Editor’s Note: This op-ed has been updated with clarifications and responses from the SFMTA and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

It was a routine SFMTA board meeting on May 7.

On the SFMTA’s online public agenda was a proposal to award a $1,494,736 contract to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Education Fund over a period of three years, with two options to renew the agreement for a period of 1 year each, for a total of two additional years.

There are no age or gender requirements for the classes. Demographic data from the Bicycle Coalition reveals that 69% of attendees identify as women, and 74% of attendees are typically between 21 and 50 years old, with a few classes for very young children.

Originally listed as an item on the consent calendar, the resolution (Item 10.4) became a matter of discussion after a community member asked to comment.

The board questioned why the Bicycle Coalition was the only nonprofit to receive the city’s $1.5 million contract. Tracey Lin, SFMTA’s Travel Choices Manager, said that after the contracting team reached out to about 180 contacts and other organizations, the Bicycle Coalition Education Fund was the only nonprofit that ended up submitting a proposal to receive funds. “So only one bidder, so only one awardee?,” asked Board Vice Chair Stephanie Cajina. “It’s a red flag.”

Board Director Lydia So echoed Cajina’s concerns: “In my experience with other publicly contracting processes, is that if we ended up only having one person bidding on the contract … we actually will have to go back and redo the outreach for the [proposal] process. That’s the only way that is fair.” Ms. So said there are many legacy bicycle businesses that could also benefit from funding, and that SFMTA outreach and the contracting language might be keeping other groups from participating.

Another issue raised was the split between the Bicycle Coalition, a 501(c)4 advocacy group and the  Bicycle Coalition Education Fund, its 501(c)3 nonprofit arm. Christopher White, Interim Executive Director at San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said there was a clear division between the two entities, which have different boards and bank accounts. 

“I’ve been uncomfortable for some time with this practice,” said Board Director Steve Heminger. “On the one hand, providing public funds to an organization that, on the other hand, advocates in front of the board of the funder … I’m not alleging any conflict of interest, but I think the appearance weighs on me.” Heminger added that the Bicycle Coalition Education Fund “might have as well have been a sole source procurement,” and that next time they go through the contracting process, the SFMTA could have a different approach “that wouldn’t result in one bidder again.”

Despite issues raised by himself and the other board members, Heminger concluded that he “would rather not interrupt that workflow,” and recommended waiting until the three initial contract years are over to “do an analysis of alternative delivery.” 

By granting the Bicycle Coalition Education Fund great sums of money, we believe the SFMTA frees the Bicycle Coalition to hire a phalanx of lobbyists to influence city policy with Supervisors, commissioners, and city staff in all departments. In an email, Bicycle Coalition’s Krissa Cavouras has since responded to the original op-ed: “This contract explicitly does not allow any awarded funds to be used for lobbying work at all – that is why we are, and have always been, two legally separate entities.”

During public comment, several community members asked the board to delay the contract approval. “There has been a lot of trouble with transparency and nonprofits lately,” said Stephen Martin-Pinto, a Sunnyside resident and candidate in the District 7 race. “I believe that there could be more opportunities to rewrite the contract and break it into smaller parts so that it would be more manageable by other organizations.”

Another community member urged the board to spend the money on more buses and drivers for the 29 bus line, which serves 27 schools and brings students from Hunters’ Point, the Excelsior and the Mission to City College and SF State. The SFMTA Board has been aware of overcrowding on the 29 line since 2019, when students demanded more buses. Finally, in 2023, the SFMTA Board allocated one million dollars for the 29 line, which SFMTA management decided to use to eliminate bus stops to make the ride faster. Elders and the disabled objected. More buses were never added. According to the SFMTA, the money from the contract cannot be used for operating purposes.

Community member Michael Adams, a former contract compliance officer, added that “the public needs to see every word in that contract and how the public can access employment opportunities under that contract … The consequences of not doing that creates a lobbying group that is very narrowly focused on their own particular agenda.” In an email, SFMTA said the contract was available online prior to the May 7 board meeting and was also attached to the meeting agenda.

Ultimately, the board unanimously approved the new contract.

Corrections: The original op-ed incorrectly stated that the SFMTA contract awarded to the Bicycle Coalition Education Fund was amended at the last minute to include an additional million dollars to the overall five-year contract. Additionally, there was only one city attorney present at the board meeting, not five. The YBike program was not canceled for lack of SFMTA funds.

Patricia Arack is a retired tenured professor at City College of San Francisco. Tomasita Medál is a community member concerned about disability and elder rights.

Patricia Arack

Patricia Arack is a retired tenured professor at City College of San Francisco.

Tomasita Medál

Tomasita Medál is a community member concerned about disability and elder rights.