All posts by Gary C. Woodward

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Bullseyes on Pedestrians

What should be the virtue of living in a walkable or bikeable location has been partly offset by the excesses of our car culture.

One elemental thread of the meaning of “communication” is the companion idea of “transportation.”  For most of human history a person connected with others using the media of the air and their feet, a horse, or a cart. While we have obviously enlarged our  transport options, it is ironic that dependence on the original equipment natural to bipeds  carries increased risks. Being hit by a car has dramatically risen in the last decade.

Put most starkly, we are increasingly killing each other with our bloated automobiles, sending over 100,000 pedestrians to emergency rooms in recent years. And they are the lucky ones. 2009 marked a low point of pedestrian deaths at around 4000. But in 2022 the rate climbed to 7,500. In the United States the greatest likelihood of being killed by a car is in Pompano Beach Florida and Victorville California, both modest sized towns, but typical in the U.S. of the sprawl that has turned streets into daunting multi-lane roads.

This rise in death or injury is also attributed to the fact that Americans are driving bigger and heavier cars. Trucks and SUVs may have marginally better sight lines, but what one wag has described as the standard “suburban assault vehicle” is not very nimble, and more lethal if they hit someone. Drivers also seem less careful, some pathetically trying to emulate the driving shown in advertising that flaunts the dubious virtues of speed. Add in the distractions and inattention brought on by phones, drugs and alcohol, and there is an increasing the likelihood that a mature driver will have a good chance of causing a pedestrian’s crippling injury or death. Drive long enough, and even the best drivers will have some unsettling close calls.

More younger Americans want to live in cities, escaping suburban homes that required a car to get anywhere. But what should be the virtue of living in a walkable or bikeable location has been offset by the excess traffic created by our car culture. In my walkable town of 4000 there are 22 crosswalks in one three-quarter mile section of the main street. Anyone speeding down this road of homes, two schools and shops is going to encounter pedestrians trying to cross it. My state’s law requires a driver to stop if someone is standing next to a crosswalk. But as a daily walker, I would estimate that half bother to yield. Without my caution, I would have been someone’s hood ornament long ago. And helping a child cross the street in the morning demands special care, usually requiring a parent or crossing guard to successfully traverse the 35-foot space.

                                        A Neckdown                          Michele Weisbart

All towns should require sidewalks so that pedestrians are not forced onto roadways or wet shoulders. I have seen many students walking to my own campus in neighboring Ewing, New Jersey who are required to wade through wet grass along a string of front yards along a busy four lane highway. Sidewalks have long been absent in several locations. By contrast, the best pedestrian-friendly towns find ways to calm traffic and use “neckdowns” that narrow a street at an intersection. The resulting reduced lanes and prominent curb make walkers more visible.

I once served on a Planning Board in a mostly suburban town split by a busy multi-lane highway. But I was never successful in making pleas for sidewalks and a possible pedestrian bridge next to the local grade school. The Board did backflips to add horse paths throughout the area; sidewalks, not so much.

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Clueless at Governing

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No nation looks to our deliberative branch as a model for building consensus.

Congress is the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation. Donald Trump and the so-called “Freedom Caucus” have tried out rhetorical in-your-face antics reminiscent of some of our darkest comics, but without the fun or wit.

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No one looking for a model of governmental efficiency would take any comfort from a good look at the current House leadership debacle. Its twin failures to produce effective public policy and work with the President offer cautionary truths about how to fail to produce effective action. The House of Representatives is a broken institution with public approval ratings to match. No country looks to our deliberative branch as a model for building consensus. Bipartisanship occasionally breaks out and offers momentary hope. But it has become a major achievement to keep the government funded for a whole month. In the process, the Speaker of the House who finally negotiated a compromise promptly lost his job. In this body, the few conciliators in the governing party that remain seem mute and mostly ineffective.  For their part, Democrats appear to be willing to let the chaos continue, hoping it will convert into electoral gains.  As an idea, E pluribus unum no longer has much appeal.

While this branch of the of government was not designed to work with the efficiency of a parliament, congressional dysfunction now leaves so much on the table that leaves Americans less well-off and secure: everything from immigration reform to timely allocations of funds for infrastructure improvements. We know this institution is in deep trouble when many of its members are now willing to risk triggering a government default and imperiling the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency: usually for no more than pressing some dubious ideological point.

What is wrong? What best practices for communicating in organizations are routinely ignored? Briefly, some of the overwhelming problems on Capitol Hill have their origins in two ineffective communication patterns.

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The first is that the body is obviously and hopelessly organized into factions—notably parties, special interest caucuses, and their media—making it likely that members will only work to defend their kind rather than the whole. Since most of the process of legislating is done away from the floors of the House and Senate, it falls to party leaders, whips, and members to work out in private and with their own caucuses what they will accept by way of a legislative agenda. Differences of opinion have fewer chances to be moderated in environments that would encourage conciliation. The founders feared this hyper partisanship for good reason. Indeed, Senate and House Leaders now move so cautiously in their narrow partisan lanes that it can be hard to tell if their images on a screen are stills photos or videos.

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This problem is compounded by a tradition of individual offices set up as separate fiefdoms spread over four buildings on the east side of the Capitol. One wonders how different legislative life would be if the 435 voting members of the House worked in the conditions known to most of white-collar America: in the same ‘cubicle farm’ spread over one or two floors. As it is, support staffs and dispersed offices enable the kind of isolation of members that discourages more discussion across party lines. Revealingly, members note that most no longer share a meal in the U.S. Capitol’s various dining rooms: a small but revealing change from the past.

A second problem is the changing character of those seeking high public office. In the age of social media and 24-hour news there seems to be more interest in the expressive possibilities of serving in public office than doing the work of governing.  The temptation to continually raise campaign funds can easily become all-consuming.

In the lore of Congress there has always been an expectation that the “show horses” would sometimes win out over the “work horses.”  A retired Lyndon Johnson once complained to a CBS producer about the “pretty boys” created by the growth of television. The former Senate Majority leader’s point was that visual media gave rise to a new breed of members more interested in the theater of politics than finding ways to bridge differences.  We are electing figures who have very little interest or skill in active deliberation.

Since it is a solid axiom that we more easily find comity in small groups, trying to forge leadership within large bodies like the 535 member Congress needs to be seen for the problem it frequently is: the organizational equivalent of trying to get even a few dozen college professors to form a single straight line.  We seem to no longer find much joy in political unity.

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