San Diego considering crackdown on dockless bikes, including fees, new rules


San Diego took the first step on Wednesday toward cracking down on the dockless bikes flooding the city by holding a brainstorming session focused on problems with cluttered sidewalks, abandoned bikes and dangerous riding.

The leading options, which are based on steps other cities have taken, include imposing new regulations on dockless bike companies and charging them hefty fees to cover enhanced enforcement and creation of bike lanes and paths.

The regulations and fees would aim to curb some of the problems created by the popular app-based bikes without decreasing their usage, which is being credited with reducing traffic congestion and pollution.

The regulations would also apply to dockless, electric-powered scooters, but the concerns about those devices have focused mostly on how fast they travel and riders using sidewalks instead of streets.

San Diego’s experience with dockless bikes and scooters, which began in February, has been more of a free-for-all than in most cities because San Diego couldn’t make an exclusive and comprehensive agreement with one operator.

The city had to allow multiple operators to begin all at once without detailed regulations, because making a deal with one operator would violate a previous exclusive pact with a company that requires bikes be returned to docking stations.

City officials said on Wednesday that the exclusive pact with Discover Bike, which was previously called DecoBike, could limit the new fees and regulations San Diego can impose on dockless companies until the pact ends in 2025.

The city agreed to the deal with the docked bike-sharing company because city officials didn’t know dockless bikes would be invented a short time later. The deal was 10 years long to provide the company a fair return on the costs of installing dozens of docking stations.

The brainstorming session, which was spearheaded by Councilwoman Barbara Bry during a meeting of the council’s Budget Committee, focused on regulations and fees recently imposed by San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, St. Louis and some smaller cities.

Potential regulations include companies being required to retrieve abandoned bikes within two hours, provide more safety education to users and keep better track of rider usage to optimize locations where bikes and scooters are located.

Members of the budget committee expressed particular concern that dockless bikes and scooters are plentiful downtown and in beach communities, but scarce in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

Potential solutions including setting a maximum number of bikes each company could have in any one community, which could encourage them to place bikes they own beyond that maximum in less high-traffic areas.

Another popular idea was creating “corrals” where dozens of dockless bikes could be parked, which would reduce sidewalk clutter and bring some order to the hundreds of colorful bikes that have flooded many local streets.

Dockless companies could be required to give users incentives, probably a discount, to leave their bikes in a corral, which would be created either on wide sidewalks or by re-designating existing parking spots.

The fees the city is considering include application fees, annual per-bike fees and performance bonds, which would require the companies to fulfill the requirements in their contracts or face financial consequences.

Councilwoman Bry said each of the ideas has merit, suggesting the city form a “working group” to hammer out a comprehensive proposal that the council could eventually approve as an ordinance.

Councilman Chris Ward agreed, stressing that the city should focus on adopting balanced regulations and fees that won’t curb usage of the dockless bikes and scooters.

“I really challenge anybody to find somebody out there using a dockless bike or a dockless scooter who doesn’t have a big smile on their face,” Ward said. “Or they certainly don’t have a frown. But if I walk down Ash Street I’d probably find a lot of frowning people in cars sitting behind the wheel.”

Councilman Chris Cate said it’s important the city not rush the process of imposing fees and regulations.

“I don’t think we need to be in a position where we’re trying to make some sort of arbitrary deadline to get something done and drafted and adopted,” Cate said. “I think this is good for San Diego and I want to make sure it’s done right.”

Dockless bike companies operating in San Diego have consistently expressed support for efforts to curb the problems they’ve created.

Paul Vidal, the local general manager for Ofo, said his company is constantly making changes to its operations to better serve San Diego.

“There is still a lot more we have to do and a lot to learn,” Vidal said. “We’ll do whatever we can.”

Janie Emerson of La Jolla Shores said the city should adopt separate and varied regulations for different communities, contending that coastal areas have experienced the dockless bike craze more intensely than other neighborhoods.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “It’s not that we’re opposed to these bikes, it’s that we’re opposed to what it’s doing to the citizens living in our community.”

In March, city officials sent the dockless companies seven pages of rules that apply to all local businesses, such as prohibiting businesses from blocking sidewalks and clogging the public “right of way.”

Last month, the City Council rejected an emergency ordinance that would have banned electric scooters on boardwalks in Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla. (619) 269-8906 Twitter:@UTDavidGarrick