Car company money at issue in SF Bike Coalition board election

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is considered one of the fiercest transportation advocacy groups in city politics — but as it grows, its leadership is being asked to make a choice.

Should The City’s premiere bicycle advocates accept money from car companies?

That’s the question asked by one slate of candidates running for the SFBC Board of Directors, in an election that will be decided by the group’s 10,000 San Francisco members starting today.

About fifteen candidates are vying for eight open seats on the 15 member SFBC Board of Directors, and will address the group’s members for the first time tonight at the Sports Basement on Bryant Street at 6 p.m.

Whether or not the group should accept car company cash is expected to be a hot topic of debate.

In a way, that question has been answered already. An old bylaw on the bike coalition’s books prohibits accepting donations from companies whose primary revenue comes from car and petroleum manufacturing, said the coalition’s executive director, Brian Wiedenmeier.

“This exists from a time when we were fighting Exxon and Ford,” he said. But “It’s an old policy.”

In an age of ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, and even so-called bikesharing companies like JUMP and Motivate that themselves are owned by Uber and Lyft, the bylaw begins to look murkier.

The coalition is often a vocal critic of Uber and Lyft, from drivers’ reportedly unsafe driving behaviors in bike lanes to automated vehicles that endanger cyclists’ lives. Can it still be trusted to openly and loudly criticize companies who donate needed dollars to its operations?

“Yes absolutely. Safety is our number one concern,” Wiedenmeier said.

But, he added, “I do think our policy is outdated.”

Two $5,000 donations to the bike coalition’s annual Golden Wheel Awards last June spurred the debate — one from Cruise Automation and another from Waymo, the Google-run driverless car company. Four members of the board voted to compel Wiedenmeier to return the money at the July 24 meeting.

It would be no small feat to do so, Wiedenmeier noted — the bike coalition may have an annual $2.4 million operating budget, but has struggled to meet its fundraising goals in the last year, a responsibility he notes the current board members have said “is not one of their priorities.”

There are two slates of candidates running for the bike coalition board. The SFBC “Momentum” slate asked its own members and its competitor, the “Safety Together” slate, this question directly.

“If elected, would you prohibit the SFBC from accepting donations from transportation network companies, e. g., Uber (owner of JUMP) and Lyft (owner of Motivate/Ford GoBike)?” the survey asked. The Momentum members all answered “yes” except Nic Jay Aulston, who abstained.

“I think it goes against our mission. It harms our credibility and it harms our effectiveness,” said Kelli Shields, a candidate with the Momentum slate who is also a tenants attorney. She said Uber and Lyft vehicles are “notorious for blocking bike lanes and creating a hazardous scenario time after time for cyclists” and profit from the use of public infrastructure.

Data from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority shows how drastic the crowds of Uber and Lyft vehicles can be on Valencia Street, one of The City’s top bike corridors:

On one average Dolores Street block on any given Friday in 2017, for instance, there were about 280 ride-hail pickups and dropoffs, the Examiner previously reported. On just one block of Valencia Street near 16th Street, by contrast, there are as many as 2,190 daily pickups and dropoffs by ride-hails like Uber and Lyft.

The “Safety Together” slate declined to answer the donation question. it is also made up mostly of workers who work in tech-related jobs, including software engineers, a Twitter employee, and a community outreach staffer at JUMP, which is owned by Uber.

Brad Williford, an engineer at Google Maps who recruited the Safety Together slate, told the San Francisco Examiner “many of the people riding in cars today could be future bike riders,” and “if a donation from a car-centric company is deemed appropriate by staff, you better believe we will continue to hold these companies accountable for any bad actions.”

Bike coalition board member Jeremy Pollock, who is running for re-election with the Momentum slate, motioned to temporarily bar the coalition from accepting donations from ride-hails and subsidiaries of auto companies — like General Motor’s Cruise. That motion failed.

But Pollock admitted the donation question comes with a lot of nuances.

E-scooter companies like Scoot and Skip, and e-bike companies like the Uber-owned JUMP “have a vested interest in making bike lanes safe,” Pollock said, but he worried they also work to monetize peoples data and may damage the bike coalition’s reputation.

Meaghan Mitchell, a San Francisco native who is running for the bike coalition board to help its outreach to the Bayview and other southeastern neighborhoods, also works for JUMP, the Uber-owned e-bike company. She said the donation question is “framed” wrong.

Talking about the donations in terms of taking cash, “that language needs to stop,” she said. “Is it about taking (ridehail companies’) money, or is it about building a relationship?”

Wiedenmeir, the bike coalition’s executive director, made a similar argument.

At the coalition’s Golden Wheel Awards last year, Julie Mitchell, a mother whose son was struck and killed in 2013 in San Francisco while bicycling, spoke to the audience about the need for more robust street safety, Wiedenmeier said.

In the room were representatives from Waymo and Cruise Automation, he said.

“To get them in the room to be able to hear the story directly of a mother who lost their son because of a large vehicle and traffic collision on our streets, that was powerful for me,” Wiedenmeier said.

“If they have to pay for the privilege of doing so, I think that’s a small measure of justice.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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