Cycles of Investment:
Bicycle Infrastructure, Gentrification and the
Restructuring of the San Francisco Bay Area
Bicycling for transportation in American cities has grown dramatically in the past
20 years, symbolizing the return of capital investment and commercial vitality to formerly
disinvested urban cores. Pucher et al. (2011) note the cycling “renaissance” taking place to
the greatest extent in gentrifying neighborhoods, but the processes relating cycling and
gentrification have gone largely unexplored. This article examines the early role that
bicycle advocacy organizations in San Francisco played in articulating the specifically
economic value of bicycle infrastructure investment. This narrative is now commonplace,
and widely applied both to neighborhood revitalization and urban competition for
“talent.” This alliance of bicycle advocacy with the “livable” turn of gentrification raises
serious questions for those who would pursue a more democratic and socially just politics
of the bicycle.
Keywords: cycling; gentrification; livability; infrastructure; San Francisco
In recent years the bicycle has become an important symbol of the revitalization and
“greening” of American cities. San Francisco, birthplace of Critical Mass, enjoys a
leadership role in this movement. While cycling in San Francisco remains in no sense
dominant, 3.5% of residents commute to work by bike, and the city is steadily expanding
and integrating its bicycle network in a push to reach a goal of 20% of all trips (work and
non-work) by bicycle by 2020. In conditions of fiscal austerity, investment in bicycle
infrastructure has emerged as a viable development strategy; for SF Municipal
Transportation Agency (SFMTA) director Ed Reiskin, “[t]he most cost-effective
investment we can make in moving people is in bicycle infrastructure” (Simons 2012).
Culturally, the bicycle is ascendant as well, encoding the cycling body with the signifiers
of an ecologically responsible and cosmopolitan lifestyle, and increasingly as a selling
point for urban space, with arguments for the economic value of bicycle infrastructure
now commonplace in advocacy circles (Snyder 2013a). Yet the region is also beset by a
profound housing affordability crisis (Metcalf 2013; Barton 2011), driven by a new wave
of growth in the information technology sector. San Francisco is experiencing its most
extreme effects; its meteoric real estate boom threatens to expel the last remaining
holdouts of the city’s poor, and squeezes even its middle class, which is increasingly
decamping to more affordable environs in Oakland.
The tentative integration of bicycles into the official urban agenda signals the
arrival of an infrastructure-focused form of bicycle advocacy pursued by the San
Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) and its allies. Since the late 1990s the SFBC has taken
on a growing role in the planning of key spatial transformations in support of “livability,”
forging close ties to rising power blocs in San Francisco and focusing on infrastructural
innovation as critical to increasing ridership. These institutional connections now place
bicycle advocates in central roles in planning infrastructural changes to a long-disinvested
section of Market Street, the city’s central corridor, the epicenter of a new technology-
driven real estate boom with livability as its developmental logic.
This article argues two points. First, claims of the economic benefits of bicycle
infrastructure, initially made for contingent and strategic reasons, are now essential
components of livability discourse. Second, the current urbanization of the high-
technology sector, characterized by concentrated networks of firms employing high-skill,
high-wage labor-power in flexible work relations, has created a fertile political opening for
bicycle advocates to claim a role for bicycle infrastructure in this densely interlinked
spatial economy. In these processes, the bicycle acts as a “dense transfer point” (Foucault
1978, p.103) for discourses of urban development, as advocates are articulated (Laclau
1977) into, and decisively shape, the contemporary logic of capital accumulation, writing
themselves into narratives of urban livability in a moment of hypergentrification.
Gentrification and the Bicycle
A growing cohort of scholars has taken up the question of the bicycle’s new role in
shaping urban space and social life. The most systematic treatment appears in the work of
Pucher and Buehler, who make a statistical case that bicycle infrastructure investment
increases mode share (Buehler & Pucher 2012; Pucher et al. 2011; see also Dill & Voros
2007), briefly noting the fact that the highest rates of cycling and infrastructure provision
are in gentrified areas of urban cores and college towns but not pursuing the underlying
forces at work. Horton (2006) and Furness (2010) explore the performance of
countercultural identity through the bicycle, equally operative in Critical Mass as in the
community bicycle workshop, but largely do not link bicycling culture to broader shifts of
capital, labor and cultural production to urban cores. While the more journalistic
accounts of Mapes (2009) and Wray (2008) take this question up, they tend to frame the
“revitalization” driven by bike culture as largely positive.
This paper argues, in keeping with Lugo (2013b; 2013a), that to make any sense
of the rise of urban cycling in the United States its relation to gentrification must be
properly understood. Specifically, at a moment when the changing political economy of
many cities makes more localized patterns of mobility viable for highly educated, flexibly
employed segments of the labor market, and livability serves as a capitalizable municipal
asset, bicycling plays a key role in the social production of ecologically responsible and
politically progressive gentrifying subjects. A new wave of cyclists rooted in
environmentalist and social justice-based critiques of automobility (Horton 2006), often
marginal to the gentrification process (Rose 1984, p.58), are drawn to and shape
“authentic” urban places to minimize their car dependence. Indeed, with automobility
seemingly in decline among the young and highly educated (Davis & Baxandall 2013), the
bicycle represents the creativity and economic dynamism of urban newcomers and their
high-value labor-power, putting livability on the municipal economic growth agenda
(Florida, 2011). In short, the bicycle conveys value not reducible to capital but increasingly
essential to the narrative of its “return to the city” (Smith 1979).
