The meltdown over dockless bikeshare in San Diego is in full swing, but it’s somewhat expected in a city where cars come first – often at the expense of other travel modes. A common argument against dockless bikes has been that the bikes are in the way, which they sometimes are, since many of our sidewalks aren’t wide enough to accommodate a parked bike and pedestrians. But it’s remarkable that pedestrians and bike share users are fighting over the last sliver of public space. Nearly all of our public street space has been taken by motorists to drive or park their personal vehicles (often for free):
The more I hear the “bikes are in the way” argument, I think it’s really just a smokescreen for “we don’t want bikes, period” – a perspective many San Diegans hold unfortunately. For example, here’s someone outraged over the mere presence of dockless bikes, and actually counted how many they saw. The fact that there were far more (and larger) private vehicles being stored on our public streets went unnoticed:
I know Nextdoor is often a forum for some of our most self-interested neighbors, but the above sentiments are probably shared by many among our city’s in-power group (motorists) who view the presence of public bikes as a threat to their perceived ownership or dominance of our public space. Disclaimer: I drive too. But articles with headlines like “Will bike and scooter shares overpopulate La Jolla?”, as thousands of cars choke La Jolla’s streets makes you wonder – how did people’s perspectives get so warped?
Well, as this Dallas Magazine article points out, “Many of the problems of bike share are really problems with a city whose streets are built for cars, not people. The safety and ‘nuisance’ hazards associated with cars—pollution, fatal accidents, neighborhood-destroying highways and parking lots—are worse than anything an electric scooter or share bike are capable of.” Or as CityLab notes, “Much of the LA region’s built environment is designed to accommodate the presence of private vehicles and to punish their absence”.
These dockless bikes and scooter programs reveal not only the control many motorists feel they have over our public streets, but also their dim view of those who aren’t driving. Many motorists assign and perceive status based on how expensive a person’s car is. If you’re not even driving, imagine just how low on the totem pole you are to these folks.
As auto transportation does massive harm to our environment, climate, health and communities (we literally tear down lower-income urban neighborhoods by ramming freeways through them), motorists are instead freaking out over the potential of kids tripping over a bike. This same Mission Hills resident and North Park business owner penned a laughable Union Tribune commentary fretting over potential injuries from scooters, while somehow omitting the fact that 20-50 million people are injured or killed each year globally by drivers. There are plenty more of these: “Is Southern California’s ‘dockless’ electric scooter fad a public safety hazard?”; “Dockless bikes – are they safe or will someone get hurt?”;
“Dockless bikes and hepatitis” (You’ve done it again, Reader!)
Fortunately there have been several positive pieces on the bikeshare boom, such as this one in Uptown News that explained how critical bikes are to the first and last-mile needs of public transit users (something many motorists are simply unable to comprehend). The Union Tribune also included favorable commentaries from Circulate San Diego and the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition. Bikeshare may even expand to North County.
But for every positive bikeshare article or commentary, there are some real head-scratchers, like the “environmental”, “progressive” residents of Ocean Beach railing against a public program that is good for the environment and transportation equity. In La Jolla, a resident advisory board disregarded the “advisory” part and stated that only they could give “permission” for what types of bikes could be allowed in their community. This group had earlier opposed docked bike share also. And the Little Italy Association wants a city-wide ban on dockless bikes until they and parking districts can “find” docking areas for them. That’s called docked bike share – which these groups also opposed due to parking impacts.
You don’t need to make it any clearer folks. What you’re really saying is, “no bikes, period”.
The notion that public bikes left in public spaces is litter is another common argument against dockless. Many have cited a Chinese dockless bike junkyard should mean no public dockless bikeshare, anywhere, while somehow overlooking a much, much larger Chinese auto junkyard:
Leaving a bike on the sidewalk is no more ‘litter’ than how our public streets are littered with parked cars – often illegally. In this case, a rideshare driver is both blocking a bus stop and decreasing visibility at an intersection:
This brings up another dockless criticism: that private bikeshare companies shouldn’t be allowed to use public infrastructure. Isn’t that exactly what Uber and Lyft are doing?
Instead of freaking out about other modes of transport becoming more readily available, maybe we should reclaim some public space from our motorist overlords by heeding this advice:
If scooters proliferate, planners have all the more reason to reclaim pavement from cars, creating more sidewalks, bike lanes, or, indeed scooter lanes. Scooters might warrant further transit investments as they widen the traditional walk-sheds of transit stops. They might influence parking requirements and warrant the conversion of on-street parking spaces into scooter corrals. Or maybe they’re benign enough, and our existing streetscapes accommodating enough, that we can indeed let them evolve organically and not freak out about them.
The sheer number of new bicycle and scooter share rides happening as a result of these programs is an incredible game-changer for San Diego. But the response from city staff and leadership has been to delay the Downtown Mobility Plan by at least 5 years (after using it as an excuse not to work on any other bike lane projects in the city), while demonstrating a clear lack of support for bike infrastructure. This, as it trumpets a Climate Action Plan projecting an 18-fold increase in bike commuters for much of the city. You can’t realize your goals when you’re actively working against them.