Building a Bike and Pedestrian Lobby With Teeth

New York advocates for safer streets form a PAC to influence city elections.

Image
Sarah Goodyear

A group of advocates for safer streets in New York is looking to put financial and electoral muscle behind their efforts, forming a political action committee called StreetsPAC.

The group will ask candidates in the city’s upcoming municipal elections to answer questionnaires about issues such as pedestrian infrastructure and investigation of traffic crashes. Using the results of those questionnaires, as well as in-person interviews, it then "plans to donate to, make endorsements of, and mobilize volunteers for those candidates who stand out among their peers for their commitment to safe, complete streets."

Founding member Eric McClure announced the PAC’s launch at a press conference Thursday in the middle of a bustling pedestrian plaza near the Flatiron Building – one of the showcase projects that the city’s Department of Transportation has created over the last several years, sometimes amid controversy. McClure said that organizers had already raised about $30,000, and that they are hoping for “well into six figures” as the city heads into a full round of municipal elections later this year.

(Full disclosure: One of StreetsPAC’s board members, Aaron Naparstek, used to be my boss when I wrote for Streetsblog a few years back.)

The PAC’s formation signals an attempt by livable streets advocates to assert themselves as a factor in the complicated calculus of New York electoral politics. Under the leadership of commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s department of transportation has gotten national attention as a leader in the push for “complete streets” that safely accommodate bicycles, pedestrians, buses, cars, and trucks.

But those initiatives have also come under occasional fierce attack at the neighborhood level, and sometimes those fights have been led by folks with political clout. Take the case of the Prospect Park West bike lane, which has been the target of seemingly endless lawsuits from opponents who claimed it made streets less safe, disputing DOT data that showed exactly the opposite. That legal effort was backed by former DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall, who just happens to be married to Senator Chuck Schumer. In another instance, members of the Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg — a coveted voting bloc — successfully lobbied for removal of a bike lane that passed through the Brooklyn neighborhood because it famously attracted “scantily clad” women.

Perhaps as a result of such high-profile cases, many New York candidates have been less than vocal about complete streets, despite polls that show strong citizen support for such infrastructure. Sixty-six percent of New Yorkers are in favor of bike lanes, according to a recent New York Times poll, and yet people who want safer streets are not seen as a coherent constituency to be courted.

StreetsPAC wants to change that. "We’re trying to bring candidates to the issues," says board member Doug Gordon, a community board member from Park Slope who blogs at Brooklyn Spoke. “We’re bringing them to where the voters are.”

Organizers say the group will start by focusing its efforts on city council and borough president races, but hasn’t yet decided whether to get involved in the heated mayoral contest.

McClure said he believes StreetsPAC is the first PAC focused on “livable streets” issues in the city, and one of only a scant few such groups in the country. (In Oregon, there’s Bike Walk Vote PAC; Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club has a political arm called Bike PAC; and in Chicago has Walk Bike Transit PAC.)

The group is hoping that candidates will start to realize – as they never have in the past – that people who want safer streets might help them get elected. "As much as improvements to the public realm like pedestrian plazas, bike lanes, and slow zones make our streets safer, they also make, very clearly, for good politics," says McClure, adding that that street improvements appeal to both liberals and pro-business conservatives who like their effect on real estate values.

"Candidates can’t be legitimately pro-growth without being pro-complete streets," he says. "They’re a vital economic engine."

One of StreetsPAC’s board members, A. Scott Falk, acknowledges that candidates in New York still need some convincing that supporting complete streets and all their trappings – bike lanes, plazas, and the like – can be part of a winning political strategy. "Among candidates, there’s an awareness, but also a wariness,” says Falk. “We want to make it clear that they can get votes on this issue."

Top image: Eric McClure (center) and other members of the StreetsPAC board. (Sarah Goodyear)

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.