Interview with Michael Schneider, Founder of Streets for All

There's a new livability organization in town: Streets for All
There's a new livability organization in town: Streets for All

Michael Schneider is the founder of Streets for All – a new southern California organization dedicated to “building a transportation revolution in Los Angeles.” Streets for All started in September 2019. The organization is already backing L.A. City Council candidates, and pushing for safety improvements on Hollywood and Venice Boulevards.

Schneider also serves as the chair of the Transportation Committee for Mid-City West Community Council, and as one of Paul Koretz’ appointed Council District 5 representatives on the L.A. City Bicycle Advisory Committee.

This interview took place in person in late October. It has been edited for clarity and readability.

SBLA: Tell readers about your background.

Schneider: I was born in Santa Monica and grew up in Rancho Park in West L.A.

I was a huge car guy for most of my life. Driving, honestly, too fast. Spending a lot of my disposable income on cars. When the recession hit, in 2010, for a number of reasons, including financial, I had to give up my car and figure out another way to get around.

I dusted off an old bike. I loved biking as a kid, but I had never done it as an adult. I lived in L.A. and therefore “had” to drive around. I challenged myself to go the mile and a half to my gym and back. I did that for a few mornings and was totally hooked. I loved the way I felt physically and mentally. I loved that I didn’t have to look for parking, and wasn’t contributing to climate change.

I started biking more and more. I lived, at the time, near West Hollywood. I would challenge myself to go to Beverly Hills, then Century City, then Westwood, then Santa Monica – which felt really far. Eventually, I was going to and from LAX on my bike. I was all in and I loved it.

My wife and I had two little kids. When a car passes you with three inches to spare instead of three feet when you have two kids on your bike it’s a whole different level of frustration with the conditions on our roads.

My day job is I’m a tech entrepreneur and being an entrepreneur, when I see a problem I try to solve it.

About a year ago, everything kind of clicked in my head. Why are we living like this? Why do have such poor pavement? Why do we have so little bike infrastructure? Why do we have so few bus lanes? Why do we have very few of the things that would actually help get people out of their cars? In Los Angeles – a place with the world’s best year-round weather – it didn’t make sense to me.

I started down the path of trying to understand why we’re in the condition we’re in – and how to change it.

There are a lot of good organizations doing a lot of great work – including LACBC [L.A. County Bicycle Coalition], L.A. Walks, People for Mobility Justice. But the problem is they’re all 501(c)3s [educational nonprofits].

I concluded that if we want change, we need to change the city council – similar to how the Democrats recently swept in the House of Representatives, and all of a sudden it looks much more diverse, progressive, younger – we need that same revolution to happen at a local level.

With the right city council, all of a sudden the things that are so hard today – taking years to get a single stretch of one road re-done as a bus lane or bike lane – can change like that. [snaps fingers]

Tell readers about Streets for All – the organization you founded.

Streets for All is two things.

It is a 527, which is a federally-registered PAC – Political Action Committee – which allows us to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money supporting local candidates with progressive values, especially around transportation – running for city hall.

That is our primary mission. We want to change city hall, get progressive people in there so we can change the city, really quickly.

The second thing we’re doing is trying to change culture. We want people – not just white guys in spandex, but just everyday normal people – to realize that there is a better way to live. We don’t have to be stuck in traffic, and be constantly late and stressed. We want to organize people around this cause.

I’m sure you followed the Eagle BRT [conflict.] If there are 20 mostly older mostly white people yelling and screaming at a Metro meeting about how a bus lane is going to destroy their community, then I want 40 of our people there yelling back – being very impassioned and logical and forceful with it.

I’m tired of mostly older, wealthier homeowners holding the entire city hostage from real progress around transportation – because they’re scared of change. Or because they want a parking spot right in front of wherever they go.

What makes Streets for All different from other advocacy groups?

All of the organizations I mentioned – and almost every organization in Los Angeles fighting for either land use, housing, transportation – are 501(c)3s.

501(c)3s can do get out the vote campaigns. They can support ballot measures at the state level, but they cannot endorse specific candidates – or tell people who to vote for. That’s a major hole.

