San Diego will join the growing group of urban areas across the country and world with bike-sharing programs by next spring if an ambitious plan by Mayor Jerry Sanders comes to fruition.

And his office wants to put a new twist on it. While city officials say their metropolitan predecessors have had to subsidize their programs or leave them to private investment, the city has a bigger goal: to actually turn it into a money-maker.

On Monday, Sanders will stage a demo at Petco Park from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. to allow people to test different kinds of bikes and for potential vendors to show off how their systems work.

Ahead of that, here’s an explainer of bike-sharing programs and a wider look at the new political momentum driving bike awareness in San Diego.

To help me, I empaneled a group of bike enthusiasts:

• Sam Ollinger of BikeSD

File photo by Sam Hodgson

• Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who, as a mayoral candidate, thrust biking into the larger civic conversation

File photo by Sam Hodgson

• Jay Porter, restaurant owner and general bikeman about town, whose restaurant, The Linkery, just got one of the region’s first bike corrals

File photo by Sam Hodgson

Explainer: How to Share a Bike

Here’s how it works: Unmanned stations get set up around the city. Each station hosts a group of bikes. You pay either a membership or a day rate to rent a bike and you can return it to any station across the city.

I wrote about Minneapolis’ program after using it in 2010 and wondered why San Diego didn’t have one. (Maybe the mayor does read VOSD after all.) There, you could pay $5 for a day rental, $30 for a monthly membership or $60 for an annual membership.

It’s one of those rare things that can be equally useful for residents and tourists alike.

The Mayor’s Office doesn’t yet know the precise locations but said they’d be based around downtown, mid-city and the beaches.

The country’s three largest cities are about to launch their own programs.

New York and Chicago are set to go live soon, though their programs have been delayed by a software problem. Here’s an explainer on how New York’s program will work.

Last month, Anaheim launched the first program in California; Los Angeles is also working on a program.

“This is the year bike sharing is exploding,” said Eric Engelman, Sanders’ guy for energy and innovation.

What Bike Sharing Means

Jay Porter: Riding feels safer in Mexico City because of it.

From what I’ve seen in Mexico City since they instituted bike sharing, it’s made a huge difference. I was really intimidated by the idea of riding the streets in the center city there a few years ago, now there are so many people riding that it feels safe, it’s like there’s usually another bicyclist near you to help establish the flow — and 4 times out of 5, that other cyclist is riding an Eco-Bici (their bike sharing program). Of course, Mexico City’s bike sharing is part of a comprehensive program including a really big “Sunday Streets” event every week, so it’s hard to say for sure how important any one element is.

Sam Ollinger: Sharing can raise support among unlikely allies.

Sometimes, getting business and resident support to build bike infrastructure is a challenge because they presume no one wants to ride. But bike share programs can drive up demand and witnessing riders can draw in support from the groups that would be otherwise opposed to supporting bike infrastructure.

Nathan Fletcher: It’s one piece in what needs to be a comprehensive package.

[It’s not] a stand alone solution, but something that must be included in a comprehensive plan to make San Diego more bike friendly. Many people will use their own bikes and for them we need things like bike storage, bike safety, etc. But many would use and rely on bikeshare.

Me: It can be bigger than bikes.

The city already has a car-sharing program, Car2Go, that’s become by all accounts a success. (See my video explainer on that.) Combine that with a successful bike program, and you could have a thriving alternative or at least a complement to the urban core’s incomplete public transit system.

Here, public transit in the urban core takes a backseat to long-haul commuting in the region’s transportation focus. These programs could fill in the gaps, without the high public costs that come with building transit infrastructure. Or they could show those transportation planners that the interest and need exists for bike and mass transit infrastructure in the urban core.

In addition, as Matt Yglesias lays out in his book “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” the number of parking spots developers must build for each housing unit drives up the cost of development for both builders and ultimately consumers. The fewer cars we need on the street, the denser and more efficiently we can build in the city’s urban core. Developers can build more units. Housing can become more affordable.

But How Will the City Actually Make Money on This?

