Surviving San Francisco by Bike
By Joel P. Engardio
Riding a bike in San Francisco can be perilous. There are speeding cars and potholes. Then there is the politics of cycling, which can be as unforgiving as the road.
Consider what Brian Wiedenmeier faces as executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition: Drivers curse him when traffic lanes and parking spaces disappear to make room for bikes. Riders question his effectiveness when they don’t get a protected lane on every street. Cycling purists call him a sell-out when he doesn’t view all tech and auto companies as the enemy.
Wiedenmeier risks revolt among the bike coalition’s 10,000 members each time he makes a strategic compromise or embraces a corporate partnership. And that’s if the owners of San Francisco’s 500,000 cars — and the politicians they vote for — don’t defeat him first.
Wiedenmeier’s predecessor only lasted nine months during a particularly contentious time.
In 2015, then-Mayor Ed Lee vetoed legislation supported by the bike coalition that would have allowed riders to yield at intersections instead of coming to a full stop.
Within, bike coalition members disagreed over leadership style. Should the group become more professional or stay true to activist control? Members fiercely opposed a move to appoint the board of directors and end member elections.
The battle led to the formation of a group called “Save SF Bike,” which accused the bike coalition of “deprioritizing members to gain favor with big donors, politicians and corporate funders.”
This is what welcomed Wiedenmeier when he took charge in 2016.
That’s why his survival so far is remarkable — given Wiedenmeier’s close relationships with San Francisco’s political elite, as well as the bike coalition’s acceptance of a $10,000 donation from the autonomous vehicle divisions of Google and General Motors and the organization’s support of the controversial Ford-branded bike share system.
Wiedenmeier has managed to please anti-establishment members by expanding the bike coalition’s mission to include social justice causes. The group opposed a police union measure to equip officers with tasers. It backed progressive mayoral candidates Mark Leno and Jane Kim over moderate London Breed. It also defied the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce by supporting Proposition C, a ballot measure that taxes local businesses to provide $300 million in services for homeless people.
“I’m a pragmatic idealist. My job is to make sure the bike coalition is a place for both YIMBYs and Democratic Socialists because there is common ground in promoting biking as a transportation solution,” he said. “I also realize that can create a combustible dynamic — and I’m doing my best to not get burned.”
Wiedenmeier, 36, discovered the freedom of riding a bicycle as a child growing up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
“I remember the bike being an incredibly liberating thing,” he said. “It took me beyond my house and block. I began to imagine a world outside little Oshkosh.”
Wiedenmeier came out as gay at 16. His family was supportive, but he wanted to meet other gay people.
He finished high school a year early and went to the University of Minnesota in the much bigger city of Minneapolis. Wiedenmeier rode his bike everywhere, even in the sub-zero winters. And he thrived in the hotbed of campus politics.
Conservative students sued the college because they didn’t want to pay a compulsory fee that funded student organizations including the LGBT club. Wiedenmeier led the committee set up by the school to review which groups should receive funding.
“I learned how to read budgets, pick apart proposals, review bias, handle interpersonal politics and deal with lobbyists and players trying to push and hijack an agenda,” he said. “If I come off as politically savvy today, it’s because that experience taught me a ton.”
But his advanced education in politics came from a decade of living in San Francisco. Wiedenmeier moved here in 2006 to work at the SF LGBT Center as a fundraiser. He also earned a master’s degree in non-profit management from SF State.
The LGBT Center was a political hornet’s nest and Wiedenmeier had a front row seat to the drama of Gavin Newsom’s mayoral administration, the Prop 8 fight over same-sex marriage, Mark Leno’s ouster of Carole Migden from her state senate seat and the bitter feuds in the LGBT community that resulted.
“If you’re willing to pay attention to what’s going on in San Francisco, there’s a lot to learn both good and bad,” Wiedenmeier said. “I watched and paid attention.”
From resistance to momentum
After two years as executive director of the bike coalition, Wiedenmeier is looking beyond mere survival in the position. He wants to expand the organization’s agenda and impact.
“We could be purist and only deal with biking. We could believe anything related to tech and other forms of mobility will corrupt us,” he said. “But I want to engage those companies while holding them accountable. The world is multimodal and ignoring that reality will leave us behind.”
A big part of Wiedenmeier’s expansion plan is to focus on issues like criminal justice reform, homelessness and the #MeToo movement.
“Social justice and biking intersect,” he said. “You don’t leave the problems of the world behind when you get on a bike. You have to look at your surroundings. You can’t just bury your face in a phone.”
Wiedenmeier wants the bike coalition to work toward improving the lives of people who aren’t yet riders. Sympathy isn’t enough, he said. It has to be backed by action.
“We shouldn’t expect African Americans in the Bayview to support bike lanes if we don’t stand with them to address the issues facing their community,” he said. “If the bike coalition only talks to other privileged cisgender white guys like me, then we have no hope in growing the number of people who ride bikes in San Francisco.”
He wants to be relevant to other places like Visitacion Valley and even the car-centric Westside. Protected bike lanes, he argues, will encourage more riders and therefore mean less traffic for those who must drive. And electric assist bikes will give seniors more mobility options.
Yet Wiedenmeier expects resistance. When the organization convened a panel discussion on “Intersectional Feminism and Biking,” a member told Wiedenmeier it was “bullshit” and cancelled his membership.
“I need to make sure we don’t spin out too far from our core mission. Yet it’s also dangerous to ignore the issues around the center,” Wiedenmeier said. “The pragmatic part of me wants to find the right calibration, never forgetting that all sorts of things can go wrong.”