The main candidates we’re supporting in 2020 are Sarah Kate Levy in C.D. [Council District] 4 who’s also endorsed by Bike the Vote and Loraine Lundquist in C.D. 12.

2020 will be the first time that city elections are synched with federal elections. [In 2020] you’re going to have everybody voting. You’re going to have many times the number of people voting [compared to the August 2019 C.D. 12 special election]. That’s a huge opportunity for change.

We want to get behind those two candidates and make sure they win. We may support others as well.

LACBC for example, as great as their work is, cannot tell their constituency to go vote for Sarah Kate Levy. They can’t. We can. We can raise an unlimited amount of money – buying ads, getting mailers, knocking on doors in support of her. Which they can’t do either.

The downside to it is that donations are not tax-deductible. When a person who’s done well in life looks at donating [to Streets for All], it’s not tax-deductible. They really have to care about the cause because they’re not getting that tax break by donating.

Part of the challenge in the past has been that everything – at least in the bike world – everything has the word “bicycle” – L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, Bike the Vote.

The number of people who self-identify as bicyclists in L.A., I think it’s less than one percent of people commuting by bike. You’ve got 99 percent who don’t automatically connect with that narrative.

The reason this is called Streets for All and not “bike lanes everywhere” or “bus lanes everywhere” is that I don’t want it to be a fringe organization. I want to be a mainstream organization talking to normal people and getting them on board.

We have to engage people that may have not even thought about this before.

That’s really important to me. Maybe you care about clean air? Who has kids that have asthma? This organization is trying to do something about it because transportation is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases – and then all of a sudden you have a normal person – who maybe doesn’t care about bikes or buses – involved in the conversation.

What sorts of changes do you want to see on the streets of Los Angeles?

There are three main things – all on our website.

The biggest thing I think we can do with the lowest cost and biggest impact are dedicated bus lanes.

I’m not talking about a rush-hour bus lane. I’m talking about painting a lane red and making it a dedicated bus lane. And decreasing headways to the point where it’s reliable and faster than a car.

Our friend’s son takes the bus to school, and the bus has a one-hour headway. This causes a lot of stress and tension because if you miss it you’re screwed.

If you have five- or ten-minute headways, and you have dedicated lanes and people are sitting in traffic seeing buses fly by them, it’s only a matter of time before they say “I don’t want to be stuck in traffic. I want to take the bus.”

So, number one is dedicated bus lanes all over the city.

Number two is protected mobility lanes.

I’m calling them mobility and not bike because I want scooters to be a part of this too. I think they [e-scooters] bring out just normal people, everyday people that want to do first-mile last-mile shorter trips and not use a car.

So, dedicated bus lanes, protected mobility lanes – a network of them not just where they fit.

And the third big thing is curb space redistribution and making streets safer for pedestrians.

Uber, Lyft, and Amazon, in the last ten years, have grown exponentially. The amount of deliveries of goods and people today compared to ten years ago is insane.

We have not painted more loading zones. The consequence of that is you have very unsafe double-parked cars picking up goods or people – often blocking the few bike lanes that we have, or sitting in crosswalks.

I don’t fully blame them because most of our curb space is dedicated to private car storage, as opposed to loading zones. The city should remove two parking spots on every block on major arteries and paint them yellow. This would align curb space with demand. I also want many more scramble crosswalks and leading pedestrian intervals.

If you rally lots of people to put down a couple bus lanes here and a couple protected bike facilities there – where would you start?

Streets for All – in addition to the elections next year – is focused on two projects right now. [The first is] pedestrianizing Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood Boulevard is closed about a third of the year anyway – for [movie] premieres. It’s got a Red Line stop. It’s full of tourists, who don’t have enough sidewalk space. It’s just prime. Think about Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. That used to be filled with cars. Today, if you tried to put cars back, people would be out with their pitchforks. I think the same thing will eventually be true of Hollywood Boulevard.

[Making Hollywood Blvd a walk and bus street] between La Brea and Highland would be our first ask. Then eventually extend to Vine.

Do you know how inexpensive that would be? We can do a trial next week.

