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Op-ed: We Need a Dedicated Political Action Committee for Safe Streets

Rally to save ‘Car-Free JFK’ held in February. Photo: Sergio Ruiz

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The Bike Coalition. Walk San Francisco. The San Francisco Transit Riders. Kid Safe SF.

There's an organized coalition of dedicated people fighting for safe ways to walk, bike, and take transit in San Francisco. Recently, supporters of the JFK Promenade turned out hundreds for rallies, public comment, and eye-catching events like “Prom on the Prom." Last month, the group Safe Street Rebel threw a “slow streets slow ride” to celebrate slow streets. And advocates have blasted the SFMTA Valencia Street proposal for center-running unprotected bike lanes.

Given the array of professional and volunteer groups and their visibility, energy, and enthusiasm, streets advocates should be consistently winning. However, despite tangible gains in the past five years, key initiatives remain under threat. The JFK Promenade and Great Walkway/Highway may be reversed. Despite politicians’ platitudes for Vision Zero, traffic violence has stayed constant, killing or seriously injuring 230 people a year. Proposition A’s failure on the June ballot dealt a financial blow to making our streets safer and more sustainable. When city government proposes more protected bike lanes, bus lanes, and safer streets, they are tied up in delays and opposition—often from elected officials at the behest of angry constituents.

Safe streets advocates excel at grassroots work, but, in general, they lack committed support from their electeds. State Senator Scott Wiener is one of a few exceptions, as a politician who consistently champions transit, biking, and street safety.

Senator Scott Wiener doing a TV interview supporting car-free JFK
Senator Scott Wiener doing a TV interview supporting car-free JFK
Senator Scott Wiener doing a TV interview supporting car-free JFK

But if we want more Scott Wieners and Matt Haneys, we need more power to sway elections.

When politicians deliberate on a transportation position, they consider who supports or opposes it, and they consider the relative power of those groups to deliver votes. The forces against safe streets have political infrastructure. For Proposition I, the “Open the Great Highway” group has provided the volunteers, Dede Wilsey provided the funding, and the De Young Museum provided a brand. Valencia Street protected bike lanes are opposed by small businesses that are well organized. That's why these battles are so difficult to win for people who support safe streets.

Streets advocates speak from personal experience and moral clarity from facing personal danger. They talk about climate change. It's good to be right, but they need to develop better electoral infrastructure to direct volunteers, dollars, and branding to candidates. Supervisor Connie Chan, who consistently opposed the JFK Promenade and other measures to make safer streets, won by 125 votes, or four-tenths of a percent. If an organized PAC had tipped that race, the JFK Promenade might have been an easy win.

Influential groups like Equality California, the Sierra Club, and Planned Parenthood are the “professionalization” of movements to work the system and help candidates win. Unions such as the Teamsters and AFL-CIO also have power to sway elections. We need a Streets Action and a “Streets PAC” to do the same for safe and sustainable streets.

Right now, safe streets advocates are fighting hard via the Safe Parks for All campaign supporting Yes on Proposition J and No on Proposition I. This is a battle they can't afford to lose.

But the infrastructure that's been created to fight for J.F.K., slow streets, and other battles can evolve into a durable, powerful, umbrella group: a Streets Advocacy Nonprofit and a Streets PAC. It should be big-tent and focused on a core of safe streets issues. It must become a force for winning elections everywhere.

This has to be about more than J.F.K. or the Great Walkway. Advocates need to develop a PAC that is an indispensable ally in any election. Only then can we win the larger war for safe streets.

***

Mike Chen is the Chair of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Citizens' Advisory Council (speaking in his personal capacity). He is a transportation advocate through the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club, SF YIMBY, and Streets for People Bay Area.

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