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UC San Diego’s Bike Un-Share

UC San Diego’s Bike Un-Share

The post below appeared on BikeSD on 5/19.  Since then, UC San Diego presented its Long Range Development Plan.  Despite several claims of the university’s ‘sustainability’, the presentation graphics included no mention of a bike share system, nor its Climate Action Plan goals to reduce solo driver commuters beyond this year:

There were also no renderings of the multiple new parking garages approved for campus, nor the planned parking lot that will pave over a canyon behind Geisel Library.  

After racking up more than 1000 free rides per day, the new (but unauthorized) Ofo bike share system was removed by UC San Diego officials last month. Despite the obvious demand for bike share, and a four-year-old UCSD undergraduate report describing a bike sharing system for campus, officials pulled the plug on the program.

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Ofo’s “insurance policies did not meet campus requirements when reviewed by UCSD Risk Services”, according to UCSD Marketing and Communications Director Laura Margoni.  In addition, a UCSD police officer explained that no procedure for maintaining or repairing Ofo bikes existed.

Dumping 300 bikes on campus meant Ofo was using the same business model disruption method as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.  Had these sharing economy companies waited for permission from officials – who were often unwilling or unable to comprehend the need for such services – they wouldn’t have succeeded.  Similarly, Ofo demonstrated the large demand for bike share at UCSD by bypassing campus rules set by administrators who disregarded years of requests for such a program.  After the bikes were removed, UCSD Transportation Services Marketing Manager Curt Lutz said:

“It is my understanding that the impression left by the OFO experience was that there is likely demand for a well implemented bike share program that has a sustainable funding model or to be piloted for trial of competitive models.”

Wasn’t this demand communicated to UCSD by the undergraduate report four years earlier, by multiple students and employees, and in employee parking and sustainability surveys?  And while most municipalities have worked out agreements with unauthorized sharing services, UCSD instead removed a bike share system that cost nothing to install, with no official communication about its replacement.  (Meanwhile every temporary parking lot closure is announced to campus.)  Mr. Lutz again:

“We have been working on a review (internally and with cooperation of SANDAG staff) of bike share vendors, technologies and programs for the past several months to evaluate moving forward with an RFP or RFI (Request for Proposal/Information). UC Riverside and UCLA are just launching programs with two of the prospective vendors offering different technologies.  At this time we believe that there is value in monitoring these implementations as part of our process. We are currently working with campus Procurement to scope options for bike share services including business models like OFO.”

Nearly 100 U.S. campuses had bike share systems in 2010, including UC Irvine.  UC Berkeley will implement Bay Area Bike Share shortly – without monitoring UCLA and UCR.  Yet UCSD still needs to monitor these programs before issuing a Request for Information?  Encouragingly, Margoni states that a bike share pilot will roll out at UCSD this fall.

A bike share program is important to UC San Diego for a number of reasons.  The freeway-like roads (or stroads) surrounding campus make conditions too dangerous for many off-campus residents to commute by bike:

  • Genesee Avenue on the north side of campus is 6+ lanes of 60 MPH+ traffic just inches from riders (here’s audio of a KPBS reporter attempting to bike it).  
  • The $105 million dollar Genesee Ave bridge being built over I-5 will be 10 car lanes wide, yet there wasn’t enough room for a protected bike lane.  
  • La Jolla Village Drive is also 6+ lanes of 50 MPH+ traffic, with pedestrians being hit and killed on its curving, high-speed I-5 on-ramps.  
  • Gilman Drive is 4+ lanes of 60 MPH+ traffic, with aggressive drivers often veering into the bike lane to cut into the I-5 south onramp queue.  

As a result of the above, many commuters use SDMTS bus routes that take them to the Gilman Transit Center, on the south side of campus.  This a 15-30 minute walk to many buildings on the vast UCSD campus, and bike share would address this first/last-mile problem of public transit.  UCSD does offer a useful shuttle system, but if you miss one it’s still faster to walk.

Some students do use the limited bike racks (two) on MTS buses, but they are vulnerable to the massive bike theft problem on campus.  Bike lockers would offer increased security but these do not exist at UCSD, despite my requests for installation several years ago.      

While biking could shorten the long walk times between buildings, it is actually against the rules to ride a bike on either of the main north-south campus routes, from 8:30 AM to 5 PM.  As a result, students frequently receive costly tickets simply for biking to class.  As this report from CirculateSD suggests, why not simply create dedicated bike lanes on these routes and elsewhere on campus?  BikeSD covered San Diego State’s new bike lanes back in 2011:

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Instead, the Grove Path bike lane was installed for a short segment between the two main north-south UCSD pedestrian-only routes. Pedestrians often use the bike-only Grove Path lane, and are not cited for doing so.

