SFBC Turns 30: A Look Back at Our Roots Steven Bodzin

San Francisco is one of the only major U.S. cities where a commuting cyclist can expect to wait at red lights with a dozen other riders, day after day. It has mature, evolved cultures of messengers, mountain bikers, roadies, and regular commuters. With the SFBC celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, it's a great time to look back at how we have helped create today's city.

Early SFBC victories (1978): SFBC members Darryl Skrabak (left) and Charles Larribeau shake hands in front of the taped-over Caltrans sign on I-280 - the first stretch of freeway in the state opened to bicyclists. Photo courtesy of Darryl Skrabak
In the Beginning In 1971, the year the SFBC was started, the city was a different place. State law at the time allowed towns to restrict cycling however they saw fit. In the suburbs, ordinances were considered that would have banned bikes from downtown shopping streets. San Francisco's Broadway Tunnel was closed to bikes. Skyline Drive, the traditional route south from the city, lost all bike access when I-280 opened. When the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge opened in 1973, driving the ferry out of business, bikes lost access between Marin and the East Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge, totally closed to bikes until the 1960s, still forbade them after 9pm. Bikes weren't allowed on the Bay Bridge at all. Just before BART opened, the agency's real estate officer told a group of cyclists and hikers, "Bikes will be allowed on BART over my dead body." No buses had bike racks, there was no Caltrans bike shuttle over the Bay Bridge, and there were no trans-Bay ferries, as a Depression-era law forbade competition with toll bridges.

According to Darryl Skrabak, who has been an SFBC member since 1974, bicycle clubs at the time were populated by motorists who drove out to the country for their rides. If a cyclist showed up at a meeting on a bike, that person was treated with the suspicion usually reserved for those in striped jumpsuits and ankle shackles.

Into this environment, a San Franciscan named Jack Murphy launched the SFBC. Murphy was a civic-minded fellow frustrated with the increase of traffic on city streets. Skrabak says Murphy felt that bikes as transportation could contribute to a better city.

When Murphy founded the group, the SFBC was an actual coalition of representatives from the Sierra Club, San Francisco Tomorrow, San Francisco State University's bicycle club, and other interested groups. Cities throughout the United States now use the term "bicycle coalition" to mean a group of bicycle activists, as opposed to a recreational bike club.

Early Victories In the early 1970s, just as the SFBC was formed, a "bike boom" - due in part to the introduction of English Racer three-speeds and the European ten-speed - brought bicycles back into the mainstream consciousness. For a time, bikes outsold cars. Environmentalists, who were predicting the end of the private automobile due to the impending fuel shortages, promoted bicycles as the next big thing. Bicycling Magazine was founded in Berkeley, taking advantage of a blooming cycling culture in the East Bay.

Soon the SFBC started taking on big issues, such as getting Skyline Drive reopened to bicycles. It took three years of pressure from SFBC members, including three illegal "Freeway Bike-Ins," to get Caltrans to open the short stretch of I-280 that blocked bike access to Skyline. That victory led advocates throughout the state to demand freeway access. Today, over 1,000 miles of limited-access freeway are open to bikes statewide.

The SFBC and the new East Bay Bicycle Coalition took on BART's bike ban, quickly winning a permit system to allow bikes on the trains. Cyclists willing to take their clean bikes to BART headquarters in order to get a permit were finally able to traverse the Bay by transit.
Logo on "SFBC Newsletter #3," Feb. 1974

A Philosophical Split In the mid-1970s, the Department of Public Works wanted to put six lanes of traffic on upper Market Street. Murphy joined the neighborhood opposition, helping develop plans for off-street bike paths rather than a wide, barren street. When some cyclists opposed his plan, Murphy struggled for a time, and then left his leadership of the SFBC, disheartened by the in-fighting and convinced that painted bike lanes would quickly be turned into car lanes by the car-oriented city government. In the end, painted bike lanes were installed, rather than an off-street path, but Market never went to six mixed-traffic lanes.

For years, the Bicycle Coalition was against any sort of separated bike lanes or bike paths. Members argued that bikes fare best when operated as vehicles on streets with other vehicles, and that separate paths eventually lead to bikes not being allowed on the street. After all, the public discussion at the time was about how to eliminate the "bicycle problem," and the state legislature was considering a law that would have banned bikes from streets where sidepaths existed. Advocates of bike paths and lanes argued that dedicated facilities were more pleasant, encouraging cyclists of all skill levels, not just healthy young people with fast bikes, to get out and ride.

A Lull in the Movement The SFBC remained small throughout this time. At most, 10 people attended meetings, and the group never grew beyond about 150 members. Few people rode bikes for everyday transport. "I would ride to work down Market Street," says Skrabak, "And I would be alone. Coming home was the same, except maybe one or two messengers."

This wheel was part of the Tube TImes logo through much of the '90s.
Meanwhile, environmentalists all but ceased supporting bike issues. "It made them uncomfortable," Skrabak says. "The oil crisis showed them that they could support the idea of bikes, but they didn't actually want to get on one."

Through the late 1970s and 1980s, bicycle advocacy went through a quiet retrenchment. The few members who remained in the Bicycle Coalition spent their time opposing bike lanes. Despite periodic struggles, such as opening the Broadway Tunnel to bike traffic, there was no single burst of advocacy.

The letters-as-bike logo was used until '98, when the current chainring logo was born.
Gearing Back Up in the '90s Two events led to the SFBC's reemergence in the 1990s. In the late '80s, the mountain bike was born in Marin County. Mountain bikes physically provided a comfier ride than road bikes, and almost immediately, bike commuters started using mountain bikes to ride around town.

Meanwhile, the Reagan-Bush '80s had hardened activists into a habit of intense, radical direct action. In 1991, when President Bush started bombing Iraq, activists quickly took to the streets in tremendous numbers. Hundreds of cyclists from San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Marin, and elsewhere showed up for San Francisco's two 100,000-strong "No Blood for Oil" rallies.

A newcomer to San Francisco named Dave Snyder worked with longtime SFBC leader Skrabak to organize a meeting and release a new newsletter, the Tubular Times. The newsletter came out on October 27, 1990, and the group started meeting regularly the next summer. The early group had ambitious goals: a car-free Market Street; creating an official bike advisory committee; ensuring that the city spend its small bike budget on bikes rather than diverting it to the general fund; getting cars off of JFK Drive in the park; and getting night access to the Golden Gate Bridge. The group got into the news when it demanded that Highway 1 from Mount Tam to Stinson Beach, closed to cars by a landslide, remain a car-free bike and pedestrian route.

Members of the SFBC had as much autonomy as they had initiative. Interested cyclists went to meetings at the Pot & Pan restaurant, a Ninth Avenue greasy spoon serving Chinese food and ice cream. Many initiatives were born at these meetings, including early demands to open the Bay Bridge to bikes, and the successful effort to eliminate the BART bike permit.

Despite its humble beginnings, the early Bicycle Coalition set up many of today's victories. They fought for coordinated bike routes through the city. They opened the Broadway Tunnel, BART, and the state's freeway system. They helped to prevent Market Street from becoming a mini-freeway. The long history of organized bike advocacy shows what every political-minded person knows: The only way to get what you want is to demand it.

Editor's note: The history of the SFBC is a colorful one, and we regret that we didn't have enough space to include all the dedicated individuals and events that shaped the first 30 years of the coalition.