Bike-sharing needs neighborhoods like the Mission if it’s going to work. Does the Mission need bike-sharing?

To paraphrase something Sigmund Freud may or may not have said, sometimes a bicycle is just a bicycle.

In this city, that’s a good thing to keep in mind. Bicycles have become all things to all people, and two-wheeled proxies for anything and everything. San Franciscans who merely desire a cheap, efficient and healthful way to get from here to there at better-than-Muni speeds have not relished being lumped in with self-righteous cyclists who seem to think riding a bike is a political statement and a means of demonstrating moral superiority — an indicator that they are, simply, “better” people than those who do not ride

Similarly, cyclists — many of them neither white nor wealthy — have been surprised to learn that the goofy Ford GoBikes they’ve been pedaling around town, perhaps for as little as $5 a year, aren’t a potential substitute for bike ownership without the hassles of maintenance, rampant theft or dragging cycles onto crowded buses or trains but, rather, rolling gentrification. GoBikes have been defaced, vandalized and even lit ablaze. 

There are reasons for all this. But, again, sometimes a bicycle is just a bicycle. Or. As Jon Stewart put it, “It’s just fucking bikes, lady.” 

Bicycles are not gentrifying the Mission; gentrifiers are gentrifying the Mission. This has been a decades-long process, and what we’re seeing now was set into motion years before. The well-off folks paying top-dollar for apartments and condos and for whom twee, artisanal amenities are sprouting like twee, artisanal mushrooms got here without bikes, let alone Ford GoBikes. Take away the goofy, blue bicycles and these folks are not going to leave; burn the bikes and they’ll hop in a Lyft.

The hostile response to GoBikes in the Mission highlights the paradox at the heart of the bike-sharing program. Decisions to keep it out of low-income areas are decried as elitist, but decisions to put it into low-income areas are decried as colonialist. The program is mandated to be revenue-neutral — i.e. it’s run by a for-profit business — and is currently operating without government money. But it is, simultaneously, billed as an extension of public transit and is mandated to serve “communities of concern” — which is not where you’d go to seek revenue.

This last point is key. To truly act as a new wing of public transit and serve everyone — as public transit must — bike shares should be saturating our neighborhoods, especially poor neighborhoods. That’s how it’s worked elsewhere. But, in rejecting bike sharing as elitist, concerned neighborhoods are ensuring it will be.

Complaints? Erick Arguello has a few. The president and co-founder of the Calle 24 Latino Heritage Cultural District does not appreciate clunky bicycles and their parking-spot-eradicating pods being dropped onto the Mission.

He has his concerns about losing those spots in a neighborhood where gardeners or handymen drive around in pickup trucks. He wonders about the wisdom of having blue or red bikes dotting the Mission and, perhaps, sparking some manner of gang reprisal. He objects to the prominent Ford branding on the bikes, which he decries as not bike-sharing but “corporate bike rental.” He wonders who this is meant to serve in a part of town where people can buy a bike for $75. But, most of all, he doesn’t appreciate that nobody asked him about these concerns. “They never reached out to us,” he says.

And that’s true. The outreach process in the Bay Area wasn’t abbreviated or skimpy. But it was far more cursory than in other parts of the country where bike-share programs are enjoying a more harmonious welcome. Kristen Jeffers has helped promote bike-sharing in several cities, including one in her hometown of Greensboro, N.C. That effort, she says, took about four years, and “brought everyone to the table: The university. Private citizens. City planners. City recreation and park officials.” John Stehlin is a lecturer in the UC Berkeley geography department researching bike-share programs. He spent a month documenting Philadelphia’s efforts. These, he said, were far more “robust” than what we saw here in San Francisco and involved a lot more boots (or wheels) on the ground and fewer websites or hashtags. This seemed to work: After expanding into lower-income black neighborhoods in Philly, African Americans went from comprising 8 percent of ridership to 19 percent.

Emily Stapleton, the general manager for Ford GoBike Bay Area, confirms that “lots of outreach” was undertaken here. There was a website. There was “typically one workshop per neighborhood.” In the one at the Mission, she recalls, “15 or 20 community members were there.” So was then-Supervisor David Campos. She remembers it as a “productive discussion.”

Now, it’s easy to give the GoBike people a hard time. But the city mandated that one out of five stations be sited in the aforementioned “communities of concern,” and they’ve beaten that. The city also mandated they provide a program for low-income riders that would be at least 60 percent off the yearly price of $149 — and they beat that, too. For the first year, qualifying customers can ride for five bucks cash. You don’t need a credit card; you can show up with 20 quarters  (in year two, the price goes up — to five bucks a month). The prominent Ford branding is suboptimal, but Ford is the company that opted to write the $60 million check enabling bike-share outfit Motivate to run the program (Ford, for what it’s worth, is easier on the eyes than some insidious bank or gibberish-named tech company — and it’s hard to imagine folks impulse-buying a $20,000 automobile because they saw it on a goofy bike). Despite what you’ve heard, no, your path is not being tracked on the bicycles (provided you sign up on the GoBike site and not the Ford Pass site).

So, the GoBike people deserve credit for all that. But one workshop in the Mission with less than two dozen attendees (and David Campos) is not a hell of a lot in the way of outreach. And when you fail to truly reach out to the community, you will find yourself at the mercy of those who anoint themselves spokespeople and gatekeepers for the community.

A concerned city source categorizes the GoBike launch as “not so much outreach as notification.” This rankles people, especially people in the Mission who’ve been “notified” of an awful lot in the past decades. “The Mission District has not been on the winning side of many infrastructure improvements that, maybe, benefited the region or other neighborhoods,” explains Stehlin. In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, he continues, it’s easy for the lifers to see any improvements as being made not for them, but those who are displacing them.

That’s understandable. But, especially in this case, it can be self-defeating. Communities — and their self-anointed representatives — can leverage (if you like them) or extort (if you don’t) benefits from those hoping to drop twee shops or luxury housing in their midst. Pro-housing zealots argue that the community benefit of market-rate housing is market-rate housing. That’s a  novel argument. In the case of bike-sharing, it might be true. Bike-sharing, especially when low-income people can get in for five bucks a year, may well be its own benefit. The rich folks vandals have in mind when they’re slashing and burning GoBikes have lots of options. Poor folks don’t.

Sometimes a bicycle is just a bicycle. But the Mission reveals the strains of a bike-sharing program that may have been trying too hard to be all things to all people. The city determined that, because of pension and benefit costs, it would be far cheaper for a private business to run a bike-sharing program than for San Francisco workers to do it. But private businesses want to make money. Public transit, almost by definition, does not. Mandating a private business to operate with the ethos of public transit may strangle its efforts to do either. The city’s demand that bike-sharing be cost-neutral may doom it as effective transit for all.

Stapleton, meanwhile, says GoBike is “doing final review with BART and the community” about putting bike pods in at the 16th and 24th Street stations — without which bike-sharing absolutely cannot succeed in the Mission. “We would like to bring those online in the next several weeks.” The BART people, she continues, “are pretty excited about those.” How will the community react? That remains a burning question.