Critical to the production of these new subjects of gentrification (Rose 1984) is the
longer history of 20th century US housing policy, which both promoted ecologically and
socially destructive extensive suburbanization and created low-cost centrally-located
urban places through racialized disinvestment (Jackson 1987). Given this history, the car-
free identity both acts as an embodied critique of decades of sprawl (Horton 2006) and
takes shape in the low-cost centrally-located spaces disinvestment created. While the
environmentalist and progressive ideologies of gentrifiers are well recognized (Danyluk &
Ley 2007), equally important is their participation in shaping urban form itself in pursuit
of spatial solutions to social problems (Rose 1984, pp.65–6). This represents an important
shift. In the millennial wave of gentrification, recognizable parcel-level changes associated
with the “gentrification aesthetic” (Ley 2003), such as new cafes, art galleries, bars and
restaurants, as well as investments in housing, are buttressed by equally visible
transformations to public space—the “consumption fund” (Harvey 2007)—like bicycle
infrastructure, sidewalk improvements, park upgrades, and so on. In contemporary San
Francisco, key among these are improvements that both enable and engender new
mobilities among certain users of urban space. If the neighborhood scale decisively shapes
the "rent gap" (Hammel 1999), these “extra-economic” factors enter the circulation of
capital through the built environment by rendering certain valued residents visible through
municipal investment in infrastructure.
The upshot, for bicycle advocates, is a finely grained dialectical tension between
complicity and cooptation.1 As Harvey argues, the construction of place, as an important
dimension of urban entrepreneurialism, enrolls disparate actors with contradictory
interests and attachments to place into the process of capital accumulation (1989, p. 11;
see also Hardt & Negri, 2011). Recalling Rose (1984), however, these revitalization efforts
also in part reflect the produced desires for a certain form and appearance of urban space
1 I am grateful for my anonymous referees for calling my attention to the need to address this question.
(Ley 1994), in this case corresponding to the discourse of livability and environmentalist
critiques of sprawl. Gentrification thus becomes a mechanism to act through individuals
toward the goal of a more ecologically responsible and culturally cosmopolitan space
(Checker 2011), with the bicycle both its vector and symbol. This speaks to a shift in the
cyclist identity itself, from insurgent citizen in the car-dominated urban fabric,
exemplified by Critical Mass, to appropriate subject of the contemporary de-sprawling
and reconcentrating “smart growth” boom city.
Mobility and Spatial Restructuring in the San Francisco Bay Area
These dynamics must be understood in the context of the massive reorganization of
wealth and poverty over the past decade in the San Francisco Bay Area. Employment
deconcentration, rising urban core rents, and new-build exurban growth driven by the
housing bubble combined to propel the “suburbanization of poverty” (Berube &
Kneebone 2013) a key feature of the current boom. Meanwhile, the bursting of the
housing bubble in 2008 briefly suppressed but had no long-term dampening effect on
housing costs in cores, particularly San Francisco, while foreclosures devastated eastern
Contra Costa County, where the exurban building boom was most pronounced
(Soursourian 2012). Schafran has correctly referred to this dynamic as an “urban crisis,”
refusing the standard narrative of sprawl as a distinctly “suburban” phenomenon (2012).
The upshot is that the transportation system now skews toward the ability of the
affluent to avoid car dependence. Given that much of the Bay Area’s postwar
development was predicated on cheap oil, subsidized road-building and car dependence,
mass transit coverage is low, and existing mass transit systems were designed primarily to
serve white-collar job centers (Hartman 2002). Bike-friendly CalTrain, a higher-cost
commuter railroad line, provides access to the wealthy cities of the Peninsula and Silicon
Valley, while certain swaths of Alameda and Contra Costa counties are served by the Bay
Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system, which runs at full capacity. These comprise
the only realistic transit options for inter-county commuting paired with a bicycle. For
residents living beyond the catchments of these systems, non-car commuting must be
done by infrequent bus or by bike on unsafe roads. Few options therefore exist for the
suburban working class other than car dependence, since even planned transit extensions
already lag far behind the actual patterns of housing production and migration (Schafran
Moreover, since the 1980s office outsourcing boom “job sprawl” is uneven across
sectors and occupations, with retail trade, construction and manufacturing employment
most decentralized and finance/insurance, information, educational services and utilities
least so (Kneebone 2009; Cervero & Landis 1992; Bardhan & Kroll 2003; Walker & The
Bay Area Study Group 1990). This both exacerbates car dependence in outer areas by
discouraging solid public transit links between disparate job and residential centers
(Terplan et al. 2009) and unevenly distributes benefits based on the division of labor even
in areas with public transit coverage. With less access to secure jobs, many working class
residents of the region face a public transportation system unlikely to work in their favor.
