SF State alumnus pedals over language barriers

As Santia Herrera strolled past the dim sum spot near Mission and Persia streets Sunday, her four-year-old daughter rode a pink bike. It was 70 degrees, and a perfect day for the Excelsior District’s annual Sunday Streets block party.

After a long day of sunshine, she stumbled on a surprise – a bike mechanic in a neighborhood devoid of a single bike shop.

“I was just walking by and saw them fixing some bikes and my little one needed some air in the tires,” Herrera said. “I was just like hey, let’s get in the line and get some air.”

It was the folks from Bicis Del Pueblo, or “bikes for the people,” Excelsior’s own bicycle cooperative, who set up a one-stop free repair shop for the block party. The program is run by People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Justice (PODER), an organization that advocates for Latino/a immigrants.

They put the share in bike share.

“For Bicis Del Pueblo, cycling is just a vehicle for community building,” said Jessie Fernandez, community organizer with PODER and 2014 SF State alumnus. “Sharing bikes and sharing resources is just a part of the immigrant experience.”

Excelsior residents, including many low-income children and families, learn the rules of the road, how to repair bicycles and can even earn a free bike through the Earn-a-Bici program. In return, they’re asked to commit 15 hours of their time to the program to expand their bicycle knowledge, or help provide some sort of community service. The goal is to help neighbors learn lifelong skills.

“I might install the brake cable and get everything lined up, but I’m going to undo that and hand you the tool and you’re going to learn how to do that yourself.”

PODER Organizer, Jessie Fernandez, fixes a bike at a Block Party in San Francisco’s Execlsior district, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (Bryan Ramirez/Golden Gate Xpress)

The best part though, says Fernandez, is the project’s ability to serve the many immigrants and non-English speakers in the neighborhood. And it’s a lot of people, considering half of Excelsior’s residents are born outside the United States and a quarter of the people speak only Spanish at home, according to San Francisco Planning Department data.

The Excelsior is predominately non-white, with half of its residents being Asian and 30 percent Latino.

Bicis Del Pueblo is the only bicycle resource in the Excelsior District. Ocean Cyclery in the Ingleside neighborhood is the closest shop at a mile and a half away. In a phone call, a shop employee said no employees there speak Spanish and only one employee, who works occasionally, speaks Cantonese.

“There aren’t a lot of folks in the standard bike narrative that look like me or who look like a lot of the people I was working with today, or speak languages other than English,” Fernandez said. “Bicis Del Pueblo can have the conversation of what’s wrong with your bike in Spanish, in Cantonese and in Tagalog.”

Also at Sunday Streets was John Avalos, the former city supervisor who represented the Excelsior at the Board of Supervisors up until January of this year. He’s a known bike-lover and said in an interview at the block party that he used to commute via bicycle from the Excelsior to City Hall.

With the support of the Excelsior community, Avalos helped spearhead the passage of the Unclaimed Bicycle Ordinance in 2014. It’s an amendment to the police code requiring SFPD hand over stolen or other recovered bicycles valued under $500 to Human Services Agency. Bikes go to programs designed to prevent juvenile delinquency or “any program or activity designed to service low-income or transit-dependent populations in San Francisco.”

At the same time, Avalos also supports the for-profit bike rental stations popping up across the Bay Area in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. But the corporate bike share is not unique to the Bay. In San Francisco, it’s Ford GoBikes; in Boston, it’s Hubway; in New York, it’s Citi Bike – but all three are owned by Motivate.

Based in New York City, Motivate describes itself as the global bike share leader; with bike share programs in Canada, Australia and throughout the U.S. In San Francisco, a single day pass costs 10 dollars. In July the  San Francisco Examiner reported Ford GoBike’s rollout in the Mission District encountered heavy backlash, with Latino/a’s community leaders tying the bike share to the continued gentrification of the neighborhood.

As a bicycle advocate, Avalos supports Ford GoBike but he said during the block party that Motivate’s decision to crown Ford Motor Company as the face of the service is a “slap in the face.” He also wants to see a city-wide bike share system that benefits individual neighborhoods in more ways than simply providing bikes for rent.

“If we’re going to have a bike share program, there should be ways for the program to join with community partners to actually spur economic development in our neighborhoods,” Avalos said

Bicis Del Pueblo returns Oct. 14 for its Bici Bike Build & Learn to ride event that it hosts every second and fourth Saturday of every month at the San Francisco Community School.

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