It’s broad daylight and I’m standing with a teenager in front of a Ford GoBike Station in the Mission District. Despite being only 14-years-old, he seems completely unafraid of what he’s doing.
“I steal these bikes and I wreck them,” he says. A tree with long roots grows into the word “Mission” on the back of his slick black windbreaker. His cap bears the phrase “Fri$co.”
It’s hard to tell if the Mission native is exaggerating about the theft or telling the truth, but he’s definitely angry. And the anger is full of complications and contradictions that could underscore Ford Go-Bike’s ongoing problems with theft and vandalism.
“I hate them because they are in my neighborhood,” the young Latino says, “and because they weren’t here for me when I was five or 10.” For him, the bikes represent a cultural and a physical loss. By stealing them, he says, he is fighting for his community, which is being priced out.
When I tell him that there is a low-income payment option that is just $5 dollars per year for the first year and $5 a month after the first year, he responds with a quiet acknowledgment of the program, saying, “Well, that is cool.”
It’s unclear if this new information will stop the teenager’s theft, but it demonstrates the ongoing confusion about Ford GoBike’s 7,000 bicycles in places like the Mission. As part of a regional public bike-sharing system, it has been associated with gentrification. Even as it has reached out with plans for low-income residents, some believe the bikes are only there for higher-income residents.
It’s a problem that first brought vandalism and calls for the program to withdraw or slow its expansion. The number of low-income riders has more than doubled in the last two months to 1,246 members as of Nov. 21, but many people like the young teenager still don’t realize the program for the less-well-off is in place.
An informal survey shows that the lack of awareness around GoBike’s low-income options could be costing the company riders and pushing up its insurance costs. Motivate, the manager of the program, declined to give out numbers on vandalism. But a casual walk around the Mission reveals GoBikes sitting idly in random places, suggesting they were stolen rather than checked out for the 30-to-45-minute time limits, or in some cases broken apart and vandalized.
Chris Cassidy, spokesman for the SF Bike Coalition, responded to the frustration of residents who felt left out. “I think there really has been a massive shortcoming in the outreach,” he says, specifically citing the issue of where bike terminals were placed.
He went on to say that the coalition opposes vandalism of any bike — especially the GoBikes, because they are “specifically available for folks that might really need affordable transportation.”
Case in point: Motivate organized a “free ride day” in November, and although 1,200 riders registered for the event, that’s only a small slice of the 45,000 a day who ride the bikes. Only three of the 16 people I interviewed that day knew about the promotion.
“What promotion?,” asked Lloyd Sacks, a San Francisco resident who had just bought a three-day pass on the very morning of the free-bike promotion.
Had the teenager known about the promotion, he might not have been pushing on the handlebars of the bikes to see if he could pry one free.
“I’ve taken a lot,” he says.
“How many?” I ask.
“I’ve taken more than you can think of!” he responds.
With pride, he then shows me photos of the bikes he’s stolen, dismantled and disfigured.
The bikes were first introduced in San Francisco in 2013. But this summer, Ford became the financial sponsor of the program, and the bikes began popping up all over San Francisco. The 7,000 bikes now in the system, which stretches across the Bay, are used by some 45,000 riders. Currently, the Mission has more than 20 of the 250 stations within the system.
The program, which is still being phased in, is starting with the population centers around South of Market, Downtown, and the Mission District, and plans a push to other areas this coming summer.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, San Francisco residents spend around 14 percent of their annual income on transportation, which is the second-highest expense for city residents just behind housing. The Bike Share for All program is designed to make transportation affordable and accessible for the most vulnerable residents.
The plan for low-income riders is automatically available for people over 18 who qualify for Calfresh, SFMTA’s Lifeline Passes or PG&E CARE utility discount. The plan can even be purchased for cash, without using a bank account, at several locations.
Marla, a social worker in the Tenderloin, acknowledged the difficulty of integrating the bikes into communities.“If you don’t put them in a poor neighborhood you are an asshole, she says. “And if you do you are gentrifying the community.”
Sarah Lamm had just come out of the Bart Station on 16th Street when I asked her about the bikes. A former resident of Washington, D.C., she used Capital Bikeshare there, which is also run by Motivate. She says she loved it, but she would not be likely to buy it here. She thought it was too pricy for less-affluent community members.
Once I told her about the low-income program, she said she was far more likely to enroll, since it was affordable to all, and hoped that Motivate would do a better job of promoting the program in the future.
This article has been corrected to reflect the cost of GoBikes for low-income residents. It is $5 for the first year and $5 a month or $60 a year for subsequent years.