Thus, the real gains in bicycle space in select areas of core cities must be seen in
the context of a vast, intensely car-dependent region in which the possibility of replacing
car trips by bicycle or mass transit is supremely uneven in distribution. Moreover, in-
migrants to emerging job-rich areas reap the benefits of the density of services and transit
links that in earlier decades offset the economic disadvantages of living in the
underinvested core, because their occupations have spatially concentrated. During the
1960s the construction of BART stations in poor neighborhoods caused massive
disruptions and residential devaluation; now these same stations serve as key selling points
for gentrification. Meanwhile, decreases in car commuting of up to 4% in transit-rich
areas nearer to cores (Davis & Baxandall 2013) have not been matched in increasingly
African-American exurban cities in eastern Contra Costa County like Antioch,
Brentwood and Oakley (US Census Bureau 2012). Smart growth densification strategies
such as Plan Bay Area, part of California’s climate change mitigation plans under Senate
Bill 375, are likely to exacerbate this problem by steering capitalist land development
toward intensive, transit-oriented growth predicated on rising land prices and relatively
weak affordable housing controls (Soursourian 2012).
The spatial contradiction is as follows. A crisis in the logic of extensive exurban
development, provoked by the implosion of a housing bubble dependent on the issuance
of unsound mortgages (Bardhan & Walker 2011; Newman 2009), has stranded working
class populations, many first-time homebuyers among them (Newman & Schafran 2013),
in the “drive ‘til you qualify [for a mortgage]” fringes that impose high transportation
burdens. Moreover, these areas are politically and organizationally difficult to retrofit for
walking and cycling as long as regional governance pursues densification strategies that
depend on developer incentives. In response, the linked set of practices characterizing
livability planning, initiated by bicycle, pedestrian and transit advocates in the interest of
social and ecological justice (Jonas et al. 2011), are now strategically useful to overcome
the crisis and initiate a new wave of accumulation. Influential urbanists like Christopher
Leinberger now proclaim the “death of the fringe suburb,” urging cities to prioritize
livability on purely economic grounds, and livability advocates nod in approval
(Leinberger 2011; T. Snyder 2012).
While bicycle advocates increasingly recognize the need to reach beyond their
traditional base of white, highly educated professionals, and have made important strides
in this regard (League of American Bicyclists 2012), the spatiality of the current cycling
boom works against them. Moreover, a focus on commuting, the only bicycle use
measured by the American Community Survey, obscures the vast scope of cycling
practices not related to work, while the political value of showcasing valued populations
astride bicycles is enormous given the uncertainty of bicycle and pedestrian funding at the
federal level (Snyder 2013b). Thus, despite its clear benefits, when treated as a value-
added amenity in a sharply class- and race-divided society, livability operates as a mode
of exclusionary development (Soursourian 2012; Henderson 2013).
The Valencia Street Road Diet
With these broader regional dynamics generating a political economy in which the
bicycle is now a viable transportation mode for shorter urban core trips, bicycle
infrastructure has become intertwined with real estate-driven capital accumulation
through very contingent, localized political struggles. These moments have synchronized
with furious bouts of gentrification. From 1996 to 2001, amid the torrid first dot-com
boom, a key material, ideological and practical linkage between bicycle infrastructure,
cosmopolitan urbanity and economic growth was made, as SFBC members turned to
Valencia Street, a main corridor of the majority-Latino working class Mission District
into a proving ground for the bicycle’s integration into the capitalist city. This initial foray
into the official planning process by the then volunteer-led SFBC helped form new
institutional relationships in closer alignment with economic growth objectives, and
generated powerful policy discourses that continue to circulate (Peck J. & Theodore N.
In 1996, the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT) released a
draft of what would be the city’s first bicycle-specific transportation plan. But even before
the plan was finalized, it was criticized for omitting bike lanes on four-lane Valencia
Street, a popular cycling route and commercial strip already seeing early hints of
gentrification. The Mission District at the time was main node in a growing bike culture,
politicized by the countercultural ferment of Critical Mass, which began in 1992.
Volunteers from these networks, led by Mary Brown, a part-time SFBC staff member,
began conducting outreach among businesses and community groups for a “road diet” to
remove a car travel lane and add bike lanes in either direction.
When Mayor Willie Brown staged an ill-advised crackdown on Critical Mass in
July 1997 that descended into a police riot, SFBC director Dave Snyder reluctantly took
the opportunity to frame the ensuing controversy as stemming from San Francisco’s
failure to implement the bike plan (D. Snyder 2012a). In conjunction with SFBC efforts,
Supervisor José Medina brought a resolution authorizing a trial road diet before the
Board of Supervisors in 1998, it passed during a meeting packed with bike activists and
Critical Massers. The DPT’s mandated one-year evaluation focused on the road diet’s
effects on traffic safety, and identified a 144% increase in rates of cycling (Sallaberry
2000). But more important for how the project was subsequently interpreted was a public
policy thesis circulated in 2003 by Emily Drennen of San Francisco State University.
