Bikes and business, a new and evolving union in SF

Sup. Scott Weiner and other pro-business political entities have embraced cycling in San Francisco.
Noah Berger/

Building Owners and Managers Association of San Francisco (BOMA) is being honored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition at next week's annual Golden Wheel Awards, recognizing BOMA's help earlier this year in passing a city law requiring commercial landlords to let workers bring their bikes indoors or another secure bike parking area.

It is a strange and noteworthy honor for BOMA, a downtown force that is usually at odds with SFBC and progressive political entities, including opposing an effort to pass similar bikes-in-buildings legislation a decade ago. But this time, BOMA was an early partner on legislation sponsored by progressive Sup. John Avalos, an indicator of just how much the politics surrounding urban cycling have changed in recent years, particularly in San Francisco.

In the city where Critical Mass was born 20 years ago this fall – since then exported to dozens of cities around the world, globalizing urban cyclists' demand for the equal right to use roadways often built mainly for automobiles – the bicycle has moved from the preferred mode of rebels, children, and the poor into a mainstream transportation option recognized even by the suits in the corner offices.

“They're responding to a market demand. They see lots of employees looking for bike access in their buildings,” San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Lean Shahum said BOMA.

It was a point echoed by John Bozeman, BOMA's government and public affairs manager and a regular cyclist. “Ten years ago, our members didn't see it as something their tenants were asking of them,” Bozeman told us. “With the rise of young workers coming into our buildings, there was a greater demand for better bike access.”

But there are different ways of looking at this switch, which could undermine the progressive movement in San Francisco as SFBC increasingly adopts a more neoliberal approach of reliance on corporate support, rather than relying primarily on the political strength of their 12,000-plus members. For example, the Sunday Streets road closures that SFBC helped initiate are sponsored by a long list of corporations looking to improve their public image, including Bank of America (whose representative recently joined SFBC and city officials at a press conference announcing an expansion of the program), California Pacific Media Center, and Clear Channel, and in the past PG&E and Lennar.

“It reflects that bicycling sells real estate, and that's a recent trend in hip, tech-focused cities,” says Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University geography professor now finishing up a book on the politics of transportation, which explores these shifting dynamics.

The relationship with and dependence upon the business community could diminish SFBC's willingness to champion bold reforms to our transportation system, such as congestion pricing charges for cars entering the city core during peak hours or demanding public transit mitigation fees of downtown corporations.

“On the other hand, it's helping legitimize the bike as a legitimate form of transportation when the power elite accept it,” Henderson said.

Whatever the case, SFBC decision to honor BOMA with an award – which will be presented on the evening of June 5 during an event at the swank War Memorial Building – represents a new and evolving political dynamic for San Francisco.

“San Francisco has become a very different place in terms of embracing bicycling,” Shahum said. “There is a strong understanding that biking is good for the economy.”