Legal opinion may allow San Diego to join dockless bike sharing trend

A new legal opinion opens the door for the city of San Diego to join a transportation trend sweeping the region that allows people to use smartphones to rent bikes for short trips and then leave them anywhere that’s convenient.

San Diego has an exclusive deal through 2023 with bike-sharing provider DecoBike, whose business model requires customers to return bikes to docking stations. City Attorney Mara Elliott says San Diego could nevertheless allow dockless bike-sharing companies like LimeBike and Spin to operate within the city.

While city officials decide whether to make such a move, Discover Card is partnering with the city to bolster DecoBike’s docked sharing network with more bikes, new stations and technology upgrades to boost convenience.

The city’s docked network has struggled to meet its ridership goals since it was launched in early 2015, and backlash from community leaders prompted the elimination of 15 stations near the city’s beaches in September.

Environmentalists and bicycling advocates call dockless bikes a superior option to bikes that consumers must rent and return to docking stations, because dockless bikes are cheaper to rent and allow people to go exactly where they want to go.

They predict dockless bikes, whose rear wheels lock in place when consumers are done using them, will do a better job of helping San Diego meet the goals of increased bike and transit use required in the city’s ambitious climate action plan.

“The convenience factor is definitely going to be a tipping point,” Nicole Capretz, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign, said by telephone on Friday. “You’re going to start seeing bikes everywhere throughout the city.”

Capretz said more bikes on the street will also help build momentum behind efforts to add more cycling lanes and other infrastructure needed to make biking safer and more efficient.

“This will get us back on track to being a bike-friendly city,” she said.

National City and Imperial Beach began allowing dockless bike sharing last fall and other cities are expected to follow suit, but San Diego officials expressed concerns in December that the DecoBike deal would block them.

San Diego is the only city in the region facing this kind of potential conflict because it’s the only city with a docked bike sharing program

Elliott’s new opinion says San Diego couldn’t support or market another bike sharing program without violating the DecoBike deal, an exclusive partnership requiring the city to support DecoBike’s ridership goals.

But Elliott said San Diego could allow an independent bike sharing company to start operating if the city’s involvement doesn’t go beyond issuing approvals in its regulatory capacity.

“The city would not be acting inconsistently with the agreement even if the effect were that a competitor could operate in the city,” the opinion says. “The DecoBike agreement does not insulate DecoBike from competition.”

Elliott said that if another bike sharing company required a lease or some other agreement with the city that goes beyond regulatory approval, the deal could violate the DecoBike agreement.

“We can provide a more detailed analysis depending on the specific facts of the proposal in question,” she said.

Elliott also said the city and DecoBike could proactively renegotiate their deal to allow for other providers under specific sets of circumstances.

The upgrades to the DecoBike network, which will be immediately rebranded “Discover Bike,” will include 200 new bikes and 20 new stations in the city’s urban core, where bikes are more likely to be used for commuting.

There will also be a new smartphone app, a fob for customers with monthly or yearly passes and software upgrades to improve tracking of bikes and docks.

“Discover’s support of the San Diego bike share program will enable improvements to the system and allow for its continued expansion,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a news release. “Increasing commuter bicycling opportunities is an important goal of our climate action plan.”

The climate action plan requires the number of people bicycling to work in the city’s densely populated neighborhoods to increase from about 2 percent now to 6 percent by 2020 and then to 18 percent by 2035.

Faulconer also said adding locations in the urban core will boost the city’s downtown mobility plan, which will enhance bicycle safety and increase ridership.

Discover Card holders will get 20 percent off the cost of all rentals or memberships when paying with their card.

“We’re looking forward to Discover Bike becoming part of the fabric of San Diego as our sponsorship helps create more transportation opportunities for local residents and enhances the rider experience through investments in new technology,” said Vijay Konduru, the company’s vice president of media and sponsorships.

Konduru declined to say how much Discover was spending on the upgrades to the docked network or the length of its deal with the city, other than calling it a “multiyear” pact.

Ricardo Pierdant, chief executive of DecoBike, praised the deal.

“Thanks to Discover’s sponsorship, we’re another step closer to our goal of making bike share a widespread transportation option for the people of San Diego,” he said.

Dockless bike sharing began in Asia about two years when technology was created allowing bikes to essentially lock themselves, eliminating the need for bikes to be stored in dock stations.

The two leading companies in the U.S., LimeBike and Spin, launched their services this year and have rapidly expanded in just a few months.

They charge $1 for half an hour of use, compared to the $5 per half hour charged by DecoBike.

Councilman David Alvarez of Logan Heights has praised dockless bike sharing as a better way to meet the needs of his South Bay constituents, noting that those communities have no DecoBike stations.

david.garrick@sduniontribune.com (619) 269-8906 Twitter:@UTDavidGarrick

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