A corporate sponsorship from Ford is giving the Bay Area’s bike share program a big boost. But not every community wants in.
Bike sharing is set to go big in the Bay Area: Breaking ground this summer, Ford GoBike will blow up San Francisco’s existing 700 bike pilot program into a 7,000 bike super-system that reaches across San Francisco, the East Bay, and San Jose.
The bike-sharing expansion is operated by the firm Motivate, which runs systems in several major cities, and will be supported in part by a 10-year sponsorship from the automobile manufacturer, plus additional sponsorships and membership and usage fees. Combine that with the ability to link a membership to region-wide Clipper transit card and an affordability and access initiative called Bike Share For All, the project aims to turn bike sharing from a tourist amenity into a major regional transportation solution for a wider range of residents in this increasingly unaffordable city.
“Cities are very much at an inflection point with the services that they’re able to deliver and the role of private operators within that,” says Jessica Robinson of City Solutions, Ford’s urban mobility division. “They’re looking at how do they balance service in a coverage area with places, where they’re seeing demand and where they feel like they don't have the right choices.”
But if you look closely at the city map of the system’s coverage, there’s a notable holdout: a stretch of 24th Street in the Mission District.
Here’s a close-up of the coverage gap.
A common criticism of bike share programs nationwide involves the lack of docking stations in lower-income areas. Indeed, the GoBike expansion has drawn criticism for limited expansion in the less-affluent parts of the East Bay area. But in this case, the absence of infrastructure comes from the neighborhood itself, which said “no, thank you” to bike-share docks.
That wrinkle comes after two years of community engagement planning the expansion of the network by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Motivate. According to Motivate, the process involved more than 340 meetings with community organizations, civic leaders, elected officials, and business groups, as well over 30 neighborhood workshops, to work on where to put bike docking stations. “We want to make sure GoBike is planned by Bay Area residents, for Bay Area residents,” Motivate spokesperson Dani Simons says.
Equity issues were a major focus of those meetings. It was prodding from activists that produced the idea of the “Bike Share for All” program, which offers a $5 first-year membership for residents who qualify for the Lifeline utility assistance program. (After the first year, he membership fee becomes $5 monthly.) The program also makes it possible for people to rent bikes without a credit or debit card. “We want this system to be accessible to people who have the biggest mobility needs, to help make it easier for them to move around the city,” says Simons. “It is crazy that poorer people essentially pay a double tax in terms of housing and transportation. Part of the solution space for affordability is helping provide better, reliable, affordable mobility option for people.”
Another touted equity component of GoBike was Motivate’s goal to site bike-share stations in neighborhoods that the MTC identifies as “communities of concern,” a designation that includes income, household access to a vehicle, average age in the household, and percentage of population that does not speak English. “We’ve committed to putting 20 percent of our stations in communities of concern,” Simons says. “We've exceeded that commitment; we have 35 percent.”
The Mission District, which was identified as a community of concern by the MTC, isn’t one of them, however: The neighborhood council unanimously rejected the proposal to put bike share stations on 24th Street, which runs through the historic heart of the district.
One of the community leaders who was concerned about the expansion is Oscar Grande, who runs Bicis Del Pueblo (“Bicycles for the People”) a community bike program operated by local environmental group PODER that teaches children and families how to ride, buy, and maintain bikes of their own. “We want people to become everyday bicycle commuters,” Grande says. “It’s good for the environment, it's good for their bodies, it’s good for the neighborhood, and it's cheaper. But what works for North Beach is going to be different than what works for the Mission District. I think there’s been a struggle to understand the nuances, the complexity, the cultural traditions of each community. That's what [GoBike] is facing now on 24th Street.”
For bike sharing to benefit communities like the Mission, Grande insists it should better address residents needs. Standard adults-only bikes don’t match what Latino families in the Mission want, he says; he suggests that a system for kids that partnered with schools or provided cargo bikes for parents to carry children might be better suited to the Mission.
“What I hear from people is not just ‘I need a bike to go to my job downtown.’” Grande says. “I hear people say things like, ‘Well, I've got three kids. Junior goes to this school, then I have to go a half mile to drop off my daughter, then drive a mile back to get ready to go to work.’ They could use a bike, but they need one that fits their needs.”
When Motivate invited Grande to a GoBike community meeting, Grande reached out to cultural preservationist Erick Arguello about the plans to put docks on 24th Street. Arguello co-founded Calle 24, a neighborhood nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Latino Cultural District; to Arguello and other Mission business owners, a for-profit bike share program embodies the challenge that recent waves of newcomers pose to the neighborhood. “They don’t see the impact that it would cause with the presence of bikes on the street,” Arguello says. “We were the first neighborhood that was affected by the tech boom, we experienced it first-hand. We saw businesses leave. We had families and friends we’d known for decades get evicted.”
Arguello, a cyclist himself, says the problem isn’t that people in the Mission do not ride bikes—they do. But he points to recent studies about the racial disparity between people who ride bikes and who use bike share and explains there’s a cultural mismatch. “They call it bike share, but they're not really sharing, they’re renting. They’re here to do business,” Arguello says.
Arguello specifically recalls how the Valencia business corridor in the north end of the Mission transformed into a high-end commercial corridor that caters to tourists, and he fears that bike sharing might speed the displacement of residents on 24th Street. “We've had about 8,000 Latinos displaced [over ten years],” Arguello says. “It's a whole different culture [on Valencia], bicyclists took over the whole area. So everything's around that culture, right? It’s very different. It’s a younger population, you have a lot of tourists. On our corridor, we have a lot of local shopping—produce stores, food markets, panaderias. We have the lowriders going through, and small children in Catholic uniforms going to school.”
A more direct transportation-related concern is parking. “People still use their cars. Painters and gardeners need their trucks for work, so parking is a big issue for us economically,” Arguello says. “When gentrification started, we saw parklets and bike corrals and all these things for newcomers, but not for the existing population. The workers are left having to park on the sidewalks or in people’s driveways in order to do their jobs.”
Rising rent also means many people who have left the Mission have to drive to return to the neighborhood. “The people are getting pushed out they're driving in to get what they can’t find in other neighborhoods. The Mission is a touchstone for Latinos, because people keep coming back here. It’s where they grew up, and it’s where they still have their culture.”
Grande and Arguelllo voiced their concerns to Motivate’s Bay Area outreach and communications manager, Paolo Culsich-Schwartz, a lifelong resident of San Francisco who also lived in the Mission at one point. For now, the planning process for the bike share stations is on hold. But talks will resume in the fall, as Motivate still believes that there are still people in the area who would like bike share as an option.
“From the beginning, the conversation has been about how do we improve mobility through bike share and help people access the Latino Cultural District while respecting the needs and concerns of the businesses,” Culsich-Schwartz says. “I believe there is space for both a strong robust thriving Latino Cultural District and access to mobility. So the question is, ‘How can we do this in a way that maximizes that access to opportunity?’ We’ve heard some residents who were not part of the business association, and its pretty loud and clear that they want bike share in the area.”
Grande says he hopes the challenges in the Mission inform the future rollout in other nearby districts in Excelsior and Bayview, and that future plans will include the community from the ground-up.
“Planning is not just the physical placement of something,” Grande says. “It's really about the process. We’ve seen so many planning fixes that have come into communities of color, in low income and working-class neighborhoods that it feels like we’re being planned on. When we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu, and our community gets eaten up.”