Let’s say we spend ten grand. Ten thousand dollars, that’s it. Buy some large planters with some drought-resistant trees – and put them right after the crosswalk at Highland and put them right on the other side of the crosswalk at La Brea – and do that for the five or six other side streets too. With just a few planters we could test that idea next week.

That sounds like Janette Sadik-Kahn talking about Times Square. When her NYCDOT closed off parts of it, they put out a bunch of cheap chairs. People complained about the chairs and hardly noticed that the streets were closed.

Exactly. I want people to complain about the type of plants we chose and not even realize that the street’s closed.

New York recently did this on 14th Street. That’s a great example. There was an outcry. There was a lawsuit. There was all this stuff. The judge eventually allowed it to go through. The next day there were New York traffic police blocking non-buses, non-bikes and non-delivery vehicles from 14th Street. And the world didn’t end. Actually, it’s been very successful.

Note: Streets for All is hosting a Hollywood for All campaign meeting on Saturday 11/16 from 9-11 a.m. at WeWork at 7083 Hollywood Boulevard.

The second project is Venice Boulevard.

L.A. had the biggest urban rail transit system in the world in the 1920s and there was a Red Car – a streetcar – going up and down the middle of Venice Boulevard. Any time you see a really wide median in Los Angeles, there was a streetcar there.

Venice Boulevard is the only street that goes from the ocean to downtown L.A. entirely in the city of Los Angeles. Every other street crosses some other jurisdiction.

It was a state-owned highway that the city of L.A. recently got back and took over and got money to bring it up to a good state of repair.

It’s incredibly wide. It’s got painted bike lanes for most of it, with the exception of [City Councilmember] Mike Bonin’s 0.9-miles of protected bike lanes – where he got death threats for doing that.

It’s also on the Mobility Plan – not that the city is following it – but it’s also on the Mobility Plan as protected bike lanes.

Some time in the next 12 months, Venice Boulevard is going to come up as a project that LADOT will start engaging the community on and I want to get ahead of Keep L.A. Moving, and Fix the City, and the Mar Vista Neighborhood Council, and every other force that’s going to come out to make sure that their traffic lanes are perfectly preserved and the [existing conventional un-protected] bike lanes just get painted down again.

We have to get Venice Boulevard protected [meaning adding protected mobility bike/scooter lanes]. If we lose that battle and the city repaves the street and repaints the [un-protected] bike lanes, they’re probably not going to touch that street again for another 20 years.

We want to pre-organize – get all our ducks in a row. When that fight comes – you know Keep L.A. Moving’s got their 20 people yelling at a conference in Mar Vista – so we’ve got 200 people every single day on top of it – talking to the council offices, talking to people on the street, collecting signatures, making sure it gets done the right way.

Note: Streets for All is hosting a Venice for All campaign meeting on Saturday 11/23 from 9-11 a.m. at 3576 Eastham Drive in Culver City.

If people have $10 or $10,000 that they want to put toward Streets for All – what do people do to get involved or contribute?

Go to our website, also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We don’t have online donations yet, but you can sign up for our mailing list. There’s also a separate volunteer form.

If they want to donate they can email me at michael[at]streetsforall.org. I’d love to talk to ‘em.

Streetsblog often ends interviews with this question. If you had a magic wand, and you could, overnight, change something about transportation and livability in Los Angeles what would you do?

I would re-make a lot of major arteries – make them complete streets with dedicated bus lanes and protected mobility lanes.

There would be outrage. There would be drivers saying that traffic’s worse and “you’ve taken all my space” and “what the hell is this?” People would be outraged.

But let’s pretend that magic wand included that for a year you couldn’t change it back. You had to just live with it.

After that year, I have a few predictions. A lot more people will be biking because it will be a hell of a lot safer. A lot more people will be taking the bus because it will be faster than taking a private car. As a result, traffic may be a little bit worse, but probably not even that much worse because so many cars would have gotten off the road.

Our air would be cleaner. You and I wouldn’t be smoking [the equivalent of] 4.2 cigarettes every day just by breathing in Los Angeles. Childhood asthma rates would fall. People would get to school safer. It would be a better place.

 

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