The bike backlash was fierce and unexpected.
On the surface, Ford GoBike is seemingly everything the staunchly liberal Mission District would value: an affordable bikeshare program targeted at reducing carbon emissions and traffic congestion by offering cheap, rentable bikes.
After the company’s most recent expansion, however, groups representing Latino neighbors in the Mission quickly pushed back, citing gentrification fears.
“The way we shop, the way we travel, it’s a very different culture,” Erick Arguello, co-chair of the Calle 24 Historical District on 24th Street in the Mission, previously told the San Francisco Examiner. “We did say, ‘No, we don’t want bikeshare on 24th Street in the Latino Cultural District.’”
In June, Ford GoBike launched its newest expansion: 3,500 blue bikes arrived to be rented, or “shared,” by smartphone app. New stations popped up throughout the Mission. After Arguello asked them to stay off 24th Street, other Mission advocates asked Ford GoBike for a moratorium on Mission stations altogether.
In July, Ford GoBike’s bicycles in the Mission saw their tires punctured, and the kiosks were vandalized as recently as Friday.
Now, perhaps controversially, Arguello’s claim that the bikes were not for the Mission has sparked a soul-searching question for the community: Do brown people ride bikes?
Well, yes, of course they do, community members answered.
But it’s the nuance of how Ford GoBike connects with the Mission’s Latino community — who it talks to and how — that may have sparked such sharp rebuke, community members told the San Francisco Examiner. For them, the message that Ford GoBike sends amid The City’s ever-changing, tech-friendly times overshadows the possible utility of bikesharing.
“People are weary,” said Oscar Grande, lead community organizer with local advocacy group PODER. “We’ve been clamoring for infrastructure for decades.”
Grande, a San Francisco native who went to Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory High School, said it was not lost on the community that only after waves of gentrification drummed thousands of Latinos out of their neighborhoods, and white affluent groups flooded in, were major transportation infrastructure changes finally introduced.
In that context, Grande said, it’s understandable why some groups would sharply say, “No, no, no. I don’t want none of it.”
“It feels very top-down, like we’re being planned on,” Grande said.
WHY THE BACKLASH?
Though there is outcry from Mission advocates, critics have pointed out they do not speak for the entire Mission.
Jefferson McCarley, owner of Mission Bikes, respects those groups but said bikeshare would help the entire neighborhood.
“Maybe the view is this only benefits the affluent, white, male-dominated tech community, and they’re the only ones who would use the bikes,” McCarley said. But if that’s the case, that means fewer “affluent, white, males” would be driving cars on the road.
Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University professor who studies urban mobility, said he wasn’t surprised that Ford GoBike’s rollout prompted backlash.
“There’s a couple of different layers going on here,” Henderson said. “I can see how it would look like corporate privatization arrogance,” and perhaps reopen old wounds from the ‘Google Bus’ battle, referring to raging protests against corporate commuter shuttles for tech companies in the Mission around 2013.
The Ford logo emblazoned across the bikes and fears that Ford is tracking data of bike users — who, in the Mission, may be undocumented immigrants — all coalesced to draw critique in the neighborhood, he said.
Henderson feels bikeshare platforms should be government-run, perhaps by Muni.
“At face value, it’s a great concept,” Henderson said. “But I think the way The City is deploying it — we’re seeing with the pushback — is clumsy.”
Dani Simons, a spokesperson for Motivate, which administers Ford GoBike, said the company’s aim was to provide affordable transportation to people in the Mission.
“We respect Calle 24 very much, even though we don’t agree on everything,” Simons said. “We want to work with them to make sure we’re aligned fighting displacement and gentrification.”
Though Ford GoBike and Motivate have experienced growing pains in the Mission, there’s already a road map for community-inclusive bike programs.
Through PODER, Grande runs Bicis Del Pueblo, or “Bikes for the People,” which answers bicycle-related needs the community asked for itself.
On a recent foggy Saturday morning in the Excelsior, Evelyn Ruiz, 32, walked into San Francisco Community School’s yard with her son Pablo, 4, who confidently rode a Spider-Man-themed bike, training wheels and all.
Ruiz emigrated from Guatemala when she was a teenager and attended Newcomer High School. She quickly joined PODER. But contrary to the popular saying, Ruiz had, indeed, forgotten how to ride.
“I had heard about [Bicis Del Pueblo] a long time ago actually, when it started,” she said, noting her initial reaction to the program. “That’s for kids, that’s for teenagers.”
Flash-forward to this summer: Ruiz brought her 17-year-old brother, Kevin, to Bicis Del Pueblo to learn to ride — and Oscar Grande finally roped her in, too.
Ruiz said her young son would stand by watching and shout, “Yeah, Mama, you’ve got it!”
And Ruiz is not alone.
National studies, including one by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, found most cyclists aren’t the “white urban hipster” many assume ride bikes, but are often people of color and also low-income.
Though it’s only existed for three years, Bicis Del Pueblo has attracted youth and families from the Excelsior, Mission and Bayview districts and primarily from communities of color. The program’s seeds were planted by PODER youth, who visited the Dakota Access Pipeline to meet Native American communities. The Latino members immediately felt kinship, but also guilt because their use of fossil fuels exacerbated the native community’s woes.
Grande said that sparked them to think, “We’ve gotta start riding bikes.” Bicis was born.
Community members can attend workshops held every second and fourth Saturday of the month and learn how to fix bikes and ride. During any given workshop, at least a dozen kids, teens and adults can be seen riding up and down the concrete at the school.
Ruiz’s family attending the program together is not necessarily unique, Grande said.
“It’s multi-generational,” he said. “There’s many, mainly women-led households who come into our space.”
The program also gives away bikes, a big lure for its members.
Between the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Bike Builds program and Bicis Del Pueblo, the two partners distributed 460 bikes to low-income San Franciscans in 2016. Those bikes are donated from the lost-and-found of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and bikes recovered by the San Francisco Police Department, the result of a 2014 ordinance by former Supervisor John Avalos to give back lost bikes to the community.
Bikes are given out once someone has completed four workshops — that’s how Kevin Ruiz landed his new white bike. The program also taught Kevin to ride on San Francisco’s treacherous streets.
Ford GoBike acknowledges low-income communities, too, with its $5 annual cash payment membership called Bikeshare for All. Advocates are concerned that after the first year, that price balloons to $60 annually.
For Kevin, however, Bicis Del Pueblo wasn’t just about obtaining a free bike. He prized the people he met there. The program links with PODER’s Common Roots program, where teenagers learn about environmental and social justice.
“It taught me to be more open with people,” the soon-to-be high school senior said, taking a moment to look at the ground. “I tend to be shy.”
Though the program has given many bikes to the community, Grande said, Bicis Del Pueblo members may benefit from bikeshare in the Mission.
When he tries to give bikes to teenagers like Kevin, they sometimes refuse. “They say they can’t fit a bike in their apartment,” Grande said, and claim someone would likely steal it. “How many kids at this school could benefit from a Ford GoBike?” he said, sweeping his hands outward toward the school building.
Whether the community will benefit from those bikes depends on negotiations taking place even now, between representatives from Ford GoBike and Mission advocates at City Hall. That outcome may depend on each side’s ability to reach across a wide cultural gap.
Perhaps they’ll breach that gap by bike.