Based on interviews with business owners, managers and employees on Valencia,
conducted four years after the road diet, Drennen argued that not only had it not harmed
the business climate, but businesses actually felt it stimulated commercial activity (2003).
While the claim that bicycling is good for business—now an article of faith of the bike
movement (Snyder 2013a)—was thus made some time after the first burst of
gentrification of the corridor it speaks to the conceptual identification of cycling and the
road diet with the profound social transformation of the corridor.
Thus, while the bicycle would be critical to the new identity of the corridor in the
2000s, Dave Snyder recalled that few involved in planning the road diet in 1997
anticipated the role of bicycling in gentrification to come, seeing the economic argument
for infrastructure as a convenience (D. Snyder 2012b). To others like Mary Brown, who
described the changes brewing as a feeling that “the horses were loose,” the bicycle
seemed involved but not a decisive factor. She recalled an outsider, alternative, largely
white bike subculture, full of “environmentally-tinged,” intermediately employed young
people reminiscent of Godfrey’s “shock troops” of gentrification (1997). Many worked for
local non-profits, which would later be squeezed out by commercial turnover during the
dot-com boom. These “scrappy and non-professional” (Brown 2013) advocates seem a far
cry from the current explosion of downtown professional-class bike commuters, but their
engagement with space as “marginal gentrifiers” (Rose 1984) laid the groundwork for
The boom of 1996-2000, which drove rents in San Francisco up 225% and
median home prices to three times the national average by 2002 (Walker 2006), set the
stage for a continued round of reinvestment on Valencia Street through the 2000s. The
corridor went from a working-class district with a primarily Latino character to one of the
most rapidly gentrifying areas in San Francisco, festooned with chic cafes, restaurants and
bars, proudly at the center of the transformation of the Mission into the “hottest
neighborhood for residential real estate” (Marie 2013). Formerly low Mission rents have
risen nearly to the astonishing citywide median of $3200 per month (Kuchar 2014). The
population of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher in the six Census tracts that
form the Valencia corridor more than doubled to over 50% between 1990 and 2012, as
did the percentage holding business, finance, management and professional occupations.
But despite the boom, median household incomes in these tracts have stagnated for all
but non-Hispanic whites, who are now the plurality at 45%, while the percentage of
households earning over $200,000 (in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars) more than doubled
to 13% since 2000 (US Census Bureau 1990; 2000; 2012).
In addition to its role as a metonym for San Francisco’s gentrification, Valencia
Street is now at the center of the city’s bicycle culture (see Figure 1). The number of
cyclists passing 17th and Valencia at peak time nearly doubled from 2006 to 2011,
compared to an estimated 71% in the city as a whole over the same period (San Francisco
Municipal Transportation Agency 2012). Over 120 new bike parking racks have been
installed on Valencia since 2000, including ten in-street corrals since 2010, and eleven
new bike shops have located on Valencia or within 5 blocks since 1999.2 A “green wave”
of traffic signals, installed in 2011 times roadway flow to bicycle speeds of 13 miles per
hour. At peak times bike volumes approach traffic jam levels. If San Francisco, with the
Mission its centerpiece, has earned a consistent place near the top of the shifting
hierarchy of bicycle-friendly American cities, this has coincided with a nearly recession-
2 Data retrieved from http://data.sf.gov.
proof property market that has cemented its reputation as one of the most expensive.
Planning for Gentrification: The “Valencia Epiphany”
Successes in transforming Valencia Street consolidated the SFBC’s role representing
cyclist interests and empowered it to collaborate with other organizations to plan a new
wave of spatial innovation in San Francisco. A key collaboration was the Great Streets
Project, between the SFBC, Livable Streets and San Francisco Planning and Urban
Research (SPUR), which sought to “test, analyze and institutionalize placemaking” (San
Francisco Department of Public Works 2007). The project also brought in superstar
planners Gil Peñalosa from Bogotá and Janette Sadik-Khan from New York, famed
experts in the global circuits of progressive urbanism. Their message was, as Tom
Radulovich of Livable City put it to me, “We're your people [practitioners, not unrealistic
advocates], and we'll tell you how to do it” (Radulovich 2012). Realism in planning
practice, in this framing, comes neither from hierarchical mandates nor political ferment
from below, but horizontally from elsewhere. Moreover, the Great Streets Project worked
in the context of a spurious injunction, won in 2006 by political gadfly Rob Anderson,
which halted implementation of the bicycle plan until it was overturned in Superior
Court in 2010. This forced advocates to focus on innovation and work to build broader
political support for livability planning.
From 2005 to 2009, the Great Streets Project developed streetscape plans for
major corridors in San Francisco’s core, including Market, Valencia and Divisadero
Streets. Improvements implemented between 2009 and 2011 primarily focused on
beautification, lighting, traffic calming “bulb-outs” and sidewalk improvements (San
Francisco Department of Public Works 2007), adopting a “complete streets” narrative to
signal a break with the logic of maximum car efficiency (San Francisco Department of
Public Works 2010). The project concluded in 2012, after completing changes to roughly
a dozen corridors and creating lasting links between the organizations involved,
particularly pro-growth SPUR and rising star SFBC (Henderson 2013).
