SFBC keeps its distance from Critical Mass anniversary ride

Dave Snyder poses by his likeness on Mona Caron's 20th anniversary Critical Mass poster, which includes regular riders.
Steven T. Jones

Today's 20th anniversary Critical Mass ride has received overwhelming media coverage in the last few days, including a surprisingly laudatory editorial in yesterday's Examiner, so people are expecting the ride to be huge. But the talk of last night's CM20 birthday celebration at CELLspace was about Quintin Mecke's widely circulated letter blasting the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for refusing to even put the event on its calendar or in its newsletter.

By contrast, even the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association (SPUR) – founded and funded by downtown players with little love for Critical Mass – listed today's “special anniversary ride” and related events throughout the week in its calendar and on its newsletter, recognizing this “monthly bicycling event that began in San Francisco and inspired similar events throughout the world.”

As I wrote in this week's cover story, SFBC and Critical Mass grew up together on a similar, symbiotic trajectory, effectively working an outside/insider strategy (think MLK/Malcolm X) that has won cyclists a recognized spot on the roadways. But SFBC always warily kept its distance from Critical Mass, worried about offending politicians, the mainstream media, or the driving public.

That's an understandable strategy, given the persistent resentment many feel toward Critical Mass. But when considered in combination with SFBC's increasingly corporate culture and sponsorships and its controversial recent decision to allegedly overrule its member vote in its District 5 supervisorial endorsements, SFBC is in danger of losing the allegiance of much of the cycling community (which remains a minority of road users, and thereby political outsiders almost by definition).

David Snyder -- SFBC's executive director through its biggest growth period, SPUR's former transportation policy director, and currently the executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition -- is reluctant to wade into the current controversy, but he does acknowledge the important role Critical Mass played in winning political acceptance for cyclists in San Francisco. 

"In the mid-'90s, when the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition was a couple thousand members, the brouhaha around Critical Mass [particularly the crackdown in '97] increased our membership by 50 percent at one point," Snyder told us. "At that time, we benefitted hugely form the attention Critical Mass paid to safe streets for bicycles. And I don't think we need Critical Mass to do that anymore...The Bicycle Coalition's goal these days isn't to develop an awareness of unsafe streets, it's to develop a bold agenda to fix them."

I spoke with Mecke, who finished second in the 2007 mayor's race, at last night's event, and he was frustrated by his follow-up conversations with SFBC leaders, who seem to have taken a very defensive posture instead of welcoming this interesting conversation. I called SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum to discuss these issues, and I'm waiting to hear back from her and I'll update this post when I do.

But in the meantime, to feed the discussion, here's the full text of Mecke's letter, followed by another letter to SFBC on the endorsement issue:

Dear Bike Coalition:

Sadly, I can’t say I was surprised when I read this week’s SFBC Newsletter and found absolutely zero mention of the 20th Anniversary of Critical Mass.  According to your own newsletter, apparently the only thing happening in the San Francisco bike world that is worthy of your 12,000 members knowing about on Friday, Sept. 28 is SFBC’s Valet Bike Parking at the DeYoung Museum.  Seriously?

This is the San Francisco Bike Coalition and you couldn’t even bring yourselves to stick a small mention of Critical Mass in your newsletter or on your website (or god forbid you actually celebrate/acknowledge CM and show some pride), a cycling event created here in San Francisco which has spread across the globe to multiple continents since its inception & inspired thousands of cyclists to take to the street?  It’s truly amazing that Critical Mass was on the cover of the Guardian this week and even SF Funcheap listed the event but SFBC wouldn’t even put a mention at the bottom in the “Upcoming Events” section, hidden away amongst all the SFBC sponsored events? Not even a listing of the critical mass website or the community events going on all week long?  Your website lists the celebration of the 15th anniversary of TransForm but not Critical Mass?

