myself some time on the trip if it was available.


    I won't argue that someone could bring a bike on the train/bus/trolley as well to accomplish the same thing but space for bikes is usually limited so this doesn't work unless there are only a handful of people doing this.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Considered membership myself until I noticed thar members get charges $5 per half hour after the first half hour if they don't return the bikes. It's hard for decobikes to compete with uber and lyft...