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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.

driven to drive

driven to drive

It seems nearly every line in San Diego’s public transit system ends up downtown at some point – from local routes, to express routes like 150 to UCSD; from the green/blue/orange trolley lines to the new Rapid 215 and 235 routes.  So when San Diego Magazine did a feature for their July issue (not online yet, will post the link when it is) on our city’s public transit system by asking their staff to try it out for a day, I assumed that at least some of them already used it, because the magazine’s office is located at 7th and Broadway downtown.  And indeed they do: a whopping 1 person out of 28 on their staff uses public transit to get to the neighborhood best-served by it.

Most days I work at our UCSD satellite office in Kearny Mesa, where it’s no better – of the 100 or so people working there, a co-worker and I are the only two people who don’t drive alone every day that I know of (the area is served by just two transit lines, not dozens like downtown).  So the point of this post isn’t to portray San Diego Magazine employees as uncharacteristic of our city, but whether we can learn anything about our transit system – and ourselves – from them.

There were some encouraging experiences, like the user of the new Mid-City Rapid bus and the North Park resident who took the #2 bus.  But why did it take a work requirement (the magazine article) to get these folks to even try public transit?  Maybe I can answer that one, because I lived in San Diego for a few years before ever even thinking about riding the bus.  I was raised in a suburban car culture and carried that mindset with me even after moving into a large – yet sprawling – metro like San Diego.

Other staff statements about their transit experience were a bit more baffling and seemed to result from a genuine lack of knowledge, or worse, were just plain excuses.  22 year-old Chelsea Street of Carmel Valley took the Coaster from Sorrento Valley but said that since gassing her Prius only cost her $5-6/day, “Fiscally, it doesn’t make any sense (to pay $120/month to take the train).  I wish it did”.


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Considering only the cost of gas is a common mistake when calculating transit costs.  In reality, auto travel can cost around 75 cents/mile when depreciation and wear & tear are included.  Let’s be conservative and use the federal government reimbursement rate: 57.5 cents/mile.  Multiply that by the 40-mile round trip from Carmel Valley to downtown and the travel cost is really $23/day, or four times Chelsea’s estimate.

Then there’s parking.  The article never mentions what employees pay to park, or if their employer offers free parking.  Let’s say it’s $100/month.   So Chelsea is really paying $100+($23/day * 22 workdays per month = $506), or $606/month!  That’s 5 times the amount of a monthly Coaster pass from Sorrento Valley to downtown. Even factoring in the cost of the drive from Carmel Valley to the Sorrento Valley train station, it’s still less than half the true cost of driving the whole way.  Yet taking the train doesn’t make any fiscal sense?

That’s not the only dubious statement used to justify driving every day.  New Executive Editor Erin Meanley Glenny took the #50 Express Bus from Bay Park and had this to say about it:

I think if mass transit is anything but a necessity, people will opt for the car.  I love having my personal space and being able to leave items like a gym bag in the car, and I cherish the control and freedom to leave a place exactly when I want, or be able to run an errand, or stop at an event on my way home.  I can’t see getting rid of my car permanently.

I think I count as “people” and for me, mass transit isn’t a necessity, but I still use it as part of my travel.  This is because I care about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and traffic, getting exercise as part of my commute (via walking/biking part of the way), and because our city’s aggressive, dangerous drivers really kill my buzz.  I get part of her point about personal space, especially since my legs are too long to fit behind most bus seats.  But the freedom part is confusing… how is sitting in soul-sucking traffic “freedom”, exactly?  I run errands and stop at events on my way home all the time by transit or bike.  And who said anything about getting rid of your car permanently just because you ride the bus once in a while?  That’s a false choice in my opinion.

But the most revealing statement was when Erin scoffed, “What a waste” that only 11 of 45 seats were filled on the bus.  She’s riding a dedicated Express Bus (resulting in 11 less vehicles on the freeway) to her central San Diego neighborhood that refuses to allow any increase in density (because traffic), but it’s a waste?  There’s almost an animosity toward transit in her statements.  Could this explain why the nearly all-white staff of a magazine that endorsed Carl DeMaio for mayor never rides public transit – because they consider themselves too good to ride with the poors?  To be fair, that sentiment would hardly be unique to the employees of San Diego Magazine.

The funniest-yet-saddest part of the article was 25 year-old Sydnie Goodwin, who drives her car each day from K St. downtown to Starbucks, parks it, then drives again to the magazine’s 7th and Broadway office.  While millennials across the country have established a clear trend of living in walkable neighborhoods near work and using alternative commuting modes, San Diego Magazine’s millennials are opting to drive 0.7 miles of walkable neighborhood instead.  Is the magazine giving away parking or something?

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I appreciate San Diego Magazine writing this feature, and pointing out the lofty goals of SANDAG and the city to increase alternative transit use.  It’s the best way to significantly decrease emissions to address climate change, while also decreasing traffic congestion. Contrary to what Ms. Meanley and others say in the article, using public transit doesn’t mean you have to give up your car, but rather just realizing it exists, maybe even sometimes as a viable option.

Mass transit usage one day a week by a majority of San Diego commuters would have numerous, significant positive impacts.  But as another magazine staff member pointed out, why doesn’t MTS offer smartphone payments and/or the ability to load cash onto Compass Cards to help make this happen?  Apparently that’s something for every other major metro to offer, just not San Diego.