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San Diego’s Bike Share Program Struggling

Photo caption: A DecoBike rental kiosk in Mission Bay, July 19, 2016.

Photo by Claire Trageser

A DecoBike rental kiosk in Mission Bay, July 19, 2016.

The Florida company DecoBike runs San Diego's bike share program at no cost to the city. So far, it appeals more to tourists than locals, according to a San Diego County grand jury report.

San Diego's bike share program has struggled in its first year to broaden its appeal beyond tourists to residents who could use the program in their commutes, according to a recent report from the San Diego County grand jury.

That lack of use by locals threatens the city's Climate Action Plan, the report says. The climate plan calls for boosting commutes by bike from 1 percent to 18 percent by 2035 for people who live within a half mile of existing or planned transit stops.

The grand jury recommends the city work with beach communities to install more bike stations, and that the Metropolitan Transit System set up more bike rental kiosks near transit stops. The city must respond to the report, but does not need to accept its recommendations.

San Diego does not pay for the bike share program, but allows the Florida-based company DecoBike to set up rental kiosks on city property. The city gets $25,000 from the company in the first year, and then either a portion of the company’s sales or an annual payment of up to $175,000 — whichever is higher — for 10 years. DecoBike spent $8 million setting up the bike share infrastructure and will owe the city a minimum of $1,050,000 by 2025.

After more than a year of delays, DecoBike opened its first rental stations in January 2015. In its first year, DecoBike sold 102,641 rides and 697 memberships in San Diego, according to its annual report. Rides range in price from $5 for 30 minutes to a $125 annual membership.

By comparison, the bike share program Citi Bike in New York City sold almost 4 million rides and more than 85,000 memberships in the first three months after it opened in 2013.

Melinda Pederson, administrative manager for DecoBike San Diego, said the number of rides sold in San Diego is "lower than we would have liked." But low use is "not unusual for the fist year of a bike share program," she said.

"Most bike shares are subsidized by local government, so if they break even or operate at a loss, it's not as big of a deal," Pederson said. "But we’re not subsidized, and we don't want the program to be jeopardized."

She wouldn't say whether DecoBike has made or lost money in San Diego.

"We don’t have any plans to shut it down at this time," Pederson said.

The grand jury report criticized the Metropolitan Transit System for preventing DecoBike from setting up kiosks at public transit stations, which would encourage more residents to use the bikes as part of their commutes. Riders can pick up a bike at any kiosk, ride it wherever they wish and then return it to any other kiosk.

Pederson said the company wanted to set up a rental kiosk at the Old Town Trolley Station but was told by MTS that it couldn't without an additional permit.

"Someone from MTS reached out and said, 'It isn’t approved. You have to hold off,'" she said. "We sent multiple emails, left multiple voicemails and no one responded to us at all."

MTS spokesman Rob Schupp said that isn't true.

"We are totally supportive of a station at Old Town," Schupp said. "We can start the process in Old Town tomorrow if they want. We encourage them to reach out to us."

He added that other rental kiosks are near trolley stations in downtown San Diego.

Residents in City Heights also have asked for the bike share program to expand to their neighborhood, but the company has no plans to add kiosks there.

After the first 85 rental kiosks were set up, 80 percent of them had to be moved, either because there was too much shade for the solar-powered kiosks or because of resident and business owner complaints, the grand jury report said.

Some in the Pacific Beach community have been especially vocal in their objections, complaining the kiosks are ugly, obstruct sidewalks and threaten bike rental businesses.

Katie Keach, a San Diego city spokeswoman, said the rental kiosks in Pacific Beach are not going to move. She said the city is focused on helping DecoBike expand its network to the promised 180 stations, not move the existing stations.

Keach said the program has been successful in introducing San Diegans to the concept of bike sharing.

"Now that San Diegans understand bike sharing, it will be easier to place new stations," she said.

DecoBike has 97 stations in the city. It had said all 180 stations would be operational by March or April 2015, but those plans have been delayed.

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