I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked (usually in conversation) what motivated me to create Permanent Defense more than nine years ago. Regular readers are undoubtedly familiar with the story of PD’s founding, because I’ve told it or referred to it many times over the years.
The catalyst, of course, was Tim Eyman’s taking of his own donors’ money for his personal gain – a scandal that was first exposed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and then confirmed by Eyman himself days later.
But my motivation for creating Permanent Defense was protecting the quality of life of the community that I am proud to call home: Redmond.
Prior to launching Permanent Defense in February of 2002, I was what you might call a passivist – somebody who tracks politics, but doesn’t participate. I’d carefully followed the debate over I-695, I-722, I-745, and I-747 (Eyman’s schemes for 1999, 2000, and 2001, respectively).
As local governments began dealing with the aftermath of the latter measure in late 2001 and early 2002, I realized that my way of life, and my neighbors’ way of life, was being threatened, even though I was (and still am) fortunate enough to reside in one of Washington’s most affluent cities.
Redmond truly is characterized by its public services. We have a top-notch police force, a responsive fire department (which operates a Medic One unit), a well-equipped regional library branch, wonderful public schools, and a plethora of fine parks, including Marymoor (which is managed by King County).
Redmond city government also does many other things: it cleans the streets, fills potholes, supplies clean, fresh water to homes and businesses, provides facilities and funding for seasonal festivals (RedmondLights in winter, Derby Days in summer), maintains community meeting spaces, and sends inspectors out to ensure that construction projects are in compliance with building codes.
All of these services cost money and are supported by our common wealth.
I knew that if Redmond’s common wealth was weakened, the place I’d grew up, the community I knew and loved, would wither away and become a shell of its former self. I resolved that I would not allow that to happen. And so, to help protect Redmond, I became an activist against Tim Eyman’s initiatives.
Nine years later, Tim has gone from indirectly threatening Redmond’s future to meddling in the affairs of NPI’s hometown. See, not long ago, Redmond installed red-light cameras at several major intersections, hoping to improve traffic safety at those places. Tim has long been an opponent of red-light cameras – he unsuccessfully attempted to place statewide limits on their use in 2008 with Initiative 985, which was overwhelmingly rejected by voters.
But of course, he didn’t give up. His new strategy is to latch onto initiatives to ban and/or restrict red-light cameras at the city level. He associated himself with such an effort in Mukilteo (where he lives), which passed with 71% of the vote. He recently associated himself with efforts to get rid of red-light cameras in Monroe, Longview, Wenatchee, and Bellingham.
And now he’s trying to get red-light cameras removed in Redmond.
Eyman calls himself a “sponsor” of the initiative even though he doesn’t live in Redmond and can’t legally sign it.
His purpose in being affiliated with the actual instigator, Scott Harlan (who does live in Redmond) is to generate publicity and prestige for himself (he never passes up an opportunity to take credit for something).
But what he fails to grasp is that what he is doing is not unlike what the red-light camera manufacturers do when they attempt to drum up business. They are salesmen from somewhere else, and he is a salesman from somewhere else.
Both Eyman and the red-light camera manufacturers are free to peddle their “wares” here, no matter how unwelcome they may be. Redmond is part of America, and all Americans are entitled to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the freedom to petition for a redress of grievances. Our freedoms do not end when we leave the jurisdictions where we reside as individuals.
All the same, Redmond is not obliged to buy what either of them is selling.
We at NPI agree that unchecked surveillance by government (or the private sector) threatens individual right to privacy. That is why we favor repeal of the “Patriot” Act, are against the TSA”s use of intrusive body scanners, support state efforts to thwart attempts to create a national ID card (REAL ID), and were fiercely opposed the bill that gave telecoms immunity following the disclosure that they had helped the Bush administration illegitimately spy on American citizens.
At the same time, the red-light cameras that Redmond has deployed are not the unspeakable evil Tim Eyman and his cohorts make them out to be. Redmond is not Medina, where pretty much every intersection is subject to videotaping. The cameras we do have were not installed simply to gin up revenue for the city, as Councilmember David Carson patiently explained in a posting on Facebook:
Redmond is *not* a city that is starving for revenue Scott [Harlan]. We have a AAA bond rating and Redmond is probably the most revenue-stable city in all of Washington State. If you’d like me to arrange a meeting with our Finance Director so that we can discuss this on a budgetary level, I’m sure I can arrange that.