The momentum for similar projects on other key streets like Polk, adjacent to the
notorious Tenderloin area and Divisadero, a gentrifying strip in the formerly African-
American Western Addition, came from the conceptual shift that Tom Radulovich called
the “Valencia Epiphany”:
[T]he prediction [for the Valencia “road diet”] was this was going to be terrible
for businesses, right? Even though no parking was lost, they were going to lose
roadway capacity putting in bike lanes, somehow it was going to be bad for the
street, and it was going to be these horrible traffic nightmares… and nothing
happened! It slowly became a better street to bike on, you know, all the businesses
were doing fine if not better, and everything just chugged along. So that created
this understanding within the MTA that road diet works, and again road diet's a
really cheap thing to do… (Radulovich 2012)
Moreover, the temporary character of the Great Streets Project, which treated these
corridors as laboratories of practice, should not obscure its more durable contribution: the
reconfiguration of expertise, formation of new institutional connections and production of
new spaces of planning. As Radulovich noted, “[S]omewhere between 2006 and 2008 it
just tipped… It's kind of funny, at some point you realize, 'Oh wow, we won.' You won in
the sense that you won the argument” (ibid. 2012). The Great Streets Project was thus a
mode of “winning the argument,” by drawing on the global network of urban innovation
and “mobile policy” (McCann 2011; Peck J. & Theodore N. 2010), bicycle advocacy in
particular, to loosen the grip of core normative practices still in place from the era of high
modernism and auto-centricity. Key among these new connections was the alignment of
the SFBC with SPUR, which sutured cycling advocacy to market-oriented growth while
serving a spectacular role in a Gavin Newsom mayoral administration loath to pursue
Moreover, these gains refracted through other institutions. For Dave Snyder, the
2011 appointment of pro-bike Ed Reiskin as head of the MTA—whose commissioner
once declared Valencia would have bike lanes “over my dead body”—was a major
turning point (D. Snyder 2012b). Cheryl Brinkman, former director of Livable City and
involved in the SFBC, was appointed to the MTA board in 2010 and elected Vice-
Chairman in 2012. Radulovich, who also serves on the BART board of directors, noted:
[There is] certainly a group of people with a similar sensibility … that are now in
positions of authority here and there, and you're like, "Wow, that's sort of odd,
that we're kind of infiltrating the organizations." And we're now, not the
establishment… but at least we're in institutions … and can kind of advocate those
points of view from a position of authority (2012).
These gains had also initiated a shift within the SFBC. Previously a ragtag organization of
three staffers, in the span of just over a decade the SFBC has become a professionalized
institution dependent as well on foundation grants and corporate sponsorship, a change
that Henderson calls its “progressive-neoliberal hybridization” (2013). Its ranks of over
12,000 dues-paying members are heavily concentrated in gentrified and gentrifying areas
of the Mission, Dogpatch, Hayes Valley and Potrero Hill, and very low numbers in the
less affluent, less centrally located outer neighborhoods. Meanwhile, pent-up by the
injunction and the glacial speed of the planning process, city’s burst of cycling energy has
synchronized with a new stage of explosive economic growth, now with a municipal
leadership that recognizes the value of bicycle infrastructure for leveraging accumulation.
A Better Market Street for Whom?: Participatory Gentrification and the Aesthetics of Livability
By the end of the 2000s, the momentum of this growing institutional network placed the
SFBC in a position to participate in sweeping changes to San Francisco’s central
thoroughfare, Market Street, a key but unsafe bicycle corridor advocates had long sought
to reconfigure and the most prized target of the reinvestment ambitions of the city’s
development machine (Hartman 2002). This convergence of interests between
development-oriented actors and progressive organizations, whose memberships reflect
the increasingly urban orientation of the young professional class, may be succeeding
where prior moves led by the Mayor’s office have fallen short, by building the spatial
forms most desired by progressive activists into the agenda of downtown development.
The area to receive the most intensive investment is known as “Mid-Market,”
once a thriving theater district, where Market passes southwest through a zone of
discount retail stores, derelict storefronts and theaters, single room occupancy (SRO)
hotels, and a large homeless population. The area, bearing a dismal reputation as a
crime-ridden zone of social disorder, is one of the last refuges of the poor forever
relocated by development projects (Hartman 2002; Godfrey 1997), and presents a classic
rent gap on a dramatic scale (Central Market Partnership 2011). Its transformation holds
the key to the permanent embourgeoisment of central San Francisco, and for nearly half a
century San Francisco’s power structure has sought to spur its recapitalization.
The newest attempt to transform the neighborhood is the Better Market Street
Project, a collaboration between the Department of Public Works, the Planning
Department, the MTA, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and the
Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. The Better Market Street
Project continues the efforts of earlier initiatives like the Great Streets Project and the
Market Street Study Action Plan, in which the SFBC was a key participant since as early
as 1998, to produce a space adequate to the current conditions of accumulation in San
Francisco. Planners hope to create:
[a] renewed Market Street [that] will anchor neighborhoods, link public open
spaces and connect the City's Civic Center with cultural, social, convention,
tourism, and retail destinations, as well as with the regional transit hub that will be
centered at the planned Transbay Terminal. The vision is to create Market Street
as a place to stop and spend time, meet friends, watch people while sitting in a
café, or just stroll and take in the scene (City and County of San Francisco n.d.).