Wow.  I’m truly speechless.  How embarrassing but more to the point, how sad. Are you afraid of offending Chuck Nevius or Mayor Lee? I don’t know how, why or what SFBC has become as an organization at this point but it’s disappointing as a long time cyclist to see the city’s only (?) organized bike advocacy organization which continually touts how many members you have to not even show the smallest amount of solidarity to your fellow cyclists and to the city’s own cycling history.  That being the case, history will march on without you.

Contrary to our “biking” Supervisor David Chiu’s comments in today’s Chronicle (I always enjoy politicians running from anything deemed controversial), it’s actually SFBC that is simply one tiny part of a much larger movement made up of a variety of cyclists from all walks of life whose decision twenty years ago to ride freely in the street once a month for just a few short hours has laid the groundwork for cycling reforms, political action and transformative experiences across the country and the world.

What a shame that instead of celebrating all parts of the cycling community, SFBC has decided to distance itself from the historic roots of its own community in the name of moderation, families on bikes and political expediency.

Enjoy Bike Valet night at the DeYoung Museum, it sounds like an awesome event.



Dear Leah:

My name is Gus Feldman. I am an avid bicyclist, a Bike Coalition member, and the President of the District 8 Democrats.

I'm in receipt of a letter from you, dated September 12, 2012, requesting that I renew my SFBC membership. I am writing to inform you that I will only renew my membership if the SFBC Board of Directors publicly releases the results of the SFBC member vote for the District 5 supervisor race.

While it is clear that the membership vote is one of several factors used by the SFBC Board of Directors to determine endorsements, the refusal of the Board to grant SFBC members the ability to see the results of their votes demonstrates an unacceptable degree of secrecy. By withholding this information, the Board is publicly stripping SFBC members of all agency in the endorsement process.

If in fact the popular suspicion is true - that Julian Davis won the most votes from SFBC members, but the Board decided to grant Christina Olague the top endorsement in the interests of expediting the construction of separated bike lanes on Oak & Fell streets - we would greatly appreciate the Board publicly declaring and explaining the decision. Such a decision is certainly logical, as the Oak/Fell bikes lanes are a key priority for many SFBC members. The fact that the Board has elected to conceal the vote results, as opposed to explaining to SFBC members why and how Olague received the number one endorsement, is highly insulting as it insinuates that the Board does not have faith in SFBC members' capacity to understand the rationale by which the Board arrived at their determinations. 

Please understand that if the Board elects to depart from the current practice of concealing the vote results, and transitions to one of transparency, I will promptly renew my membership.

Gus Feldman


Let's add to all of this that the cases of the Parkmerced and Treasure Island redevelopment projects. Progressives stood in strong opposition to these projects because they will seriously damage the lives of many thousands of people if they proceed as planned.

And yet the SF Bicycle Coalition (simply because the Wall Street developers that are pushing these unacceptable monstrosities threw the Coalition the bone of promised bicycle amenities) elected to screw everyone else for their own selfish benefit and support the projects.

Now, more than ever, the SF Bicycle Coalition has become a cynical tool of profit making corporations, and we should boycott the coalition until it gets with the program and stands in solidarity with progressives, and with vulnerable San Francisco residents and neighborhoods.

The Bicycle Coalition has become a bad joke, and needs to start getting public anger around this stuff, full in its face.

And if the Coalition won't clean up its act, I would call on San Francisco cyclists to choose another organization to represent their interests.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

group doesn't adhere to strict dogma on all sorts of other non bike related progressobot issues. Although I would differ on the opinion of the SFBC not being rote progressobot.

Then you say that bike riders should pick another bike group that reflects bike riders interests?... Because you are upset about the non bike related issues?

Posted by matlock on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

Bicycle issues are progressive issues. The Coalition should be forming alliances with other progressives not alienating us. (The building trade unions are repeatedly making the same mistake.)

When we all work together, we will win more victories.

The Coalition is shooting itself in the foot by being so myopic and self oriented, when it should be building strong alliances with the rest of us.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

That thinking is why most of the riders I know will never join.