Just because other jurisdictions use this as a cash cow to bilk drivers who frequent their streets (by tweaking yellow light times and other tricks to bump up the revenue stream) doesn’t mean that Redmond has the same M.O. or goals. The sooner we have a conversation about the merits of this system on a safety level, the sooner you will understand why the Police, Mayor and Council all agree on this program (optimistic on its ability to curb this practice but yet still open to other methods – which is why it’s a pilot program at this point).
Read what Orion wrote about that Avondale/Union Hill intersection (which I’ve also seen with my own eyes) and you will then understand WHY we’ve done this (again, after more than a year of gathering information and refining how we wanted this system to be administered). When someone runs a red light at intersections where the speeds approach that of freeways, they risk their own life and that of others by flouting the law. I’d be completely fine with them risking their own lives, but I draw the line at those of innocent, law-abiding drivers and passengers.
Carson, incidentally, is the most conservative of Redmond’s seven city councilmembers. His views on the major issues we face are undoubtedly more similar to Tim Eyman’s and Scott Harlan’s than ours. But, as his comments above demonstrate, he is better informed than they are. Since joining the city council at the beginning of 2008, public safety has been an issue he’s had to deal with regularly as one of Redmond’s seven lawmakers.
If drivers obeyed the law and didn’t blow through red lights, there would be no need for red light cameras. Unfortunately, not everybody who gets behind the wheel does a good job of keeping their cool and driving defensively. Too many Washingtonians have forgotten that driving is a privilege, not a right.
Reckless driving threatens the well-being of Redmond’s residents. That’s why the city is trying to combat it. A driver who goes racing through an intersection at, say, fifty miles an hour after the light has turned is thoughtlessly endangering other people. A vehicle that impacts another vehicle at a high-speed can easily lead to serious injury or death. Pedestrians and bicyclists stand even less of a chance of escaping from such a collision.
Not surprisingly, Redmond’s chief executive, John Marchione, is not pleased that Eyman and his pals are trying to abolish the city’s carefully planned red light pilot project. In remarks to the Redmond Reporter (which published a story on the matter yesterday) he appropriately termed Eyman’s rhetoric a “temper tantrum”. In addition, he released a statement outlining the history of the process to date.
“We carefully and thoughtfully implemented a one-year pilot program to create and evaluate traffic safety cameras,” stated Marchione. “We have a process already established where we will evaluate the data and determine at the end of the year whether or not to continue the program.”
Marchione continued, “Our program is unique in that any revenue generated over the cost of the program can only be spent on traffic and pedestrian safety programs and capital improvements not already budgeted for in our current 2011-2012 budget.”
I have no doubt that the debate over the red-light cameras will continue to rage on. Eyman will continue to belittle city leaders and question their motives. Manufacturers will spend money trying to beat back efforts to remove their machinery. People will weigh with their opinions at public meetings.
And the debate will continue to miss the point.
Rather than asking, Are red-light cameras good or bad?, we should be asking a more important question, Why do so many people drive recklessly in the first place?
All that red-light cameras do is soothe a symptom (reckless driving). The cameras do not tackle the root cause of the problem.
Addressing root causes (as opposed to just symptoms) is a major part of NPI’s philosophy. It requires going beyond sound bites and talking points, and thinking critically. It’s not easy to do. That’s why so much of what passes for civic discourse in this country is shallow in nature.
I believe there is no simple answer to the question I asked above (Why do so many people drive recklessly in the first place?).
Part of it has to do with how we have constructed our communities; suburbs like Redmond are typically dominated by automobiles. And when I say “dominated by automobiles”, I don’t just mean that there are lots of cars. I mean that the neighborhood was designed for vehicles and not people.
This has had the side effect of compromising public safety, as the authors of Suburban Nation explained in 2000:
The problem with current street design standards is not that engineers have forgotten how to make streets feel safe but that they don’t even try. Streets that once served vehicles and people equitably are now designed for the sole purpose of moving vehicles through them as quickly as possible. They have become, in effect, traffic sewers. No surprise, then, that they fail to sustain pedestrian life.
The desire for increased traffic volume – “unimpeded flow” – has resulted in wider streets. While travel lanes on old streets are often only nine feet wide or less, new streets are usually required to have twelve-foot lanes, which take longer for pedestrians to cross. “Unimpeded flow” also has another name – speeding – adding all the more to pedestrian risk.
