Like many 22-year-olds, I like to think that I am invincible. But this past week, when my computer broke, the markets tanked and I almost got hit by a car running a red light in New Haven, I was reminded once again of my own vulnerability and the need we all have for a dose of public protection.
We can’t be truly free to pursue our individual ambitions without a community that protects us. I’m not talking about a kumbaya liberalism where people magically get along nor a government controlling every part of our private lives. I’m talking about the hard work of mobilizing as a community to fight for the public good.
Public-health professionals have long known that the “public” part is the most important and most difficult part of their jobs. Yet as Republicans speak mockingly of community organizers and Obama’s “Yes We Can” motto, it is worth taking some time to revisit what community mobilizing is all about.
Here is New Haven, the Safe Streets Coalition, a citywide coalition of students, residents and elected officials who are advocating for safer, livable streets — formed last spring after the tragic deaths of Mila Rain of MED ’08 on South Frontage Street and 11-year-old Gabrielle Lee on Whalley — has been a model of what we can do as a community. Today, at 6:30 p.m in City Hall, the Coalition will testify at a public hearing on street safety. For the good of all of us in New Haven, we hope they will succeed.
The reality is that pedestrian injuries are nothing new. Two years ago, I wrote about the public-health problem of traffic accidents after the near-death accident of Lubna Shamsi EPH ’07, the injuries sustained by two students by the School of Management and the death of New Haven Police Officer Daniel Picagli while directing traffic by a construction zone on Chapel Street. Like any good academic, I cited statistics and studies to show that traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in our city, and that traffic calming policies can significantly reduce the number of accidents and encourage more walking and biking. Years later, the facts haven’t changed, but the number of tragic deaths continues to rise.
Unfortunately, New Haven’s deadly delay is just another example of the persistent problem of the public goods, which any introductory political science or economics student can tell you about. No one wanted to regulate the Wall Street banks before the current crisis, either; we often wait until tragedy strikes to act.
To prevent this vicious cycle, the Coalition has chosen not only to raise awareness about the problemt traffic safety, but also do something about it by mobilizing community members all across the city. Currently their petition has been signed by over 1,800 individuals and has been endorsed by nearly 100 community management teams, business-improvement districts, neighborhood and religious organizations, nonprofits, businesses and elected officials.
Getting people to recognize the problem is the first element of community organizing — but articulating a common solution is what’s really needed to make change. The Safe Streets Coalition has an ambitious goal: “reduce the unacceptable number of traffic-related injuries and fatalities in New Haven by 50% by 2009 and 90%by 2015, while promoting more livable, walkable and economically vibrant streets”; but they also have a feasible plan for getting there. The Complete Streets Legislation, which is the subject of the hearing today, aims to develop a comprehensive plan making all of New Haven’s streets more walkable, bikeable and livable. More needs to be done, but developing a roadmap for change is a crucial first step.
Now the challenge rests with each one of us to carry on the work started by the Coalition and advocate for broader change in New Haven and beyond. Even those who think that they’re invincible rely on the public protections established by community organizers, and community change requires community action.