Why I can no longer support my local bicycle coalition

This is the post I’ve struggled to write for the last year. It is the culmination of thoughts and impressions that have been coalescing  for many months. As a shop owner, it lead me to question my morals and values as I publicly lent my support to my local bike coalition. As I got more and more involved in local politics it became apparent to me that pretty much nothing “bike related” would get any traction without the local bike coalition’s approval. And that has lead me to where I am now.

I can not support this organization. I believe we have reached a point where they are now doing more harm than good.

That is a very sad realization to come to – but one that I totally understand. I am completely empathetic with why they are doing the very things that are driving me away. And I fully acknowledge that they have done great and wonderful things for the city I live in. But unfortunately they seem unwilling to adapt, and have become more of a political lobby group then an advocacy group. And the problem with political lobby groups is that, by their very nature, their number one goal is to get more people “lending their voice” and thus gain political influence. And their second goal is to get more money, to facilitate their number one goal. The original goals of the organization get relegated – by necessity – to a mere third.

From their own website, here is what they are about:

For over 40 years, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has been transforming San Francisco streets and neighborhoods into more livable and safe places by promoting the bicycle for everyday transportation. We are one of the largest and most effective bicycle advocacy groups in the country. Through our day-to-day advocacy, education and working partnerships with City and community agencies, the SF Bicycle Coalition creates safer streets and more livable communities for all San Franciscans.

So how could I possible have a problem with a mission like that? Well, let me tell you what else I’ve heard. This came from coworkers of mine, in response to my jabs and hints that they should ride their bikes to work instead of complaining about having to move their cars to avoid parking tickets:

I’m just afraid to ride a bike on the streets. It is too dangerous. I looked at a route on the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition website and right on the front page it said I’d be riding through one of the most dangerous intersections in the city.

I will never forget that comment. The statement of the very group that is apparently trying to position itself as the voice for cyclists in this city actually made someone decide not to ride a bike because it is too dangerous. It is embedded into the very fabric and nature of the organization – the need to make the streets safer so that everyone can ride on them without fear.

And that is when the paradox stuck me. That is when I started to realize that, as an organization, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) needs to play up how dangerous cycling is.

You see – “saving lives” is how you get politicians to play nice with you and open up the purse strings. Statements like “We’ve got a ton of people happily riding to work every day. We should make it easier for them!” pale in comparison to “A person was killed on a bicycle in a collision with a taxi. We must work to improve this intersection and ensure it never happens again!”

Am I making something out of nothing? I’ll let you decide. Here is an excerpt from the email that was sent to me when my 1 year membership was about to expire. These are the reasons that they cited that I should once again pay for membership in this organization:

Yikes! Your San Francisco Bicycle Coalition membership has just expired!

The strength of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition lies in our numbers, which is why I hope you’ll renew your membership today. You and thousands of other members like you strengthen our voice and power great changes as we advocate in City Hall and meet with our region’s leaders.

Please renew your membership now and be part of winning:

  • Key bicycle infrastructure improvements on Market Street, Polk Street, the Embarcadero, Oak and Fell Streets, Potrero Avenue, Howard Street and the Wiggle.
  • Bold changes across the city to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries within 10 years. City officials have adopted “Vision Zero,” but now it’s time to hold them accountable.
  • Better enforcement by police through data-driven policies that focus their efforts on the most dangerous behaviors and at the most dangerous intersections.

I don’t know how to tell you this SFBC, but you’ve done wonders in achieving the goal of getting more people on bikes. Along the way you’ve had the help of cultural changes in society at large that favor a less car-centric lifestyle, which naturally gets more people on bikes. No question about the fact that you – in conjunction with many others – have been instrumental in helping to get bicycle infrastructure improvements deployed in times with it was much much harder to make those things happen.

But the time of using fear of death while cycling as a means to gain social change has long since passed. I ride my bike on the streets of San Francisco daily. The rhetoric about all us cyclists being victims is unfortunately well steeped in many of our minds. I find myself falling prey to it whenever there is a close call in traffic, and have to consciously work to keep it at bay. But to discourage new cyclists from getting on the road by perpetuating these fears into the next crop of would-be cyclists? That is just self defeating.

Unfortunately I fear you have positioned yourselves not as an advocacy group, but as a group dedicated to thwarting the dangers of cycling. Which means you need to use your well groomed PR machine to continue to convince everyone that cycling is actually dangerous. Which means you need cycling to be dangerous to be relevant.

That is something that I just can put my money into endorsing.

Update – June 15

Just when I was starting to soften my stance on SFBC…

They’ve started a campaign against Uber, who themselves are trying to fight against restrictions that would limit their access to Market St. Now I’m not going to touch the “Uber is evil / Uber is good” debate but ultimately Uber is trying to get the same rights on Market Street as the taxis. The debates for and against the transportation company are many, but irrelevant to this point.

SFBC promoted their stance against Uber with posts like this one on Facebook:


And what else are they using this campaign for? Well to garner more membership of course:

f you’re not already a member but would like to see a Safer Market free of unregulated operators, please consider joining the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

– http://www.sfbike.org/news/stand-up-against-uber-for-a-truly-safer-market-street/


There are three things I really hate about this campaign of theirs.

  1. Yet again putting forward the notion that cycling is horrifically dangerous and we’re all going to get killed doing it.
  2. Implying that unless I fall in line and and vocally stand against Uber, then I am against SFBC and, by extension, against bicycle safety
  3. Implying that they (SFBC) are the one voice of bicycling in San Francisco, and that the only way I can affect pro-cycling change in this city is to support SFBC

Over and over I see SFBC’s efforts to be first and foremost to establish themselves that the voice of all cyclists. They have usurped the conversation to the point where I’ve actually had politicians tell me “Have you talked to SFBC” regarding cycling issues – as if they won’t listen any more unless SFBC is saying it. SFBC has become a pseudo-government body that keeps trying to force me into an all-or-nothing proposition. Either I support SFBC in all of their efforts, or I am against them and cycling.

I will never support an advocacy organization whose primary efforts are against something instead of for something.

I support increased cycling infrastructure in the city because I believe it is better for the entire city. More bikes mean fewer cars. Fewer cars means less traffic, pollution, and collisions of all kinds. More bicycle traffic means better commercial engagement by the residents. These are inclusive solutions.

In contrast, the primary rhetoric of the SFBC is divisive. It does not facillitate conversations between cyclists and other members of the city. Rather, it differentiates us cyclists as “the enemy.” I don’t think that motorists are my enemy. Quit claiming you speak for me, yet constantly keep creating this divide.

I’m sure there are members of SFBC that, if they even read this, will be thinking “It is just one complainer. This guy doesn’t get it. We don’t need him anyway.” Probably true. Your membership is large, and cycling is growing and growing in this city. I’ve enjoyed several years of riding in this city without feeling marginalized as a cyclist. I never could have dreamed that it would actually be SFBC that would take me back to that place of feeling like an outsider on my bike.