Tighten op the tin foil hats we are in for a bumpy ride.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 1:37 am

It really pays to analyze every situation in that light.

Oftentimes there will be individuals in groups who can be observed to unnecesarily promote strife and accentuate divisions destabilizing the natural coalitions which exist between groups such as bicyclists and other progressives.

These troublemakers are usually expressing their own egos in negative ways, but sometimes are actually agents provocateurs.

Sometimes coalitions necessarily need to be loose, but we should always take note of actions and attitudes which unnecessarily enhance divisions.

Posted by lillipublicans on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 6:29 am

This is not a case of some fringe ego driven trouble makers or provocateurs. It is systemic. The leadership of the Coalition is making these decisions, and are the ones speaking in favor of Wall Street developers in public hearings.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 8:50 am

The most efficient way to destroy an organism is to attack the brain.

That's been my analysis of MUNI's problem for years and it has larger applicability to government in general.

I know it sounds paranoid; but when you are up against those who fantasize about drowning government like a baby in the bathtub...

Posted by lillipublicans on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 9:33 am

It's much simpler than that. Corporations make offers to the SF Bicycle Coalition, and the Coalition leadership takes the offers. Basic pay to play politics.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 9:48 am

You two are great, please keep this up on more issues.

Posted by chris pratt on Sep. 30, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

Wow. Quintin Mecke is right. We are all aghast that the SFBC is compromising with the for-profiters and their ilk.

I hereby propose that SFBC be voted off the Progressive Island.

The problem with such organizations is that when they get big they trend to draw in moderates, who down pl their whole message. These moderates will not vote for Julian because they are Compromisers with a capital C.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

Nice way to put it. The SFBC is sell-out.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

on my bike I saw a group with ban circumcision signs on their bikes heading towards the "event."

Keeping it real.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

are fascinating. So reminiscent of the beatings Trotskyites and Stalinists would give one another - brawling in the streets as their membership rolls declined, the world passing them by.

Posted by Troll II on Sep. 28, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

why can't the RCP (revolutionary communist party) ever get anything accomplished?

They are too busy blaming the anarchists.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

So glad to see a return of the lunatic brooks.

Posted by Greg on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 10:22 am

Those fucking cocksuckers blocked the fucking road last night for 40 mins, and first chance I get I am going to give you a slap STJ

Posted by Guest on Sep. 29, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

The SFBC can best be described as WABYS, which means White Able Bo ied Yuppies. Theyvare notorious when it comes to disability issues.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 30, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

This is why I'm no longer a member of the SFBC, that and the end of the Rainbow Grocery discount. It is a advocacy social club more than an activist group.

We took the rapid and reliable subway to our wedding on Saturday and it was awesome, under a harvest moon surrounded by family.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 01, 2012 @ 5:29 am

And cyclists are diminished that Quentin is not running in D5.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 01, 2012 @ 5:30 am

I want to clarify the two questions raised in Steve's blog post. First, regarding Critical Mass, we certainly did not mean to cause any offense. The fact is that we stopped explicitly promoting Critical Mass in our materials back in 2009 because, back then, there was still so much confusion and misinformation about the relationship between our organization and the ride.

No matter how often we explained the difference, we still spent inordinate amounts of time on this topic, which detracted from the primary conversations the SF Bicycle Coalition is trying to have—about winning support for new bikeways on key corridors like Masonic, Polk, 2nd Street, or growing the Safe Routes to School program, or expanding our free urban biking classes.

When the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass rolled around last week, it's true that we didn't do anything special, but it was simply the same approach we'd had for the last several years. Of course Critical Mass has had an important role in drawing public and political attention toward better biking, especially when there were so many fewer voices out there.

It’s a cause for celebration that there are so many different ways for people to be involved today in promoting better biking – whether it’s taking part in specific rides like Critical Mass or the SF Bike Party or community organizing or teaching people to bike or attending public meetings to speak up for better bikeways (important decision on Fell/Oak bikeways on Oct. 16!). Everybody can hopefully find his or her niche in the bike movement today.

