Monday, April 4, 2011

Your Very Own Crosswalk: A Step-by-Step Manual

So you're staring out your window, watching cars race by your local street corner, and suddenly it hits you: "We need a marked crosswalk there!" You grab your phone and as your fingers aim towards the dial pad something else hits you: "I have no idea who to call about this."

For a lot of would-be pedestrian advocates the journey to a crosswalk ends right there because, and I say this as someone who works in one, nobody in their right mind wants to wade into the swamps of a murky local government bureaucracy voluntarily. You might never get out.

Seriously.

I occasionally turn the corner at work and run across some lost soul who just wanted to renew their food handlers permit back in 1983 and has been at the civic center ever since.

But it doesn't have to be that hard--or at least, that confusing. To help you out in your endeavours, I've put together this handy guide to help you turn your favorite crossing from plain pavement to pedestrian paradise. (One caveat before we begin: I've tried to keep this as generic as possible, but since every city/state/country's government is organized a little differently, I can't guarantee I've covered all potential scenarios. Hopefully this will at least give you a starting point.)


Photo courtesy of Streetsblog 

Step 1: Why are we doing this again?

If you're serious about getting a crosswalk installed in your neighborhood, you need a convincing argument for installing it--and by convincing I don't mean generic or self-serving complaints like "people in my neighborhood drive too fast" or "I hate having to walk an extra block to cross the street." These may be legitimate problems, but remember that yours is only one of hundreds of similar requests your city receives. To make yours rise to the top you need to:
  • Be polite - This can be a frustrating process, but rudeness gets you nowhere but the trash can. Letters to your city beginning "Dear pea-brains" does not further your cause (plus they get boring after a while). Along these same lines, ranting letters in ALL CAPS do not endear you to the folks whose help you need.
  • Be sane - Now is not the time to bring up conspiracy theories, aliens, or explicit pictures. Ditto on the chicken/bloody corpse/traffic light costume
  • Get data - Can you spend an hour counting how many people try to cross the road on a typical afternoon? Calculate how many schoolchildren use the crossing to get home? Find out the number of past crashes at your location? The more detailed information you have to demonstrate that there is a problem at your crossing, the stronger your argument becomes
  • Gather support - From your neighbors, your PTA, your local pedestrian advocacy organization (more on this in Step 7)

Step 2. Where are you?

Before you can begin your assault on the local bureaucracy, you have to identify who exactly controls the road you'd like your crosswalk to, well, cross. This might not always be obvious, as sometimes places we identify as their own "towns" (e.g. my neighborhood of Woodland Hills) are technically part of a larger city (in my case, Los Angeles). Even more confusing, some roadways (e.g. Pacific Coast Highway along the Los Angeles coast) cross through cities but are actually highways controlled at the state level.

Here in California, roads will fall into one of four categories:
  • City roadway - roads inside the boundaries of a city, owned and maintained by that city
  • County roadway - roads outside the boundaries of a city, owned and maintained by the county
  • State roadway - roads such as freeways or state routes, owned (and often maintained) by the state government
  • Private roadway - roads maintained by a private community (these are generally low volume roads that don't need marked crossings, so I won't focus much on them)
Other states have different types of jurisdictions (townships, villages), but the concept is the same. Spend some time with a map to figure out exactly which sort of road you're dealing with, but don't worry too much if you can't figure it out. If you get it wrong, someone will be able to correct you along the way.

Step 3: Where are they?

Once you know which jurisdiction you need to contact, you have to decide who within that government to call. Take a gander at your city's website, which typically has a listing of departments somewhere on the home page (and sometimes even a staff directory). You're looking for something with a name like the Transportation or Traffic Engineering department (tip: Street Maintenance is probably not the right choice). Be aware that Caltrans, and I assume most state transportation departments, divides itself into local "districts," each with its own office serving a particular region.

In a pinch you can always call the general city number listed online or in the phone book, but you'll have an easier time if you can start your calls with the correct department.

(Note: A private road is maintained by a set of adjacent property owners/community members. For changes to these roads, your best bet is probably just to knock on a few doors and have a face-to-face conversation.)

Step 4: Who do I talk to?
Start by calling the generic number for the transportation department. Your goal is to make contact with a live person--they probably won't be the right person, but they will hopefully be able to tell you who is. (Beware the generic department voicemail-- messages left here rarely get returned). If you aren't having any luck, see Step 6.

Step 5: What do I say?

The first time you speak with your new buddy in the transportation department, you should identify yourself and briefly explain why you're calling. Some important questions to ask:
  • Is location X (your crossing) under this jurisdiction?
  • Are there any plans to install a marked crosswalk at this location in the near future?
  • Does your jurisdiction have a formal crosswalk policy, or set of conditions that must be before a crosswalk can be installed (tip: sometimes these are called crosswalk "warrants")?
  • Who else should I speak to about this problem?
  • What do you recommend as a next step?
This is really an information-gathering conversation, so you don't need to spend a lot of time arguing your case yet. At this point, you just want to find out as much as you can about the process, and establish yourself as someone to be taken seriously. Be sure to get phone/email contact information for follow up.

Next week: Steps 6 through 9, where we learn some secrets about the inner workings of the city and how to get its attention.

2 comments:

  1. This is great. Sometimes we just need a little help on where to start and how to deal with a situation.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Even though I've spent a lot of time on "the inside," I still find that sometimes the world of advocacy and local government is confusing and difficult to navigate. I hope this series can at least provide a roadmap for the poor soul who's starting from scratch.

    ReplyDelete