Friday, July 29, 2016
[San Diego County] Grand Jury: Local bike sharing may fail
SAN DIEGO — San Diego’s bike sharing network, a key component of the city’s plan to fight climate change, will fail without greater cooperation from government officials and community leaders, a county grand jury report says.
City and local transit officials need to ease approval of rental kiosks along the struggling network so more can be located where potential cyclists need them, particularly at trolley stations and in high-tourism beach areas, the report says.
Allowing the network to fail would be a big setback for San Diego’s aggressive climate action plan and would likely force the city to abandon its insistence on being one of the few cities in the world to not subsidize its bike sharing network, the grand jury says.
When Chicago’s first bike share partner failed, that city struggled to find a replacement and had to pay full start-up costs of $6 million to land a successor, the report notes.
City officials haven’t formally responded to the report, but a spokeswoman said Friday that they have no plans to begin subsidizing the network and remain confident in its long-term success.
The city and the operator of the network, DecoBike, plan to add more kiosks in many areas and will provide details about those plans later this summer, said the spokeswoman, Katie Keach.
A Metropolitan Transit System spokesman said the agency has been highly cooperative with DecoBike, noting that it’s impossible to install bike sharing kiosks in most trolley stations because they are too narrow.
The spokesman, Rob Schupp, said the transit system has a marketing partnership with DecoBike and agreed to allow a kiosk in a highly visible area of the crucial Old Town Trolley station, but that DecoBike declined.
Schupp also noted that hundreds of DecoBike bicycles are available within easy walking distance of trolley and bus stations downtown, despite not being located directly inside the stations.
Leaders in beach communities haven’t softened their stance that DecoBike has damaged aesthetics by placing kiosks on boardwalks, and that the network is threatening small bicycle shops that offer rentals.
A large group of those leaders plans to lobby the City Council during a meeting scheduled for Tuesday to relocate or remove many beach area stations.
The grand jury report says the city must try to sway such public opinion.
"City leaders need to remind people in the beach communities that bicycling is an important 21st century transportation mode that replaces car trips and relieves traffic congestion, thus improving air quality and public health, and that bike sharing is an established transportation option in more than 800 cities worldwide," the report says.
San Diego’s climate action plan, which is legally binding, requires the number of people bicycling to work in the city’s densely populated neighborhoods to increase from about 2 percent to 6 percent by 2020 and then to 18 percent by 2035.
With that in mind, the City Council unanimously approved in late June a plan to transform many vehicle lanes and some on-street parking in downtown into miles of protected cycling lanes.
Cars will have to share downtown San Diego’s streets much more evenly with bicyclists and pedestrians under an ambitious new plan that aims to boost safety and fight climate change.
But the city’s climate goals are threatened, the report says, in the short term by city officials and beach community leaders, and in the long term by the transit system.
Bike sharing programs typically rely financially more on tourists initially, and can then focus later more on sites that will get commuters out of cars by providing an alternate mode of transportation, the report says.
Stats from DecoBike’s first year, which ended in February, support that. Members of the network, who pay less than casual users including tourists, made up 23 percent of customers, while casual users were 77 percent.
The report says the city has resisted relocation of some poorly performing stations in downtown, has objected to additional kiosks in Balboa Park and has allowed La Jolla to block installation of any stations based on aesthetic concerns.
Keach, the city spokeswoman, declined to address those issues specifically.
"The city’s bike-sharing program is still in its infancy, having launched in January 2015, and remains a work in progress as 95 of the 180 proposed stations have been installed," Keach said. "As we continue to add stations and build a more complete network, the city remains confident that more San Diegans and visitors will take advantage of the program for both recreational and commute purposes."
In a bike-sharing network, people pay a fee to rent a bike at one station and can then drop it off anywhere along the network. So the larger network, the more functional it is.
The report also criticizes the transit system for resisting kiosks at trolley and bus stations.
Bike sharing is key to long-term efforts to reduce carbon emissions because rental bikes can fill small gaps in the transportation network known as the "last mile" problem, which encourages more people to choose cycling and mass transit over cars.
The report focused particularly on the Old Town station, a transfer hub in the trolley system.
"The Old Town Transit Center is another ideal location that MTS has repeatedly rejected," the report says.
Schupp, the transit system spokesman, disputed that.
"We fully support placing their stations at our facilities where they will not pose a safety concern," he said. "At Old Town, we met with DecoBike a couple of times and designated a spot for them at the corner of Taylor and Congress, a highly visible corner."
The report also suggests the city should appoint or designate one prominent official to be the single point of contact on bike sharing and refer communications about the program to that official.
"When residents complain to their elected officials about the presence of bike sharing stations, they receive inconsistent responses," the report says. "One official may tell them to talk to DecoBike, another to contact the Transportation and Stormwater Department."
Keach indicated Friday that the city wouldn’t be making such a change.
"Transportation and Storm Water will remain the implementing department, with greater assistance from the communications director and assistant chief operating officer," she said.
Responses to the report from the city and the transit system are due Aug. 29.
On subsidies, Keach said there are no plans to provide them. Some argue that subsidies would allow DecoBike to be less aggressive about targeting high-traffic tourist areas.
Bike sharing programs in northern cities, such as Minneapolis, are seasonal and require financial help.
In contrast, San Diego’s mild climate allows year-round opportunities for strong revenue. The report says DecoBike has successfully run an unsubsidized bike sharing network in Miami, another city with a mild climate.
Kayla Race, director of operations and programs for the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said the network’s success is crucial.
“In order to protect our quality of life from the impacts of climate change, and in order for the city to comply with its climate plan, it's imperative we provide real transportation alternatives for folks to get out of their cars and still get to where they need to go,” she said.
For information about the program, visit decobikesd.com.
July 16, 2016
The San Diego Union-Tribune
By David Garrick