Dockless bike sharing, the novel idea that rolled out with a rough start in San Diego in February, could spread to North County coastal communities as soon as this summer.
Led by Encinitas, the proposed one-year pilot program may also include Del Mar, Solana Beach, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, and North County Transit District.
The short-term bicycle rentals are based on a phone app, like Uber and other ride-sharing programs. Renters can pick up their bike in one place, such as a bus stop or train station, and leave it someplace else, maybe parked on the sidewalk outside their workplace, anywhere within the company’s service area.
Bike sharing is seen as a way to get more cars off the road, reduce pollution and greenhouse gases, and encourage more people to get out of their vehicles and exercise.
“One of the things we are trying to solve is that first-last mile in transit,” said Crystal Najera, an Encinitas climate plan administrator leading the group project.
Studies show more people would use public transit if there was an easy, inexpensive way to travel the final short distance from a train station, for example, to a workplace or other destination.
Three companies began offering dockless bike-sharing operations last month in San Diego. But the sudden appearance of so many rental bikes, including the recent addition of electric-powered bikes and scooters, has led to problems.
The most frequent complaint seems to be about parked bikes blocking busy sidewalks. Other issues include people riding illegally on the sidewalks, vandalism, abandoned bicycles and people riding without helmets.
Some San Diego merchants, frustrated by the sudden abundance of app-rented bikes, have asked the city to set new limits on them, but so far it’s unclear how that might work.
North County can avoid some of those problems by making an exclusive deal with a single vendor, Najera said.
Using a single company across all the coastal region also has the advantage of making it easier for people to rent and return bikes anywhere within the cities.
As with any new business, there are kinks to be worked out, experts say. But participation is high, and the business appears to have a big future.
As a result of that optimistic outlook, entrepreneurs with deep pockets are willing to drop huge sums of money into bike-sharing startups.
The idea began a few years ago in China, where it spread rapidly to more than 200 cities. A few large markets have become saturated with the service there, and news photos from some cities show piles of hundreds of the distinctively colored bicycles, damaged and discarded in public places.
Dockless bikes rent for $1 to $2 an hour in San Diego, an artificially low price set to build a market for the brand.
“It’s very cheap, but it’s questionable whether (the price) is sustainable,” said Howard LaGrange, an avid cyclist and Oceanside’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.
Oceanside’s City Council is scheduled to hear a report on the regional proposal April 11 and decide whether to participate.
“I’ve been pretty supportive,” LaGrange said. “The concern is the placement of bikes in the community … and whether they are bunched up and impeding people on the sidewalks.”
A GPS system connected to the bikes could be one way to solve the sidewalk problem, by limiting locations where people could leave the free-standing bikes.
Overall bike-sharing appears to be a good program, LaGrange said, and one that’s evolving rapidly as it adapts to the available technology and the way people use it.
If enough jurisdictions are interested, the North County partnership will seek more information and possibly approve a contract with a single vendor to operate throughout the coastal communities, Najera said.
Details of the proposal are still being ironed out, but the dockless rental system is preferred, she said.
Potential vendors will be encouraged to discuss how they would handle issues such as parking, right-of-way, training programs, the use of helmets and other safety factors, Najera said.
“We’ve heard a lot of interest from the public,” she said.
Del Mar’s City Council voted unanimously on Monday, March 5, to join the cities exploring the idea. Encinitas and Solana Beach are both scheduled to hear reports and consider their participation later this month.
Del Mar Councilman Dave Druker advised caution, saying the cities should be sure that the chosen vendor is prepared to be in business for “the long term” and not just until the investors’ money is gone.
“It looks like we are going to have to put a little time and effort into this just to get it off the ground,” Druker said.
Other council members said they see advantages, especially for tourism, which is a significant contributor to the local economy.
“As a resident, I’m excited about this because it means when people come visit me they have another way to get around town,” said Del Mar Councilwoman Ellie Haviland.
Three dockless bike rental companies — LimeBike, Ofo and MoBike — offer the service in San Diego.
LimeBike is a Silicon Valley startup that rents dockless bikes in dozens of U.S. cities and added National City and Imperial Beach last year. Ofo and Mobike are both Chinese companies that rent millions of bikes around the world.
DecoBike, a Florida-based company, began offering a slightly different service — dockable bikes — in San Diego in 2015.
The dockable system requires renters to return the bicycle to any of about 180 self-service stations spread across the city.
-- Phil Diehl is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.