That’s my biggest question in this and potentially the biggest stumbling block.

While Minneapolis’ program, for example, was subsidized by federal and state money, Anaheim’s reportedly receives no public money. Sanders wants to push it a step further and partner with a company that will share its profits with the city.

First, the Mayor’s Office says, it was approached by a company that wanted to bring bike sharing to San Diego and offered to do it at no cost to the city.

Why not just take it, I asked the mayor’s spokesman, Darren Pudgil. It sounded like as good of a deal as anyone was getting. You could get moving on it right away.

But a second company approached the city, Pudgil said, also offering to do it at no cost to taxpayers. “So we decided the right thing to do was put it out to bid,” Pudgil said.

So now city officials are going to have a competition to see who will partner with them. They’re issuing a call for proposals from companies to offer the bike-sharing program, with this revenue-sharing hope.

They want to get bikes on the street by the spring.

Bigger Picture: Where Are We Now?

In a decade that’s been dominated by scandal and financial crisis at City Hall, I find it remarkable that a mayoral candidate (Fletcher) made biking an issue in the mayor’s race and now the two remaining candidates have said they plan to release their own plans. Sure, it’s still not a major issue in the election. But in my mind, it speaks to a larger issue: residents’ desires to return to the core neighborhood-level quality of life issues that have been ignored because of both the crisis and the overwhelming focus on major downtown projects.

So, biking has major momentum here. Ollinger’s pushing the idea that we should be the most bike-friendly city in the world. Are we making progress toward that goal?


Yes, but very, very slowly. And this is going to bite us in the ass if we don’t remain competitive with other cities. We need to expand our focus and quickly. We still don’t have the mayor making strong statements or laying out the vision like Rahm Emanuel, (Michael) Bloomberg, Sam Adams (of Portland), Mick Cornett (of Oklahoma City) and others are.


It’s good that some of the local politicians are addressing bike-transportation-friendliness

as a quality-of-life issue in this city, and it’s good that we maybe are taking quality-of-life more seriously in general (of course, I’d include the availability of quality local food as a related quality-of-life issue). … But it’s a long way from where we are now to where, say, Portland or Mexico City is in terms of building a people-friendly city, and it will take a sustained effort by a lot of people to really make those improvements here. I sense there is, at last, some real will behind it now, but it does need to be sustained.

My Panel’s No. 1 Priorities

Fletcher: Integrate the bike master plan into community plans.

It is hard to pick out one part. They all fit together. But a key part is making sure the community plans as updated reflect the broader master plan for cycling for the city. We also won’t get to increased number of cyclists if we don’t include things like dedicated bike paths and a focus on safety.

Ollinger: It’s all about the infrastructure.

Building more protected, well designed bike infrastructure. So the very first step for the City of San Diego (is) to sign on as a member city to NACTO (an association of transportation officials at major cities that often focuses on public transit and biking). … There is a strong correlation that well designed infrastructure encourages people to begin riding.

Porter: Close some streets on Sundays like other places.

Well, a really good Sunday Streets event would be huge. When everybody in the city knows they can go out once a week, enjoy the streets and get a little exercise and move through the city, totally safe from car traffic, it changes the whole context of what your city is and the ways you can enjoy it.

Final Word: The Mayor’s Quality-of-Life Legacy

I asked Pudgil if he disagreed with my take that the mayor hasn’t focused on these kinds of quality of life issues in his time in office, instead focusing squarely on financial fixes and the major downtown projects.

Here’s what he said:

A bikesharing program is nice, but in the scheme of things, it pales in importance to the colossal task of turning around a large U.S. city that was on the verge of fiscal collapse. Now that the city is well on its way to financial recovery, we can focus more of our resources on developing and implementing these types of quality of life programs.

Andrew Donohue is a VOSD contributing editor and a 2013 John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University working on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership in journalism. He served as VOSD editor from 2005 to 2012. He used to often ride his bike to the VOSD offices and would arrive sweaty and stinky, as his co-workers can attest to. You can reach him at And follow him on Twitter at:

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.