Representatives from three of the dockless bikeshare companies attended an East Village Association meeting at the San Diego Central Library on March 8. Dockless bikes are a relatively new experiment in San Diego, but their arrival certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. The meeting was split between voices supporting the new platform as a way to help San Diego further adopt alternative modes of transportation, and citizens upset with the sudden deluge of bikes throughout the city—an arrival amplified by the fact that three of the bikeshares apparently launched within days of one-another in San Diego.
The primary complaint seemed to be that there were no clear guidelines as to where the bikes should be left when a rider had completed his or her trip. A couple of those in attendance seemed unhappy with the image of the scattered bikes on the sidewalks, when compared with the uniform appearance of the Discover bikes which are locked in specific docking stations.
Out of the three companies in attendance, Bird, who rent out motorized black and white scooters, seemed the most in-sync with the issues the community voiced. Every single night the scooters are picked-up, charged, cleaned, and then redistributed around the neighborhoods from 5-7AM. “We generally contact all the business owners that we can possibly find, and then we ask if we can place Birds on their property. The most ideal location is kind of a nook in a building cut-out. On the sidewalk, but not ‘in the sidewalk.’ We place them in groups of three with the handlebars turned to the left so that it is a neat presentation. Of course, it doesn’t happen all the time, but I do have a team of people that travel around the city, and they sweep the area and make sure everything looks good.
If a drop doesn’t look nice, we have them readjust,” said the Bird representative. Bird has between 500-550 scooters in San Diego. 350 of those are generally located downtown. The general manager from ofo would not give a specific number for how many bikes they have in San Diego, but they are bright yellow and hard to avoid. Ofo is the largest and oldest bikeshare company, and, according to their local general manager, their very existence can be credited to a thief. “Our founder was a student, and he had five of his bikes stolen when he was living on campus. He thought, ‘wouldn’t it be easier if we had shareable bikes so that people wouldn’t have to worry about these kind of things,” she said.
Ofo is in over 20 different countries, and 1200 cities around the world. Locally, ofo bikes are on the streets 24-7. Unless they are broken, they are in circulation. Ofo claims that their bikes are meant to be kept in the “furniture zone” on sidewalks—if you are scratching your head (as I was) the furniture zone is the area of a sidewalk in which you generally see landscaping, light poles or benches.
The last representatives to speak were those with LimeBike. Their bikes can be easily identified by their lime green exteriors. They have several thousand units across the city, including e-bikes, scooters and regular three and five-speed bikes. So, if you combine Bird and LimeBike’s reported units (2500) and then go with a low-ball estimate for how many additional bikes ofo and (not present at the meeting) Mobike are responsible for (say 1500 combined) that’s an additional 4000 bikes and scooters on our sidewalk “furniture zones,” 3500 of which remain there 24/7.
As a result, issues such as business owners dealing with bikes blocking their entranceways are sure to pop up. “Your bikes just line up in the back of our kitchen door,” one frustrated business-owner explained to the LimeBike representative. “So we called your company to kindly ask you to relocate them, and they were like ‘There’s nothing we can do.’” The LimeBike representative then offered his personal number and email so they could contact him directly. The obvious issue here is that his personal number and personal email aren’t on every LimeBike.
As the meeting progressed it was eventually revealed that San Diego has no cap as to how many dockless bikes these companies can operate in San Diego. An attendee had this to say: “My concern is the growth of it. I’m sure there are going to be four or five new companies. They’re all going to race in. It takes no longer than ten seconds to get a business license. That’s not a challenge. So, with no regulation, it’s market saturation. Again, I think it’s a great idea. It’s a great system, but I think there’s going to be a major hurdle before it reaches a point of working and being efficient, and companies surviving—the one’s being responsible and so forth.
"Same thing has happened downtown in businesses for over 20 years. I remember when the pedicabs first started. Everyone saturated. Everyone ran out and bought a pedicab and eventually the city had to go back in and get the licenses out and educate the people…the drivers and so forth. This is going to be one of those situations.”
Another aspect that became very clear is that even though most of the bikeshares have plenty of their rides all over town, their actual workforces in San Diego seem pretty sparse. Many of the discussions seemed to revisit the general theme that getting a human employee to respond to a complaint, move a bike, or to even just answer a question were all time-consuming and often fruitless endeavors. Like many app-based transportation innovations (see: Uber/Lyft) customer service seems a tad lacking in the employee to customer ratio.
It was an East Village meeting, so the issue of the homeless and their access to the bikes was to be expected. An attendee asked how often the bikes were washed after he claimed that he saw a homeless person near Horton Plaza go to the bathroom on one of the bikes earlier in the day. Heavy use and contact with the bikes by the area homeless population is sure to make some potential riders uneasy after the recent Hepatitis A outbreak. A whopping 81 cases of Hepatitis A were reported in the 92101 zip-code according to an October 2017 map. Keeping the bikes sanitary, and also available for all the citizens to use, will likely be a tricky balancing act in San Diego. Easy access to these bikes is obviously a positive move by the city in an attempt to motivate citizens to use alternative modes of transportation. That being said, the dockless bikeshare launch seems to have consisted of one step—notifying all these companies that they are free to unload as many of their rides on the sidewalks of San Diego as they wish. The kinks are quickly becoming apparent, hopefully all parties work them out to keep a noble concept from becoming a daily headache.