Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 6
Paving the Way
Bridge Traffic

In the early 19th century, New York became a transportation hub for the young nation. And that made it the most important center in America for trade and commerce. Ships that sailed regularly to and from Europe, the Erie Canal into the heartland, steamships that went up and down the Hudson River, straight streets that were easy for people to travel and find their way around -- all these things helped make New York great.

In this activity, you will look at whether there are any problems with the ways people get around in your community. Then, you will pick one problem of manageable size, and take action to solve it. (For instance, get a particuarly bad pothole fixed, get a traffic light or stopsign put up at a dangerous intersection, or lobby for improvements on a neglected public transportation line.) Pave the way to better, safer transportation where you live!

First, think about the main ways people get around your community. If you're doing this as a class project, talk it over among yourselves. In many communities, the main way to get around is by car, on paved streets. In other places, people prefer pickup trucks to handle roads that are unpaved. Cities usually have some public transportation, like a subway or bus system. Kids too young to drive and people who like exercise may bike on bike paths or even skateboard to school or work. In some places, people even use horses to get around (although not as much as they used to)!

Once you've identified the most popular ways people get around, think about and/or research what some problems are with local transportation routes. (For this activity, be specific -- concentrate on things like dangerous intersections or unreadable street signs, not the fact that cars cause air pollution, which is a big problem you may want to work on for longer than this activity allows.)

Again, if you are doing this as a class, talk it over. Are there areas of the local bike path that are dangerous (have blind curves, are too narrow, are slippery in bad weather)? Are there intersections known for bad traffic that need a stopsign or traffic light? Are there any streets with such bad potholes that cars get damaged? Are there roads near places where children play that need speed bumps or speed limits to slow drivers down? Are there parts of the city or town that just aren't served by public transportation?

If you can't think of any problems, try calling your local newspaper and asking if they have done stories about traffic accidents at one particular place, complaints about unsafe roads, etc. This is also something about which your parents will probably have an opinion!

Now that you have identified some problems, pick one to work on. It should be one you think is fixable, and also one that you and your class agree is worth an effort. So, how to fix it? Well, transportation routes are a public matter, and in most places you can't just go repair streets on your own or put up your own street signs (that's against the law!). You will almost certainly have to work with local government, perhaps with support from other citizens.

Ferry Boat Find out which government agency, board, or person is in charge of the kind of route you want to work on. For instance, the Parks Department may be in charge of maintaining bike routes, while the Department of Public Works is probably in charge of street maintenance and safety. If you don't know who's in charge, try calling your city or town hall. Someone should be able to tell you or direct your call. Your city or town may also have a Web site with that information. Now, find out how the public can make requests of the appropriate agency. In some towns, for instance, there are regular public meetings where people can talk to representatives of the Department of Public Works and request changes and repairs. Other agencies have hotlines to call, grievance officials to take complaints, and so on. You can look the agencies up in the phone book and call them to ask, or email them through the town Web site.

Once you know the correct way to make requests, put together a proposal that will be convincing and carry some weight. Do research and collect facts and figures showing the effect of the problem -- that there have been "x" number of accidents at the intersection, or "y" letters to the paper written about lack of speed bumps (make copies of the letters to send or bring along). Ask other residents to support you by signing a petition or coming along to a meeting with you. Make concrete suggestions for solutions ("we think it would help to widen the bike path by three feet at such-and-such location"). Then, either write the appropriate officials (sending all the materials you have put together), or, better yet, arrange an in-person meeting with an official or attend a public meeting with the agency. (Ask first what the right procedure is to get an item on the meeting agenda for consideration. Do that in advance.)

Then, make your proposal! You may have to be persistent -- the wheels of government can turn slowly. If you are told there is no money in the budget to make the change, ask if you can collect money and donate it for that purpose. It may help to publicize your effort (talk to the local paper or go door-to-door in the affected neighborhood). If many grown-ups think your cause is worthwhile, the chances are better that it will get done. Grown-ups can vote (as you will be able to do someday)!