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Voices / Letters from readers

Changing to what culture?

If Brattleboro wants to encourage pedestrians, we must take positive steps to make that happen

ARLENE DISTLER represents District 2 in Brattleboro’s Town Meeting. “Why won’t Brattleboro do what’s needed for pedestrian safety?,” a Viewpoint by Kevin Maloney, the Town Meeting representative whom Distler mentions in this piece, appeared in last week’s issue of The Commons.

At Brattleboro’s Town Meeting on March 24, a representative sought to add $75,000 to the town budget to address pedestrian safety. He was clearly distressed about the recent pedestrian fatalities in town, as so many of us are. I personally knew one of the deceased and two of the drivers.

Though the measure did not pass, it brought about an interesting and valuable discussion about what is needed for pedestrian safety, and it included a number of individuals’ emotional testimonies of close calls and personal accident experiences.

There ensued much discussion about “changing the culture” to one which is respectful of pedestrians.

In my opinion the culture has already changed — and not for the better.

Let’s face it — sometimes what appears to be “progress” turns out to be a mistake. With the new downtown crossing system, I believe we have heightened the frustrations of both drivers and pedestrians, leaving both less tolerant of one another.

Okay, we asked for better traffic flow through town. We got big, ugly lights, dozens of extra signs, maybe a little better flow.

For years, we’ve heard about “smart lights.” These lights right now don’t seem too smart. The traffic lights go on their merry way, regardless of traffic, or lack thereof. Whether there is traffic or not, pedestrians must wait several minutes for the crossing signal.

The message is hardly pro-pedestrian when one must press a button for the lights to even acknowledge one’s existence. At the junction of Canal Street, Main Street, and Routes 119 and 142, which is now only semi-malfunctioning, even after pressing the button, even if there is little or no traffic, one must still wait four or five minutes. (At least it seems so; I haven’t actually timed it.) When you are laden with groceries or it’s a very cold day, this lag can seem a long time indeed.

At Town Meeting, Northampton, Mass., came up often as an example of a town’s successful pedestrian culture.

Pedestrians do not have to wait; drivers understand there is a big fine for not stopping. (In fact, there are no lights in heavy foot-traffic areas, and at the main intersection the lights allow pedestrians to cross frequently and in any direction.)

Is this not better than big fines for pedestrians? Who are we punishing?

If we want a walking culture, we need to do things to encourage walkers and bikers, not strike fear of arrest into the hearts of those who are trying their best to negotiate our downtown streets.

On Main Street, we have one primary long block. If you want to get to a store in the middle of the block and you are in the middle on the other side, you must walk to the corners. Perhaps you’ve missed the walking signal while doing so, so then you must press the button and wait until the next signal. Considering our busy lives, to say nothing of costly meters and efficient parking enforcement officers, it is not a delay gladly suffered.

This all is not even taking into consideration someone who is using a cane, who is unable to see, or who cannot hear. It does not taking into consideration days of ice or snow, and what that weather does to the sidewalks.

I’ve been guilty of pressing the walk button, waiting and waiting, and finally going across when no traffic is coming. And I feel bad for drivers because eventually that crossing signal will stop traffic unnecessarily, unless other crossers arrive later.

How did we manage to get into this lose/lose situation? Our culture at the moment denigrates the pedestrian. We need to find a balance.

We need very visible signs, especially on the roads coming into town for those unfamiliar with the traffic patterns. We need to mark pedestrian crossings clearly and state the fine for not stopping. If we can afford them, embedded lights in the crosswalks would be a great benefit.

Pedestrians need to be reminded to wear light colors, or some sort of day-glow marking at night.

And, finally, if press those buttons we must, how about a quickly responding crossing signal? I do feel sure that making pedestrians feel like criminals is not the way to go.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag characterizes pedestrian and biker safety as a three-legged stool: drivers, pedestrians/bikers, and the town. I agree that all need to do their part.

It has been shown that downtowns that attract lots of walkers are healthier downtowns (fiscally, as well as medically).

When we have regained our full slate of downtown businesses, whatever they turn out to be, we will want to be ready for them with a downtown that is welcoming and functional for all.

Arlene Distler

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Originally published in The Commons issue #146 (Wednesday, April 4, 2012).

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