On the second question about how the SF Bicycle Coalition makes endorsements: It has been the same process since 2000 when we first started endorsing. As clearly stated in communications to members and publicly, the member-elected Board of Directors makes the endorsement decisions based a number of factors, including the member vote, the candidates' records, experiences, and demonstrated support for our mission.

We're really proud that not only does the membership elect the Board who makes the final decision, but the members also reflect their preferences through the member vote. Most political endorsement organizations do not have nearly this much member input.

Nothing different was done in this year's endorsement process than in the past. Our policy is -- and has been since we started making endorsements in 2000 -- not to share the details of the member vote or the Board discussion. This is important for several reasons: First, because we don't want people dissecting the members' vote. It's a drain of energy and not productive to dissect the details, when there are multiple factors at play. Another reason we don't publicize the member vote is because, ultimately, our organization/staff/board/individual members need to work with whoever is elected. If someone were to know that they got a low number of votes in our member vote, then is elected, it makes that relationship much harder to mend.

It's important to remember that we are not primarily a political endorsement group, but rather an organization working to promote bicycling for everyday transportation, and that political endorsements are just one of many strategies we utilize to help make San Francisco a better place to live, work and, of course, bike.
Thanks for the chance to explain,
Leah Shahum
Executive Director, SF Bicycle Coalition

Posted by Leah Shahum on Oct. 01, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

Hey Leah,

Has this policy of not revealing member votes been stated clearly somewhere on your web site and/or in your literature?

I have talked to some former SFBC members who were not aware of this policy, and began to ask questions after the SFBC endorsed Mayor Lee.


Posted by Erika McDonald on Oct. 02, 2012 @ 10:04 am

I notice you weren't able to 'clarify' anything about the fact that your organization myopically and selfishly supports rapacious corporate real estate development projects that ruin people's lives and neighborhoods, as long as they contain bike amenities.

I noticed also, on the Coalition's web site, that it accepts corporate support and donations (including event support).

Can you direct us to a list of the Coalition's corporate and foundation supporters?

Posted by Eric Brooks on Oct. 02, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

This is just another reminder that despite their branding, nonprofits are not snuggly cute creatures that paint rainbows across the sky. They are still organized by a corporate structure that can disregard the people that support them, because all the power is controlled at the top.

Yes, the profit motive as been removed, but what else is radically different from say, Wells Fargo or McKesson? Do they make decisions any differently? Let's remind ourselves that legally and in real life, these organizations act as non-profit corporations.

Posted by Kevin on Oct. 01, 2012 @ 9:10 pm


Posted by marcos on Oct. 03, 2012 @ 9:26 am

I totally understand and empathize with SFBC's aversion to Critical Mass. My interest in CM ended one rainy day about 10 years ago when I tried across the street during Critical Mass. I had the green light\right of way but none of those bikers would let this wet pedestrian cross. Not a single bike slowed or moved out of the way. We even wear the same costume, but they are self-righteous and self-centered and I try my best not to be.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 02, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

So, SFBC must lend its endorsements to CM or be chastised? There is so much more to worry about in SF bike politics and progress than whether or not SFBC supports Critical Mass. They are separate entities, which serve separate purposes. The current controversy with Critical Mass is that many people believe it encourages negative behavior amongst cyclists, while deepening the divide with motorists. Knowing this, why would any veritable organization feel obligated to lend public displays of affiliation? Who cares? What a whiney waste of time!

- An Avid Cyclist

Posted by Laura on Oct. 03, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

And seriously? People are refusing to renew SFBC memberships over this? SFBC has done so much for cyclists in this city! This seems so pedantic to me.

SFBC is the under current of bike support and cycling progress in this city. And while fun for many, riding around in costumes and running red lights with your fellow cyclists is not.

- Avid Cyclist

Posted by Laura on Oct. 03, 2012 @ 11:12 pm