Under current standards, streets are allowed only to curve loosely, with the result that one finger on the steering wheel and one foot on the gas pedal are all that it takes to maneuver through a residential neighborhood. The intention is to provide greater safety by allowing drivers to see farther in front of them, but the result is that drivers feel comfortable driving at higher speeds, making walking all the more dangerous.
Redmond’s Public Works department has been trying for some years to improve roadway geometries by implementing “traffic calming” measures. The city has also reconfigured some streets to have fewer general purpose lanes. Still, there are plenty of arterials in the city that remain big and wide.
Not coincidentally, all of the intersections where red-light cameras have been installed have significant crossing distances.
Redmond is slowly becoming more walkable and bikable. Within the next two decades, Sound Transit’s East Link extension will hopefully reach downtown, making it easy to get to Bellevue or Seattle (two common destinations for Redmond residents) without a car. But most of Redmond’s residents still live in subdivisions and use a car to get around. What’s more, many people commute through Redmond on their way to somewhere else.
Most driver education textbooks cover, at some point, a phenomenon known as velocitization. Velocitization occurs when the mind becomes used to traveling at a high-speed and thinks of that high-speed as normal. A driver can observe the phenomenon whilst exiting a highway. Thirty miles an hour seems ridiculously slow after having traveled at sixty miles an hour for a while.
But to a person standing still watching vehicles merge into traffic from a offramp, thirty miles an hour seems really fast. That’s because it is.
When traffic engineers build wide roads, they are effectively inviting motorists to drive fast. In Tim Eyman’s hometown of Mukilteo, there is actually an arterial called the Mukilteo Speedway, which winds through the city and terminates at the ferry dock. To me, the word “speedway” evokes a racetrack.
That’s not an appropriate metaphor for our roads.
So we need skinnier streets. We could also benefit from more roundabouts. Research has shown that roundabouts make for safer intersections than traffic lights; this is because they force drivers to slow down and look around. A roundabout literally interrupts the trajectory of a road, whereas traffic lights merely hang above it. Roundabouts are also more efficient because there’s no light to idle at. Even when the power is out, roundabouts can efficiently process traffic.
But sprawl is not the only culprit. Our culture of our instant gratification is, in my view, equally culpable. As a people, we have become too greedy and impatient, too busy to enjoy our lives. We are constantly bombarded with advertising urging us to buy the latest thingamajig or whatchamacallit. We would rather get somewhere quickly than enjoy getting there.
We’re always rushing from one thing to the next, inwardly seething at anybody and anything that gets in our way.
Instant gratification, is coincidentally, what underlies Tim Eyman’s sales pitch. His initiatives are all about selfishness. Destroying our common wealth and bolstering private wealth. Undermining representative democracy so it can’t work for the common man and serve the public good like it’s supposed to. Eyman is capitalizing on the uglier aspects of our culture and bringing them into our politics.
Instant gratification and selfishness are not what America is all about. Our founding fathers talked about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence for a reason. They thought of the new United States as a place where people could realize their potential.
At our last Spring Fundraising Gala, in June 2010, NPI’s good friend John de Graaf, who has written extensively on this topic, talked about the plans for the then-forthcoming Seattle Area Happiness Initiative, which is reframing and redefining how we measure well-being here in the heart of the Pacific Northwest.
John’s books include Affluenza (The All-Consuming Epidemic) and Take Back Your Time (Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America). He has done more than anybody else we know to help his fellow citizens reclaim their time and realize how to lead more rewarding and fulfilling lives.
We would all be safer and happier, even amidst our suburban sprawl, if we just slowed down – literally and figuratively.
Amtrak created a brilliant television spot making this point. It’s called, “Kids Repeat“, and it depicts children playing with toy automobiles and planes, parodying highway congestion and airport congestion. The kids beautifully emulate the frustrations of the impatient commuter. Just as the litany of mimicked complaints reaches a crescendo, the scene changes, showing another child playing with a giant miniature trainset. A happy child intones, “The train is now arriving.”
“The train has arrived, indeed,” says the spot’s narrator, as a real passenger train is shown exiting a tunnel. “Amtrak. Enjoy the journey.”
If more of us took that advice (enjoy the journey) would we have a problem with people blowing red lights? Would we even need red-light cameras at all? Probably not. Courtesy and patience have become too uncommon in modern America. We need to relearn those virtues… and take back our time as we do so.