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Little Italy Association Is Evicting Dockless Bike Sharing

A LimeBike sits parked at a Little Italy bike stall, March 23, 2018.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Above: A LimeBike sits parked at a Little Italy bike stall, March 23, 2018.

The Little Italy Association complained earlier this month that the explosion of "dockless" bike sharing in San Diego was creating a hazard for pedestrians, and that the city should temporarily ban the companies from operating. When officials declined, the business district took things into its own hands.

Earlier this month, the Little Italy Association quietly began using its maintenance crews to pick up the shared bikes, remove them from the neighborhood's commercial core and place them side-by-side on a single sidewalk on the neighborhood's fringe.

The move represents a small but notable escalation in a dispute over the new technology, which supporters say has the potential to promote healthy exercise and help San Diego meet its ambitious goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions, most of which comes from cars and trucks.

Dockless bike and scooter sharing has skyrocketed in popularity since the City Attorney's Office in January declared the companies legal. Users unlock the bikes and scooters and pay for their rides with a smartphone app without needing to return them to fixed docking stations.

The Little Italy Association soon complained that the bikes were blocking sidewalks, creating a liability for their businesses under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It asked Civic San Diego, a nonprofit that oversees downtown development and infrastructure, to send the companies cease-and-desist letters to give the city time to craft regulations for the companies.

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But before Civic San Diego officials had a chance to decline that request, Little Italy Association District Manager Chris Gomez sent an email to representatives of the bike sharing companies threatening to evict the bikes from the neighborhood. Gomez said he had been in contact with city officials, and that he believed the bike sharing companies did not have permission to leave their bikes on the public right-of-way.

"We have made several attempts to communicate with each vendor about our concerns in reference to liability in the common area that we manage," Gomez said. "We are requiring that all vendors remove their bikes/scooter (sic) from the Little Italy boundaries by March 9th or we will take the next step to relocate the units and lock them together."

An email from the Little Italy Association to dockless bike sharing companies threatens to remove the bikes from the neighborhood.

Since that email was sent on March 1, dozens of bikes belonging to the city's three main dockless bike sharing companies, LimeBike, Mobike and ofo, have shown up on the sidewalk of State Street, north of West Hawthorn Street. The bikes have not been locked together, though their placement at times has blocked portions of the sidewalk in apparent violation of state and local laws.

Marco Li Mandri, chief executive administrator of the Little Italy Association, said in an interview that the crews had been instructed to leave at least four feet of sidewalk clear when dropping the bikes off and that any blockage should not be happening. He said the conflict over the bikes could have been avoided if the companies had worked with the business association before their rollout.

"There was no notification given to us whatsoever, these bikes just showed up all at once," Li Mandri said. "So what we had to do in order to protect the people that live here, who visit here, who work here, own property and businesses here — we began removing the bikes and getting them off the main streets."

A spokeswoman for LimeBike said the company was aware of the concerns in Little Italy and had not placed any bikes in that neighborhood, and that the bikes in Little Italy were ridden there by users.

Maya Rosas, director of policy for the nonprofit Circulate San Diego and a Little Italy resident, said she had not observed any major problems with the bikes in Little Italy, and that their integration into the neighborhood has been "like a dream."

"It seems to really be working," she said. "The only problems I've had is the occasional bike that hasn't unlocked for me. I've seen families, couples, all just finding bikes and deciding to ride them."

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Dockless shared bikes crows the sidewalk of State Street near the edge of Little Italy, March 23, 2018.

Little Italy's removal of the bikes stands in stark contrast to the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association, which is embracing dockless bike sharing as an opportunity. On Saturday the organization is hosting a group ride on the shared bikes with stops at businesses in North Park and City Heights.

Rosas, who also advocates for the implementation of San Diego's Vision Zero campaign to end traffic deaths, said the eviction of bikes by a business improvement district seemed counterproductive.

"Bikes are great for business," she said. "If all of these bikes were in Little Italy, that means somebody was riding them here. Getting rid of them means you're getting rid of their opportunity to come in and out of Little Italy."

RELATED: $61 Million Spent On SANDAG’s Bike Program; Less Than 4 Miles Completed

The Little Italy Association has a record of opposing plans or projects that cycling advocates support. In 2016 it came out against the city's Downtown Mobility Plan, which would create protected bike lanes in the neighborhood, in part because the plan required the removal of some parking spaces.

John Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit BikeSD, said the association was acting as if it wanted dockless bike sharing to fail.

"If there is a concerted effort to remove all of the bikes from the area and put them in an out-of-the-way place, that would seem to be sabotage in my book," Anderson said.

He added that the controversy over dockless bike sharing had been blown out of proportion, especially in comparison to the number of injuries and deaths caused by cars.

"I think the scale of the potential or actual damages that are being caused by these programs is negligible compared to other issues we have regarding the transportation environment in San Diego," he said.

Li Mandri said he often rides his bike around downtown, and that the suggestion that the Little Italy Association was anti-bike was "crap." But he also questioned the need for the new technology.

"We want to accommodate bikes," Li Mandri said. "But we also think that if people who live in downtown want to bike, they should just buy a bike and use it. I do it all the time."

Little Italy's business association has begun picking up shared bikes belonging to LimeBike, Mobike and ofo and moving them outside the neighborhood's commercial core to a single sidewalk. Bike advocates accuse the association of trying to "sabotage" the program's success.

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