Let Your Lived Experience Power Your Pedestrian Safety Advocacy

A Sidewalk Closed sign in a work zone

Whether on foot, on a bicycle or in a car, anyone who’s been to the corner of Cottage Grove Road and Monona Drive in Madison during the past five months knows it’s a challenging intersection to navigate these days. Extensive construction, including the laying of new underground piping, while necessary, has turned the intersection into a noisy mess.

Eighty-seven-year-old Jim Frome lives in the neighborhood. Jim gave up his driver’s license in March after he was determined as having low vision. “I then purchased a four-wheel electric scooter, which I drive on sidewalks and bike paths,” Jim says. A frequently traveled route takes him to the intersection under construction. Crossing at the light there was challenging, even hazardous.

“When I pushed the button on the traffic signal telling it I wanted to cross Monona Drive, the Walk signal would light, telling me it was okay for me to cross,” Jim explains. “Unfortunately, the traffic turning left from Cottage Grove Road onto Monona Drive started moving too. Many times, I was in the intersection, and they were zipping by me.” The crossing became a dangerous ritual in Jim’s day-to-day life.

Brent Perzentka, Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist at the Council, told Jim he’d get in touch with the city engineering department. Rather than wait, Jim took matters into his own hands.

“I called the next day,” says Jim. “I spoke with an engineer. Before lunch he called me and told me his solution,” Jim says. “It was a simple fix, but it is working.”

The timing of the signal lights was adjusted to arrest traffic in a new way that created a safer crossing for Jim and others at the intersection. “Now when I push the walk button, I see the walk signal light go on but the green light for the traffic turning left is delayed and I can enter the crosswalk safely.”

Jim’s story of self-advocacy is a perfect preview to Pedestrian Safety Month, coming up in October. In addition, October 15 is White Cane Safety Day. The Council is encouraging people to honor those events by contacting municipal leaders and calling attention to a range of pedestrian safety strategies.

The power of individual advocacy is something Council Executive Director Denise Jess speaks about often. It’s the power of lived experience, supported by data when helpful, shared with someone who is in a position to create change. “Personal agency like Jim’s has to exist in the context of system change,” says Denise. “If you experience something, say something.”

Behind-the-scenes institutional advocacy helped pave the way for Jim’s successful personal experience. Many policy changes having to do with pedestrian safety are determined by the City of Madison’s Transportation Commission, of which Denise is a member. In fact, her work on the commission is a good reminder that change happens when people find ways to serve on task forces and commissions where solutions are discussed.

In the not-too-distant past, a person’s complaint to city engineering was as likely to start a study of the problem as it was to spark a solution. Thanks to debate and pedestrian safety advocacy among members of the Transportation Commission, city staff are now empowered to proceed with a fix on their own in many cases. As Denise says, “advocacy drives progress.”

The lesson here? It’s important to call local officials with specific problems, as Jim did. But without the skids being greased by advocacy on the commission level, Jim’s problem may have sat on the back burner. That’s why it’s important to join local boards, commissions and task forces, and/or forge relationships with existing members. This is where the rubber hits the road for active change.

There were lessons in this for Jim too. “What seems like a big job often turns out to be a small one when you get to the right people,” he says.

We encourage you to use Pedestrian Safety Month and White Cane Safety Day as an opportunity to get involved in making your community more pedestrian-friendly. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Reach out to your local elected officials to request a White Cane Safety Day Proclamation. While they will receive a letter from the Council, having a local resident request the proclamation usually carries more weight. If you reach out and get a response, please let us know!
  • Make your local officials aware of your needs as a pedestrian. Your local leaders can’t address issues they are not aware of! As people with lived experience, we have first-hand knowledge of the impact great pedestrian infrastructure can have in empowering us to feel safe as we move about for daily activities and routines. Share that knowledge with the people who can act on it!
  • Share our articles, fact sheets and social media posts.
    The White Cane Safety Day page of our website contains resources to help you spread the word about pedestrian safety in your community. We will also be posting relevant content on our social media channels that we hope you will share with your network. Please follow us on Facebook to see what we post.
  • Attend a press event or other WCSD/Pedestrian Safety Day event in your area.

Thank you for being an advocate for pedestrian safety!

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