San Francisco has a resource curse. We are walking, biking, and riding (and also sitting or lying) on the most valuable public right-of-way in the world. Just as oil rich countries suffer waves of invasion and corrupt leadership as others seek control of their wealth, San Francisco has seen waves of extractivist companies bundling cash to elected officials for control of the road, leaving the traffic, the pollution, and the noise for the unlucky residents to deal with. If the companies can take the public commons and reserve it for the use of the wealthy (while paying nothing to the city but “cost recovery” for rubber-stamping this plunder) they’re as good as gold. This is the story of most of what the SFMTA calls “emerging mobility services and technologies.” A good rule of thumb is that if a company is using the word “share,” it probably means they’re robbing you.
Enter the Ford Go Bike Expansion. Lyft has purchased Motivate, the operators of Ford GoBike – a bike “share” service – for $2.5 million and is planning a massive expansion throughout San Francisco. Despite the price tag, these companies seem allergic to saying they’re in it for the money. Lyft President John Zimmer has stated that his company is committed to “the goal of reducing the need for personal car ownership” – but clearly not car usage, which is, of course, the problem (hence the traffic and pollution). Ride-hailing services have increased driving trips on city streets by 180 percent, taking away trips from clean, electric public buses. Lyft now intends to “work with cities on delivering innovation [a word which should raise as many red-flags as “share”]” in the electric bike market. As of April 2018, there were 120 Ford GoBike stations in San Francisco and this is expected to triple to 320 in the next year, displacing curb space, parking spaces, sidewalks, public bike racks, and other public uses.
Motivate seems to be running the show at the SFMTA. They get their choice of the prime street real-estate with virtually no input from the public or elected officials. Motivate proposes the bike share locations to SFMTA, provides the barest minimum of outreach to the neighborhoods (most residents never know a station is even proposed), before the SFMTA Bikeshare Program Manager and City Traffic Engineer gives it the final go ahead. Basically, the implementation of the bikeshare station bypasses the public and our elected leaders almost entirely. I recently heard dozens of complaints from long time neighborhood residents of Glenn Park when a bikeshare station just landed, seemingly out of nowhere, and in a place that impinged on the safety and mobility of residents and students at a nearby school.
You can’t blame Lyft/Motivate for this, it is the logic of the market to sell to the highest bidder, and they want to monetize virtually every trip you take. The fault lies with SFMTA which has abdicated its role as an agency to protect the public commons by balancing use between different “emerging mobilities” (all of which are used by roughly the same 30-40 year-old demographic) rather than between the needs of the diversity of city residents. And at what price? The SFMTA has been dipping into reserves to fill budget gaps even in these boom times? Could it be charging market rate for curb rental to for-profit corporations? Where exactly does the “sharing” come in?
On September 18th, The SFMTA Citizen’s Advisory Council presented a motion to the SFMTA Board of Directors which would require greater outreach from SFMTA to neighborhood residents regarding the locations of these facilities and requiring final approval by the SFMTA board. If you think that neighborhoods should get some say regarding these bikeshare locations, email MTABoard@sfmta.com and urge them to adopt the Citizen’s Advisory Council’s motion.
Patrick Maley is a public transportation advocate in San Francisco.