Since bike share helps solve the last-mile problem of public transit, UCSD’s removal of Ofo contradicts the university’s attempts to increase the number of commuters using alternative transportation to campus. Proclaiming “Sustainability is in our DNA”, UCSD’s 2008 Climate Action Plan seeks to decrease the number of solo-driver commuters from 49% to 39% by 2018, via increased biking, walking, and public transit usage.  Transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in California, and San Diego faces severe coastal impacts from a predicted 10-foot sea level rise by the end of the century:

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However, since its Climate Action Plan was announced, UC San Diego has taken the following actions with respect to transit:

  • Terminated its free bus zone program for students and employees (employees can receive an EcoPass discount)
  • Removed a free bike share program
  • Endangered bicyclists on Expedition Way and Voight Drive, by adding street parking to these narrow, hilly roads
  • Supported the $6.5 billion dollar widening of I-5 in North County – which includes no bus routes servicing campus
  • Announced the construction of three new parking garages on campus, despite the Mid-Coast Trolley’s arrival in 2021

UCSD’s goal of reducing single occupancy commuters is shared by the UC Office of the President (UCOP), which publishes an annual report outlining mode share rates and reduction goals:

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However, UCSD’s mode share numbers above are for all commuters entering campus, including students – not employees, as the report indicates.  Since the university has no way to distinguish students from employees in its semi-annual counts, the employee single occupancy vehicle number shown above is incorrect (a commuter mode share survey was recently launched to address this misrepresentation), and skewed downward by the large number of students using public transit. Students voted overwhelmingly to pay a quarterly fee for discounted bus service after the free bus zone was killed, and the MTS 201/202 Super Loop has the highest ridership per revenue hour in San Diego’s bus system.  

It should be noted that UCSD has taken some positive steps regarding alternative transportation, including the well-intentioned Grove Path above, and planning for Class II (unprotected) bike lanes on a short segment of Gilman Drive and the new Voigt and Gilman bridges.  UCSD is contributing at least $1.2 million to the Gilman Drive bridge, which will provider a calmer east-side route to campus. UCSD also provided 1.6% of the funding for the Genesee/I-5 project, which will include a bike path connecting campus to the Sorrento Valley Amtrak station.  Yet many of the projects identified in the 2012 Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Planning Study still have not begun, nor has funding been identified.

Further, UCSD’s alternative transportation spending is constrained by its limited sources, which are parking and ticket revenue.  (UCOP goals for increasing alternative transit usage aren’t backed by significant funding.)  And employee parking permit fees don’t come close to paying for the $100 million-plus cost of multiple new parking garages planned for campus (Torrey Pines North Living/Learning Neighborhood, Mesa Nuevos and Osler (UPDATE: and Voigt) Given the rapid rise of ride-sharing services like Uber/Lyft, does it make sense for the university to continue building costly parking garages?  As ride share systems test flat-fee pool programs, new and inexpensive options will exist for automobile commuters to skip vehicle storage on campus.    

If sustainability is truly in UC San Diego’s DNA, it should be leading state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.  Removing a free bike share system that complements public transit isn’t leadership, nor is it consistent with UCSD’s sustainability claims.

ucsd’s sustainability stumble

ucsd’s sustainability stumble

– SANDAG has released their draft regional plan for growth in San Diego County.  It acknowledges the estimated 1 million more people that will be added to our population by 2050, largely from within, requiring 330,000 new housing units.  That’s about 10,000 units per year (an apartment industry analyst said 15-20,000 last week), yet our metro has only built about half to three-quarters that amount over the past decade.  Since we’ve run out of buildable land to sprawl onto, the report notes we’ll have to grow up rather than out.  Yet given our city’s restrictive height limits – from the 30′ Coastal Height Limit, to community plan height limits, to community overlays (e.g., the Clairemont Mesa Community 30-40′ Height Limit) – and our high land costs, where exactly can we build up, apart from downtown and Mission Valley?  Because we’re not going to fit 330,000 new housing units into those two places.

The details of SANDAG’s transportation plan, which still relies heavily on freeway expansion over mass transit in its early years, are available in this appendix.  I was interested to see whether the current 90-minute public transit commute from residential center North Park, to job center Sorrento Mesa, would be addressed by the planned Rapid route 688:

Why would anyone do this unless they had no other option?

And it is… by 2035.  So hang in there folks – SANDAG may have widened the I-5/805 interchange to 22 lanes a decade ago, but you’ll still have to wait another 20 years for a reasonable public transit option to Sorrento Valley.

– Earth Week was last week and UCSD students and administrators donned hazmat suits to collect trash on campus.  Sustainability is a big deal at UCSD – their website says the following about the institution’s commitment to our environment:

At UC San Diego, our school colors may be blue and gold, but at heart, we are green. Sustainability is not just a catch-phrase here – it is a way of life, part of the institutional DNA imparted to us by Roger Revelle, one of the university’s founders and a pioneer of climate change research.