The plan, timed to coincide with repaving in 2017, integrates the thoroughly gentrified
Mission and Hayes Valley and the gentrifying Western Addition with the financial district
and the Embarcadero and Powell Street tourist zones, with Market Street as the
Organized around the main themes of “Place,” “Mobility” and “Economic
Development,” the symbolic economy of the plan reveals a tension lodged in the core of
livability planning practice, between generating open-ended spaces of possibility and
exerting the “conduct of conduct” of bodies in and through space (Foucault et al. 1991).
At the second Better Market Street Project workshop in July 2012, the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority presented design concepts to a group of about 75 participants,
most of them white San Franciscans involved in the planning world. Design concepts
were divided into themes, with groups of us rotating through an array of stations,
debating designs with facilitators and each other.
At the “Placemaking” station, the facilitator emphasized designs to accentuate the
corridor’s “one-street” character as a holistic space with “new opportunities for synergy.”
“Streetlife Zones,” displayed at another station, would be “places for new experiences”
that would celebrate the area’s diversity and “invite activities” rather than exclude. These
zones would “activate” underutilized space, “inviting people to behave in a more open
manner,” a framing responding to the perceptions of danger and disorder that are often
amplified in revanchist discourse regarding Market Street (Biddle 2013; c.f. Smith 2007).
During a discussion at another station about limiting car traffic, one attendee argued that
the area was “gonna be scary” because fewer drivers might see and discourage illicit
activity. A cyclist responded, “Cars don’t make the street safer,” to which the respondent
angrily replied, “Bikes don’t make the street safer.” At the “Public Space” station, when
pressed about “criminal elements” a facilitator stressed that the goal was “not to take
away invitations to those people but invite more people”—implicitly well-behaved,
middle-class subjects—“and those uses will go away.” The pervasive trope of invitation,
rather than exclusion, frames a governmental role for (certain) cyclists and pedestrians as
“eyes on the street” (Jacobs 1992), regulating the behavior of fellow street users by
example and surveillance rather than force and discipline
Clearly, in the context of a sudden surge of property investment, the need to
“activate” Mid-Market requires deactivating, sidelining and rendering unwelcome other
uses to which the street is currently put by the city’s poor, vividly recalling Engels’
comments regarding the housing question (Harvey 2000). If the livable street is one where
cosmopolitan citizens are encouraged to “hang out,” using these activities as frontline
efforts to gentrify Mid-Market raises the question of how to exclude certain practices of
the poor without formally excluding any users. But, remarkably, ordinary progressive
organizations, not financiers and modern robber barons, are those seeking to invest the
Market Street landscape with the spatial referents of a gracious, cosmopolitan and
bourgeois form of livability.
In 2010 the striping of buffered green bike lanes on portions of the street and
several mandatory right-turn lanes for cars fulfilled some advocates’ hopes for the
corridor as a whole. According to the SFBC, Market now boasts the heaviest bicycle
traffic west of the Mississippi, with bicycle counts nearly doubling during peak hours
between 2006 and 2011 and cyclists often outnumbering private cars during rush hour
(San Francisco Bicycle Coalition 2013). Moreover, unlike the quaintly gentrified strip of
Valencia, Market is a commuter trunk line with streetcars and a subway beneath; the
inclusion of bicycles, however tenuous, in the centerpiece of the city symbolizes their
arrival as a respectable commute mode.
Hi-tech, High Rent and the Mid-Market Boom
These efforts to remake Market as more livable, begun at a time when the area seemed
ungentrifiable, have reached the final planning stages at the precise moment of a torrid
second tech boom. The current discourse explaining the shift of tech “back to the city”
focuses on San Francisco’s character and “authenticity,” in keeping with the cultural
valorization of urban grit (Zukin 2011). In this frame, the city generates innovation and
attracts valued labor-power in ways Silicon Valley’s suburban cocoons can’t (Florida
2013). Key to this is the operationalization of livability through the transformation of the
As in the 1990s, the current boom is concentrated in the former warehouse
district stretching from the South of Market area (SOMA) southward to the edges of the
Mission and Potrero Hill (Temple 2013; Florida 2013). Recently, however, larger
companies are eschewing Silicon Valley and staking a claim to Mid-Market, where their
financial weight and workforce mass is driving a more intensive round of reinvestment
and placing unprecedented pressure on the office market. Since 2009, tech firms in San
Francisco have added more than 23,000 jobs and leased 22% of city office space, 40%
more than during the previous boom (Temple 2013), while financial and legal services
have shrunk (Dineen 2012).
To steer growth toward Mid-Market, in April 2011 the Board of Supervisors, led
enthusiastically by Mayor Ed Lee, approved a six-year payroll tax exemption on new
hires specifically for tech firms relocating to the Mid-Market and Tenderloin areas
(Wohlsen 2011), a move former Supervisor Chris Daly called a “land grab” (Daly 2011).
