This morning, a group of livable streets advocates gathered in the Madison Square pedestrian plaza to announce the formation of StreetsPAC, a political action committee to put street safety front and center in New York City’s 2013 election cycle.
Many of the names behind the effort should be familiar to Streetsblog readers, including Aaron Naparstek, Streetsblog’s founding editor, and attorney Steve Vaccaro, who writes the Street Justice column.
As StreetsPAC board member Eric McClure noted, the setting perfectly illustrated what the group stands for: the plaza, filled with people at tables and chairs, is flanked by bike lanes. Nearby, people waited at bus stops and walked to subway entrances, as traffic flowed smoothly without speeding.
“New York City has made major advances in street safety over the past several years, and we’re launching StreetsPAC to help continue that momentum,” McClure said. The organization will be sending questionnaires to all city council, borough president, and mayoral candidates shortly, and might take an interest in district attorney races. In the future, the group may also look to Albany races, where the winners vote on issues including congestion pricing and speed cameras. But for now, the PAC is focusing on the City Council, especially those districts where grassroots support for livable streets is not reflected in the positions of elected officials. This year, there will be elections for all 51 council districts, including 18 open seats.
“There’s a very strong undercurrent of support for this in places like Astoria,” StreetsPAC board member and Brooklyn Spoke blogger Doug Gordon said. “When you have a problem with a dangerous street in your neighborhood, you don’t call City Hall. You call your local community board, you call your local council member,” he said.
So far, the organization has gathered pledges and donations totaling $30,000. “We expect to get well into six figures,” McClure said. The group is registered with both the New York State Board of Elections and the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Its current registration, according to Vaccaro, prohibits independent expenditures such as campaign advertising. Instead, the PAC can fundraise, donate to campaigns, and mobilize volunteers.
Calling complete streets “one of those rare issues popular on both the left and the right,” McClure said that livable streets advocates are very engaged and often show up to community meetings. “StreetsPAC will seek to channel that passion, energy and dedication to candidates who care about and support these issues,” he said.
Although the PAC is focusing on the council, New York Observer reporter Jill Colvin asked about how mayoral candidates stack up on the issues. “If you’re going to put me on the spot, I think Sal Albanese has been the most outspoken in his support of smart, complete streets policies,” McClure said. “A lot of the candidates have sort of danced around the question of complete streets.”
Vaccaro said that he and other board members went to the recent League of Conservation Voters mayoral forum and left disappointed with the candidates. “Transportation was missing as an issue,” he said.
Capital New York reporter Dana Rubinstein asked if StreetsPAC would be seeking donations from the city’s real estate industry. “A lot of the big real estate owners and landlords in New York City are supportive — very supportive — of the changes that have happened to the streets in the last few years,” McClure replied, citing the benefits livable streets projects have shown for sales receipts and retail rents.
“We all know that real estate interests have always had tremendous influence over municipal elections in New York,” Vaccaro added.
The PAC may be unique within New York’s political scene, but it is not the first of its kind in the country.
In Portland, Oregon, Bike Walk Vote PAC — which launched in 2004 — has produced results in state and local politics, with its 2012 endorsements faring well in last year’s election. In Chicago, Walk Bike Transit PAC donated to city council candidates in 2011 and led door-knocking campaigns to get out the vote for its favored candidates. In Seattle, the Cascade Bicycle Club launched BikePAC, which in 2010 made contributions to 50 candidates. On the national level, BikesPAC is affiliated with the national bicycle industry advocacy group Bikes Belong.
McClure said that while they were aware of these other efforts, StreetsPAC board members had not reached out to similar PACs in other cities. “We were so focused on getting StreetsPAC launched that I don’t think it ever came up,” he said to Streetsblog via e-mail.
StreetsPAC board member Hilda Cohen said after the press conference that the time is right for advocates to take this step in New York. “There’s momentum going,” she said. “It’s a law of physics. If an object is in motion, you keep it moving. That’s just what we’re trying to do.”