NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

Tim Eyman gloms onto another anti-red light camera measure — this time in Redmond

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.

They add:

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.

Fur­ther­more:

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.

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One Comment

  1. We need more red light cam­eras up, stop those red light run­ners, like the one a cou­ple weeks ago that ran a red lite and killed some­one!!! I sat at a red light oth­er day and two peo­ple ran red light. One made it OK, sec­ond one almost got hit. Put more cam­eras up — stop those red light run­ners before they kill some­one. Don’t run those lights and you wont get a tick­et.

    # by charlotte tremaine :: April 7th, 2011 at 7:49 PM