The public discourse surrounding the policy focuses on Twitter, which had reportedly
explored expansion outside of the city, but the exemption creates a much more thorough
framework for reinvestment in the corridor, with targeted zones of anticipated investment
that map onto the few remaining affordable areas.
From an employer location perspective, the deal was a success, with 17 companies
adding nearly 8,000 jobs between 2011 and 2013. Twitter offices now dominate 10th and
Market streets, joining One Kings Lane, Yelp and Square, and soon Yahoo, Spotify and
Dolby Laboratories. But, by some estimates, the foregone revenue from the six-year
payroll tax exclusion deal with Twitter alone will top $20 million (Bowe 2013).
Meanwhile, the community benefits agreements signed by six firms, including Twitter,
consist mostly of donated labor for human capital-building outreach, has delivered
negligible results for longtime residents (Ha 2013).
A residential building boom at a massive scale has followed these firms, with more
than 5,500 new, primarily luxury, housing units across 40 developments, slated for or
under construction. One early example of the trend was NEMA (NEw MArket), a 750-
unit, 37-story luxury condominium tower that opened at 10th and Market in July 2013,
whose brochure boasts:
A pioneer in a city that loves to be a cultural pioneer, NEMA joins many high-
profile technology companies making transformative investments along Market
Street in Mid-Market, as well as upscale retail stores, hip restaurants, boutique
hotels, and arts organizations that are establishing new locations in the
neighborhood. Here, NEMA’s residents will find themselves at the heart of the
excitement in a trend-setting community that truly is “Made in San Francisco.”
An omnipresent element in NEMA’s imagery of the neighborhood, though notably not
the building itself, is the bicycle. Huckleberry Bicycles, opened at 7th and Market in 2011
by the treasurer of the Central Market Community Benefits District, figures prominently
in an online NEMA ad, which emphasizes the ability to bike or walk to any nearby
destination from one’s stylish condo. Other developments have adopted this branding
strategy as well; the website for a 36-unit condo development at 14th and Valencia
portrays a row of cyclists on its main page, boasting locally owned bike shops nearby.
Vara, close by at 15th and Mission, features high-design racks and even a bicycle repair
station behind its imposing gates. Livability in this case literally adds value to spatial
investments. As Henderson puts it, “bicycling is not just hip but also sells real estate”
(2013), a lesson San Francisco capitalists are rapidly learning (Sheridan 2013).
At one level, this is simply classic place-marketing. But at another, it shows the
alignment of cycling culture with the discursive and material branding of changing urban
space (Greenberg 2008). As flexible, individualized transportation option characteristic of
urban life, cycling references the innovative entrepreneur (Florida 2011; Russell 2012;
Bernstein & Ryssdal 2012). On a call-in radio program analyzing the tech boom in 2012,
a caller argued, “[Tech] employees come here to choose this lifestyle. They want to bike
to work, they want to go to cafes… they’re inherently progressive… San Francisco is
winning the global battle for talent” (Campbell 2012). The new face of cycling, the
relaxed, savvy urbanite astride a Dutch-style bicycle, signals the inclusion of bicycles into
city space as a legitimate commute mode, and the valuation of the bodies they carry.
This valuation was made concrete in 2012 with the Bicycle Access Bill, written in
quasi-partnership between the SFBC, progressive councilman (and avid cyclist) John
Avalos and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). The bill mandates
bicycle access and secure parking in all downtown office buildings of 75 feet or more,
signaling the acceptance by a major fraction of San Francisco’s capitalist class that
professional employers need to provide secure indoor bike parking in order to attract
“talent.” At the SFBC’s 2012 annual Golden Wheel Awards, attended by all major
players in San Francisco’s power elite, Executive Director Leah Shahum honored BOMA
for its participation: “Thank you BOMA for building bridges and partnering with the San
Francisco Bicycle Coalition for a stronger economy and a healthier workforce” (San
Francisco Bicycle Coalition 2012).
John Bozeman, BOMA’s public affairs manager, insisted when we spoke that the
bill was driven by the tenants BOMA represents, who were “follow[ing] the market
trend” of younger companies improving access for cyclists as a perk to attract a talented
workforce. “Ten years ago,” Bozeman told me, “BOMA wouldn’t have supported the
legislation. It’s a confluence of safer city riding and the need for secure bike parking.”
Indeed, BOMA opposed a similar measure in 2002 (Jones 2012). Bozeman took no
position on the transformation of Market Street, but offered a more general comment
that any street design should be guided by the question: “Is it good for the city?”—
understood here as downtown firms. The Bicycle Access Bill, of course, only affects an
already privileged sector of San Francisco’s working class, who work in downtown office
buildings and commute by bicycle from nearby gentrified areas or by CalTrain and
BART. While salutary, it shows no broad commitment to the bicycle beyond its
conveyance of the emerging elite.
