Get ready North County, bike-sharing could start in July


A South Carolina-based company plans to deploy 500 GPS-enabled e-bikes this summer in Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas, three of the five coastal North County cities that have considered the one-year, pilot program.

So far, only Carlsbad has officially bowed out of the bike-sharing plan. City Council members there had concerns about safety, downtown traffic and competition with existing bicycle shops. Oceanside and Camp Pendleton also participated in discussions, but so far have made no commitment.

A start date for the launch remains uncertain. Mid-July appears likely as the cities, regulating agencies and the company work out details for North County’s first app-based bike-sharing program.

Representatives of the five cities, along with North County Transit District and the San Diego Association of Governments, have been working on the idea of a regional partnership since 2017. They selected Gotcha from six companies that offered to provide the service. Formed 10 years ago, Gotcha now has 78 mobility systems in operation or about to launch in cities and at universities across the United States.

Transportation planners see bicycles as a way to reduce air pollution, promote public health, and control traffic and parking problems. Riders could rent a bike in one city and return it in another of the three cities in the partnership.

Gotcha also provides mobility systems using battery-powered scooters, adult tricycles and small cars, but those will not be available in the North County pilot program.

Dockable systems, where bikes are rented and returned to the same spot, have been around for about 10 years. Dockless bikes emerged about two years ago, and allow someone with a smart phone to pick up or release a bike anywhere they find it within the system. Gotcha has a hybrid of the two systems with financial incentives that encourage renters to return the bikes to any of the multiple hubs in its service area.

Several companies, including LimeBike and Ofo, flooded downtown San Diego with their low-cost, brightly colored dockless bicycles about two years ago. The surplus of cycles caused problems in some neighborhoods, where the bikes were sometimes vandalized or left to block sidewalks and storefronts.

The addition of e-bikes and e-scooters further complicated San Diego’s situation, and resulted in new regulations for app-rented bikes and scooters.

Del Mar Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said she initially opposed bike sharing because of the difficulties in San Diego, but she got on board after hearing details of the Gotcha program at the council’s May 6 meeting.

“I wasn’t on this page at all, because all I did was see all these abandoned bikes,” she said at the meeting. “But you’ve convinced me you know what you’re doing and you’re going to work with the city.”

Carlsbad City Council members had the Gotcha presentation May 7, but decided the system was not the best fit for their downtown streets and sidewalks.

“The intentions are great, but in reality, they end up being more of a pain in the butt than they are worth,” said Carlsbad Councilman Keith Blackburn.

People often ride the bikes on sidewalks, where they are a hazard to pedestrians, he said. Riders sometimes go the wrong direction on busy streets or leave the bicycles blocking the entrances to buildings. Providing helmets and getting people to wear them also has been a problem.

“I don’t think this is right for our type of layout,” Blackburn said.

Established “brick-and-mortar” shops that rent bicycles would be hurt by the online business, said Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall.

The app-based rentals have an unfair advantage because they use public assets such as streets, sidewalks and parks at no cost, Hall said. Also, they increase the city’s expenses for services such as police protection, code enforcement and emergency services, and provide no revenue to pay for those services.

Oceanside is trying to set some boundaries before bringing in bike-sharing.

“We are still considering it, but are working on a micro-mobility ordinance first to address bike-sharing, scooters, etc.,” Oceanside Public Works Director Kiel Koger said in an email Wednesday, May 29. “The ordinance will help us regulate these shared devices in the city. We will be deciding after that whether to do a bike-sharing program or not, as we monitor how the pilot is doing in other cities.”

Transportation planners say bike sharing could help solve what’s widely referred to as the “first-mile, last-mile” problem, which is how to cover the short route between a mass transit stop and the traveler’s workplace or other destination.

Gotcha is different from most other bike-sharing companies in that it plans to hire local employees who will be available daily to maintain and supervise its rentals. The employees will repair broken machinery and retrieve bikes not returned to hubs. And it would be the exclusive online provider within the service area.

The company designs and builds its own bicycles, which will travel up to 40 miles on one charge. The interchangeable batteries are removed by company employees and recharged at a central location that the company will rent in the area.

The battery-powered motor kicks in only when the rider pedals. Without pedaling, there’s no power. The bikes have a top speed of 20 mph.

Del Mar will start with 11 hubs and about 70 bikes, said company founder and CEO Sean Flood.

“These bikes collect a ton of information about how people are using them ... (and) that data is openly shared in real time with the city,” Flood told the Del Mar council members at their May meeting.

The company uses the online information to help distribute the bikes to the appropriate hubs, move them between hubs, and to move the hubs, if necessary, he said. The data also is available to the city to learn more about how people travel within the community and the best places to add new bike lanes, parking lots and other infrastructure.

A mid-July start gives the company time to selection locations, hire employees and work out other details, and it avoids a start-up during the traffic congestion that always accompanies the San Diego County Fair, which ends July 4.

“The main thing is establishing where the hubs will go,” said Crystal Najera, an Encinitas program administrator and the lead staffer for the project.

Company officials are working with city parks and public works departments, the state Parks Department, and NCTD to determine the best locations, Najera said.

One-time users would pay a fee to access the bikes and an hourly rate. Tentative pricing includes a $5 fee for leaving the bike away from a hub, or a $50 fee for leaving one outside the service area.

Three to six trips daily for each bike would make the system successful, Flood said.
-- Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune