Remembering Mary Brown, Pioneer for Valencia Street Bike Lanes

We recently said goodbye to Mary Brown, an influential and much loved presence in San Francisco’s bicycle community, who passed on December 10 of cancer. On behalf of so many who continue to benefit from her efforts, we want to say thank you for her pioneering work.

Mary became the Membership Director at the SF Bicycle Coalition in 1997. For her work at the SF Bicycle Coalition, she is probably best known for leading the groundbreaking campaign for the Valencia Street bike lanes. For those who were not in the city before 1999 when the bike lanes were added, they may not realize what a monumental task Mary led. At that time, Valencia Street was set up like next-door Guerrero Street, with four fast-moving auto lanes and no dedicated space for bikes. There was a fraction of the number of people biking back then, and a fraction of space dedicated to biking.

Mary, who lived in the Mission District, led an all-volunteer effort to win support for a new vision – at that time, untested in much of America — for a bike-friendly Valencia Street. This was long before “bike-friendly” was a publicly or politically popular idea. This was also before the days of the internet, so community organizing consisted of posting photocopied flyers on poles, running phone trees to notify SF Bicycle Coalition members to turn out to public hearings, and holding evening strategy meetings in a volunteer’s kitchen. It worked, in large part thanks to Mary’s calm, steady commitment to the vision, and despite major challenges, including the then-leader of the city’s Transportation Department declaring the Valencia Street bike lanes would go forward “over my dead body.” Fortunately for all, he was wrong about that.

Mary Brown, in the green jacket, watches as the bike lanes she organized for are striped on Valencia in 1999.

Mary Brown, in the green jacket, watches as the bike lanes she organized for are striped on Valencia in 1999.

Valencia Street was San Francisco’s first modern road-diet, replacing two auto lanes with two bike lanes (and eventually wider sidewalks and corner bulbouts), in pursuit of safe, comfortable places for people to bike and walk. It was a stunning success: bike ridership increased a whopping 144 percent in the year after bike lanes were added; collisions amongst all road-users decreased; and business boomed with more foot traffic. Inspired by Valencia’s success, your SF Bicycle Coalition has since convinced the City to pursue more than 20 successful road diets in diverse neighborhoods.

Mary’s work also led the way in proving the power of the member-led campaign, combining volunteer energy with the political know-how and infrastructure of the SF Bicycle Coalition to organize for groundbreaking improvements across our city. Other successful examples to follow include SF Bicycle Coalition-supported and member-led campaigns to win bike lanes and a road diet on Cesar Chávez Street and – coming soon – on Masonic Avenue.

Many longtime SF Bicycle Coalition members may also remember Mary’s ability to coalesce community not only with her passion for biking but also her distinct style and wry sense of humor. For years, Mary led the then-weekly SF Bicycle Coalition Volunteer Nights, drawing people in to help assemble and stuff member packets, make phone calls, and lend other organizational support, usually while listening to Johnny Cash and sharing dinner from Tu Lan. Some may even recall the “Wall of Shame” that Mary instituted to send a playful warning to volunteers who may have been a little lax in the way they sealed envelopes or folded t-shirts. It was no secret that many SF Bicycle Coalition members came to Volunteer Night not only to help the cause of better biking and to socialize, but also to spend time in the alluring orbit of the one-of-a-kind Mary Brown.

Mary’s commitment to conduct all of the SF Bicycle Coalition’s work by bicycle was second to none. Too many times to count, she led a crew of volunteers – sometimes in the rain – to pedal thousands of monthly newsletters (then called “The Tubular Times”) from our Civic Center office to the main post office in Hunters Point. When others raised the idea of getting a cab to avoid riding in a storm, Mary wouldn’t hear of it. And we were off on our bikes in the rain, pulling the awkward trailers wrapped in trash bags to keep members’ newsletters dry. And, once again, Mary proved the power of the bicycle.  

Mary Brown, as depicted on the Duboce Avenue Bikeway mural behind the Safeway on Market Street.

Mary Brown, as depicted on the Duboce Avenue Bikeway mural behind the Safeway on Market Street.

After leaving the SF Bicycle Coalition in 2005, Mary earned a Master’s degree in Geography from San Francisco State University and soon landed what she later called her “dream job” at the SF Planning Department as a preservation planner. Her work there has been called groundbreaking and inspiring.

To learn more about Mary’s pioneering advocacy for better bicycling and her lasting legacy on San Francisco, check out this interview she conducted with her friend Laura Lent with the Story Corps project.

And you can pedal by a well-known image of Mary on the beautiful mural on the Duboce Avenue Bikeway (behind the Safeway store on Market St.). She’s the one riding no-hands (which she admitted she couldn’t do!) in her signature cowboy hat.

Whether you knew Mary Brown or not, if you ride a bicycle in San Francisco, there’s a good chance your life has been impacted by her work, her vision and her passion. She loved biking and San Francisco very much, and her legacy will long remain as we continue to enjoy bicycling and San Francisco.

For that, and so much more, we thank you, Mary Brown.

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