Ford says goodbye at Golden Wheel Awards

SFBC Director Leah Shahum welcomes departing MTA chief Nat Ford to the stage.
Steven T. Jones

Just hours after being asked to leave the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, director Nat Ford was at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition's annual Golden Wheels Awards accepting an award for the MTA's Livable Streets Team. But that potentially awkward moment was eased by the universal political support for making the streets of San Francisco safer and more inviting for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Coming from car-centric Atlanta in 2006, Ford admitted he was an unlikely champion of turning San Francisco into one of the country's best cities for biking. But he said the SFBC was “very persistent and worked with us.” While the bike injunction hurt progress, Ford said the support of SFBC and city officials allowed the agency to beef up the program from just a couple of staffers to “a dozen of the best bike planning and engineering folks in this country.”

“It was great working with all of you to get the MTA where it is today in terms of biking,” Ford told the capacity crowd in the War Memorial Building's second floor event space, where the balcony overlooked City Hall and a sea of hundreds of bikes parked on the sidewalk out front.

Mayor Ed Lee spoke next, pledging to continue the progress and telling the crowd, “I want to give my very special thanks to Nat Ford for his five years of very dedicated service.”

Both Ford and MTA members told the Guardian that the split was a “mutual decision.” Ford told us, “Now's a good time to go,” and that he's still figuring out his next move. MTA board chair Tom Nolan told us, “It's something we arrived at together. It's good for his family and him.”

Indeed, it seems very good for Ford. The board approved a $385,000 severance package to go with its request that he resign before his contract expires, a payout that is drawing some criticism. “I am deeply disappointed that MTA would approve a nearly $400,000 golden parachute for an outgoing city executive. At a time when our budget is cutting critical social services for our kids and the most vulnerable in our city, we can ill-afford to be paying excessive payouts to administrators who are no longer working for the public. I have fought these exorbitant sweetheart deals at UC and CSU, and as mayor I will reform these practices,” Sen. Leland Yee, a candidate for mayor, said in a prepared statement.

Nolan says it's time to restore the agency. “I've talked about wanting to restart what we do,” he told us. While Ford's reported job hunting was one reason for the split, Nolan also alluded to mismanagement of the agency and the mistrust of its administration by Transport Workers Union Local 250A and other employees.

“We clearly have a problem when the drivers turn down a contract two-to-one,” Nolan said of the union's rejection of its latest contract, which has since been approved by an outside arbitrator. “We can do a lot better.”

But the Ford saga was just a sideshow during an evening devoted to celebrating the improvements to the city's bicycle network and selling the SFBC's vision of what's next, which it calls “Connecting the City.” The plan calls for three, green, separated bikeways (like those now on a stretch of Market Street) bisecting the city by 2015 (with the first Bay To Beach route done by next year) and a fully connected network of 100 miles of bikeways by 2020.

“Safe, comfortable, crosstown bikeways for everyone,” was how MTA Commissioner Cheryl Brinkman put it in slick video that the SFBC premiered at the event to promote the plan.

SFBC Director Leah Shahum told the crowd the idea is to connect and promote the city's various neighborhoods and encourage “regular San Franciscans” to take more frequent trips by bike. “Seven in 10 of us, that's how many people are already riding a bike,” she said, citing a survey of how many city residents own or have access to bikes. “We're developing a vision where people are connected by safe, family-friendly bikeways.”

Shahum praised how engaged Mayor Lee has been with the plan and the need to improve the city's cycling infrastructure. “Let me tell you how impressed I am with the level of involvement from Room 200,” she said.

Lee pledged to make cycling safer on dangerous sections of Oak and Fell streets that connect the Panhandle with the Lower Haight – sections Shahum took Lee on during Bike to Work Day this year – and to complete a new green bike lane on JFK Drive this year.

“We can get a lot of the goals of the Bicycle Coalition done together. We need your help in November,” Lee told the crowd, calling for them to support a street improvement bond measure on the fall ballot. He said the bicycling community has made the streets more fun and inviting, telling the crowd that at this weekend's Conference of Mayors, he is “going to brag about our bike lanes and our way of living.”