In defense of Bay to Breakers

For 99 years, Bay to Breakers has been lifting the city's spirits, bringing fun, tax revenue, and millions of tourism dollars to San Francisco

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By Conor Johnston

OPINION An op-ed piece in the June 9 issue of Guardian ("When the rich can sit on the sidewalks") was the latest in a rash of negative media stories about Bay to Breakers. I am not going to respond to that article specifically, except to thank the Guardian for giving us equal time.

For 99 years, Bay to Breakers has been lifting the city's spirits, bringing fun, tax revenue, millions of tourism dollars, and nationwide attention to San Francisco. If ever we needed those things, it's now, when we have record deficits, 47,000 people out of work, and may lose the football team that is named after us.

So let's set the record straight.

Bay to Breakers does not cost taxpayers a dime. The event pays for all costs, including cleanup. And the permit fees and tourism generate tax revenue. ING probably dropped its sponsorship for reasons unrelated to B2B. Sponsors come and go. B2B will find another. Bay to Breakers is a financial boon for San Francisco. The event attracts thousands of people to the city; 49 of 50 states were represented by participants in 2008. The average tourist spends $505 in the local economy. Bay to Breakers is and always has been peaceful. There were fewer than five arrests reported this year. I have never seen a fight at B2B, not once, in seven years. Bay to Breakers remains enormously popular. There are about 100,000 participants and spectators, including many world-class runners.

This said, there are problems at B2B, namely public urination and the overall impact on the neighborhoods. We absolutely acknowledge that. But unlike the critics, we still believe in this city's ability to solve problems.

How do we do it? Not with prohibitions — they are a retreat, not a policy. Sound policy takes effort, collaboration, and commitment. Let's get the stakeholders together — neighborhood groups, race organizers, race supporters, SFPD, and city officials — and create a plan to protect the neighborhoods while preserving the race's spirit.

Our group, Citizens for the Preservation of Bay2Breakers, is committing to raise money for 100 additional multiperson urinals and to leading the cultural campaign for more responsibility among participants. And we have other ideas:

Ticket people who urinate on or disturb private property.

Rent more toilets.

Implement multiperson urinals, which are six times more efficient and are one-third of the cost per user.

Improve the barricades to keep participants on course.

Increase revenue with a tiered registration for non-runners.

Host an event in the park that attracts participants out of the neighborhoods sooner.

I see in Bay to Breakers a celebration of what it means to be San Francisco, to be capable, to be unafraid of free expression and unapologetic of diversity.

I see world-class runners lined up next to 30-somethings in Elvis costumes. I see convalescent patients lining the sidewalk, smiling and taking pictures with Rambo and Cinderella. I see mothers pushing costumed babies. I see 100,000 happy faces. But most of all, I see a century-old civic institution that is worth fighting for. *

Conor Johnston is co-chair of Citizens for the Preservation of Bay2Breakers and a resident of District 5.