Revelle helped found Scripps Institution of Oceanography and SIO has a strong history of climate research, including current researcher Richard Somerville.  Somerville attended the San Diego Climate Action Campaign launch event last week.  (My graduate degree is in climate research, so I’ve had a personal interest in this issue for some time.)

The university’s sustainability goals are part of a sustainability effort at all UC campuses:

UC’s robust sustainability program covers all ten campuses and five medical centers. The systemwide programs are driven by a nationally-recognized comprehensive sustainability policy and leading-edge presidential initiatives

The UC system aims to be carbon-neutral by 2025, but upon closer inspection, this only applies to their buildings and vehicle fleet.  Yet transportation accounts for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in California.  UCSD chancellor Pradeep Khosla, gave a presentation in 2013 reaffirming UCSD’s goal of “increasing the use of alternative transportation options by commuters” to reduce these emissions.  Given the university’s strong pro-sustainability position, what actions are they taking to back up these statements?  You might be surprised.

Last year, UCSD ended a decades-long agreement with MTS that provided free bus service to UCSD employees and students.  Initially, it was proposed that UCSD would contribute to MTS bus passes for the first few years.  Yet last fall UCSD employees had the same option as those of any other large employer: the 25% discounted MTS EcoPass for $54/month.  For students, a transit referendum was passed (it was proposed by UCSD student and new Uptown Planner Kyle Heiskala), and all students now pay an annual fee to receive an MTS/NCTD transit pass for about $16/month during the school year.  Killing the free bus zone subsidy saved the university $3.2 million per year; at this point, none of this funding has been restored.  Meanwhile, students and staff are now contributing about $3.97 million per year to MTS via the referendum and EcoPass purchases. Efforts to create a low-cost bike share system on campus have been delayed, with repeated requests by administration officials for items that have already been submitted. UCSD has essentially shifted most of the financial burden for transportation sustainability onto employees – that means they don’t get to claim credit for the resulting environmental gains.

Recently, UCSD announced the construction of a new 1000+ space parking garage despite the abundant parking already available throughout campus (over 15,000 spaces):

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If only there were somewhere to park at UCSD!

With another 1000 spaces, and assuming an average commute of 15 miles, this structure will directly result in over 2000 metric tons of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere every year. This completely contradicts the UC system’s stated mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  It also ignores alternative solutions, such as ride share, and new parking technologies, including space counting and real-time parking availability apps.  Meanwhile, parking rates have not been adjusted for 8 years. And why do UCSD students often have parking in close proximity to their dorms, while lots (and the shuttles serving them) on east Campus remain below capacity?  When I attended Virginia Tech, my roommate’s car was a 20-minute walk from our dorm room.

Building yet another parking garage ignores the arrival of the Mid-Coast Trolley to campus in just a few years.  At SDSU, the trolley resulted in a decrease of 6,000 parking permits/year, and the number continues to decrease.

unnamedIf single occupancy vehicles (SOV) make up 75% of UCSD’s carbon emissions by transportation mode, how does cutting transit subsidies and building parking garages help reduce emissions?  To their (employees) credit, UCSD’s SOV mode share is a respectable 42%, down from 66% in 2001, versus the county’s current 70+%. The university’s current Climate Action Plan is from 2008; its updated version should contain significant alternative transit mode share increases. UCSD also supported the controversial I-5-widening, part of SANDAG’s regional transportation plan that exceeds state 2050 greenhouse gas emissions targets by 7 times. Environmental groups, with the state on board, sued to stop this freeways-first plan and have won twice in court so far.

UCSD has been without a transportation director for several years, and the transportation services division is under-staffed – my efforts to review their budget were rebuffed due to a lack of resources.  Once the position is filled, the university’s new transportation director should work with stakeholders to develop 5 and 10-year strategic plans that spell out how UC’s carbon neutral goal will be achieved, including mode share goals.   

To be fair, the UC’s must limit their transportation funding to transportation-related income only: parking revenue and tickets (although I’ve been told this can vary by campus).  This is mostly beyond UCSD’s control, but that doesn’t stop them from lobbying the UC Office of the President to change this policy.  On their end, UC President Janet Napolitano could lobby our elected representatives for a pilot transit subsidy program using state cap and trade funds, where revenue has exceeded expectations by billions of dollars.  The UC’s should be leading in the area of greenhouse gas reductions by examples like these.

Interestingly, one of UCSD’s Earth Week’s focus areas was on water conservation, given our severe drought.  A link between climate change and California’s drought is not yet proven.  Yet warmer temperatures are definitely caused by increased carbon emissions – the same ones UCSD commuters will be increasing under the university’s policies.  And warmer temperatures are directly correlated to reduced snowpack and increased drought severity.

UCSD actually is doing several positive things with respect to sustainability, including new bike paths on campus, electric car charging stations, and green building projects. Achieving sustainability goals can be costly and incredibly challenging. Perhaps UCSD should dial back their rhetoric a bit on this issue until it’s consistent with their actions.