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It's Time to Step Up to Save Bike Share

It is possible that many of San Diego’s 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.

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.

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.

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