Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A suburban pedestrian crossing, part 1

A new pedestrian crossing for the walking bus...

I have a couple of kids who are now going to our local public primary school. Along with a few other families on our street who also have kids at the school, we've organised a little informal 'walking  bus', in which pairs of parents take turns to walk a group of the kids to school each morning.

We've all got different reasons for doing it. Some of us have jobs to get to in the morning and can now leave the kids with others and get away before school starts (except on the days that we 'drive' the bus!). Some of us are newish to the neighbourhood and think it's a great way to meet the neighbours and build relationships between the kids. Some of us are keen to stay out of our cars and 'model' walking as a mode of transport for our kids. Some of us need the exercise (!). Some of us like the idea of collectivising some of our parenting activities on the street. Some of us just like walking, etc etc.

We're now into our second school year, and on the days when the bus is 'full', we've got a bit of a problem. We have to cross one busy road, and there's no pedestrian crossing on our route. There's a traffic island, but it's pretty freaky standing there with a group of kids while cars, buses and trucks barrel past at speed.

The traffic island (pic taken by Mr B, 7 years old)

Waiting on the traffic island, from a 7 year old's perspective (thanks again to Mr B)

So, we want a pedestrian crossing across that road.

We've been talking about it for a while ... and I figure if I blog about this publicly (hello, public!), I'm more likely to get my ass into gear and do something about it. This, then, is the first of a series of posts in which I plan to document our efforts to get a pedestrian crossing in our neighbourhood.

A plan of attack

Now, like any group of people who want to change something in the city, even something as small-scale as a suburban pedestrian crossing, there are some immediate choices to make about how we are going to approach this.

We could write letters to the local council, stating our case, and hope for the best.

We could take matters into our own hands, buy some paint, and paint one on ourselves in the middle of the night. This form of 'do-it-yourself' urbanism is gaining traction in many cities around the world at the moment. The Hack Your City blog has a post on such efforts here. Here in Sydney, we recently had a visit from the Better Block people that generated quite a bit of interest -- do-it-yourself pedestrian crossings are just the kind of citizen-initiated infrastructure that they've been actively creating and advocating in many cities in the United States, and beyond.

Do-it-yourself pedestrian crossing, Tehran: from

Both of these actions might get us our pedestrian crossing. But they each have their limitations. The letter-writing option feels a bit passive. The painting option feels a lot more 'active', in that we'd be taking matters into our own hands. But right now there aren't that many 'hands' involved, and maybe nobody else in the neighbourhood thinks the crossing is a good idea. Is there a broader interest in the crossing beyond the self-interest of a few families on a school walking bus? Until I have an answer to that question, I'm personally not quite ready to get the road paint and roller out just yet...

Right now, my preference would be to apply the community organising approach I've been using (and learning) with the Sydney Alliance to think about the pedestrian crossing in a wider geographical and political context.

From a community organising perspective, there are different ways of 'winning' on any given issue like this. The best organising efforts don't just win on an issue, that also have other positive outcomes beyond the immediate issue. To put this another way, there's nothing inherently political about the issue, or taking action on the issue. The politics of a pedestrian crossing, it seems to me, is all in the framing of the issue, the construction of a 'we' who want to take action, and the nature of the action we take.

So in this case, the question is: what other outcomes should we be seeking beyond the pedestrian crossing itself? Here's a couple of initial thoughts on that, from a 'Cities and Citizenship' perspective:

1. Active involvement of kids in shaping their suburb.

Seeings as how I give lectures about 'child-friendly cities' and the political capacities of children and young people, here's a chance to put my money where my mouth is on that one. I think there's an interesting angle here for the slightly older kids - while for me and my little ones this is primarily an issue of our safety as we talk together, I think the slightly older kids might just be interested in the possibilities to walk to school on their own if they can prove to their parents that it's safe for them to do so. The crossing would help...

2. Stronger civil society and organisations.

Here's a chance to organise our little suburb, building some new connections between residents and the local schools and pre-school, the local churches, the local shop-keepers, the local council, the local police command. We could also approach this in a way that tries to strengthen and connect local civil society organisations like the school's Parents and Citizens group and the Student Representative Council, the Teachers' Federation, and other organised groups in the locality, to demonstrate (hopefully) that we have more power when we act collectively than when we act in isolation.

3. The justice thing.

What's this got to do with justice in the city, if anything? The last thing I want to do is pretend that our desire for a pedestrian crossing ought to trump other claims on collective resources just because it's 'what the locals want'. What contribution could our little campaign make to broader issues like pedestrian safety and road management in residential areas beyond our locality, that might help make the city a little better for all?

So, what's the plan?

The first step will be organising a discussion among interested parents and kids on the walking bus. At that meeting I'm going to suggest that we:
  • map our connections to other neighbours and neighbourhood organisations
  • figure out how decisions are made, and do an initial power analysis of the players who could have some influence over decision about pedestrian crossings
  • draw up a list of those we would like to meet to gauge their interest in the issue.
If we get any sympathetic responses, we could then pull together a 'house meeting' of a broader group who may be interested, to devise a collective approach to the issue by extending our mapping and power analysis.

That collective approach might involve some further research and data gathering (and hey, I'm a geographer, so there will be some mapping involved!). Depending on how things go, it's likely to involve letter writing at some point, and it might even involve some of us hitting the street with road paint and rollers at some point down the track. But from my perspective, these actions and others ought to be considered with some broader organising criteria in mind, not just the outcome. Who knows where it'll go ... I'll keep you posted!


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