The deleterious effects of San Francisco’s dizzying boom are now widely
recognized. Discourse decrying the deep social gulf between the tech elite and the
neglected poor abounds; Salon.com founder David Talbot called the new San Francisco a
“Blade Runner kind of society,” arguing on KQED’s Forum that “everything that attracted
these young digital workers to the city is in peril” (Talbot 2012; Campbell 2012). Some
warn that San Francisco is losing its “cool” edge, and its middle class, as artists and other
creative workers pour into Oakland across the bay (Jones & Chanoff 2012). Evictions
under the Ellis Act, which permits landlords to remove properties from the rental market
and sell them as condominiums, are on the rise (Anti-Eviction Mapping Project 2014).
Even TechCrunch has made the effort to educate its often politics-averse tech readership on
the complexities of housing in San Francisco (Cutler 2014). Meanwhile, SPUR head
Gabriel Metcalf has taken a soft neoliberal position, supporting affordable housing but
arguing for a relaxation of land use regulations to encourage development and increase
supply (Metcalf, 2013). We find in contemporary San Francisco not the nasty revanchism
of Giuliani’s New York (Smith 2007), but a complex politics of the production of space,
saturated with class and racial tensions, in which self-understood progressives work
tirelessly to make the city more livable just as “livability” becomes a prime source of value
added to the spatial commodity of urban living.
In this piece I have tried to place the dynamic growth of bike culture in San Francisco,
and its institutionalization in urban policy, into the regional context of economic
restructuring and a dramatic demographic shift. The political gains and institutional
linkages pursued by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition in its ascent from “scrappy” to
respectable must be understood in the context of a strong cultural and economic shift
back to the city by young professionals and the firms that employ them.
By the same token, the rising importance of the qualities of place for the supply and
characteristics of labor-power sought by high-tech firms has meant that bicycle
infrastructure and bicycling culture play a dialectically related role in producing demand
for centrally located urban space. Thus, the efforts of progressives to produce more
livable urban space have synchronized with successive waves of gentrification that imperil
the overall livability—in a larger sense—of the city itself.
Infrastructural and political successes do not simply mean smooth sailing for
bicycle advocacy; instead, the bike movement is increasingly compressed between a right-
wing backlash and credible claims to its tacit involvement in gentrification. A particularly
bitter fight emerged in 2013 between a group of Polk Street merchants fearing parking
loss and newer forces, the SFBC among them, pushing for a road diet on the corridor.
Opponents of the bike lane vocally cast the MTA as an extension of the SFBC.
Moreover, by mid-2013, it became clear that the Market Street plan could not support a
protected cycle-track, the global standard for bicycle facilities, for which the SFBC had
fiercely pushed (Patel 2012). An alternative offered by the MTA, placing a cycle-track on
parallel Mission Street, could rob the infrastructure of its spectacular value. Meanwhile,
while advocates at a national level now prioritize a more inclusive cycling culture (League
of American Bicyclists 2012), gentrification is rapidly pushing these populations from the
spaces where bicycle advocates have concentrated their efforts, in the Bay Area and
elsewhere. In Portland, bicycle infrastructure became a flash point for simmering tensions
over race, class and urban change in 2009; since then, planners have been hard at work
repairing the damage, but gentrification has not demonstrably slowed. In Washington,
D.C., rhetoric asserting Mayor Adrian Fenty’s support for “dog parks and bike lanes”
contributed to his unseating in 2010 (Schwartzman & Jenkins 2010). These dynamics
have imbued the bicycle with “surplus antagonism” (Ortner 2006, p.20), a metonymic
condensation of racialized and classed processes of change.
Nevertheless, three potential countervailing dynamics are worth addressing. First
are the important new efforts to bridge the gap between bicycle advocacy and groups
focused on the issues affecting people of color in San Francisco and Oakland, among
them the SFBC’s collaboration with economic justice organization People Organizing to
Win Employment Rights (POWER) and the East Bay Bicycle Coalition’s connections
with Red, Bike and Green, Rich City Rides and Oakland Spokes, all groups engaging
African-American cyclists. Second, new funding priorities and geographical focus to
infrastructure and housing investments under Plan Bay Area, could, with political
pressure, help transform the streetscapes of poorer, more car-dominated suburban cities
while preserving housing access. Lastly, “super-gentrification” (Lees 2000) now threatens
even San Francisco's middle class, which composes the primary base of the SFBC, and
could force the issue of housing onto the bicycle advocacy agenda.
At stake is the broader issue of whether livability is a transformative use-value akin
to the “right to the city” (Lefebvre et al. 1996) or an amenity that adds to exchange-value
in space. As advocates win a legitimate role in planning, in part through the convenience
of the economic argument for infrastructure, the Lefebvrian demand embedded in bicycle
politics to "change life" has evolved into a politics of planning for “quality of life” (in
Gottdiener, 1985, p. 153); thus does livability become useful to the capitalist production
of space. As I have shown above, this articulation between bicycle advocacy and capitalist
accumulation through designing for livability is not given but historically contingent and
produced. This does not mean it is easily reversible, however. As a rising political backlash
against gentrification in San Francisco forces issues of affordability and inclusion, it
remains to be seen whether new trajectories can be found for bicycle advocacy as a tool of
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