It wasn’t my intention when I started writing my upcoming book (Right of Way, Island Press) to start a consultancy. I approached writing the book like a journalist, which is what I was at the time and what I did for the previous 14 years, both at Streetsblog, and before that at newspapers in my home state of Ohio. (With a two year break for getting a planning degree).
At some point when I was conducting the research for the book though — raptly reading a book about traffic safety — I started feeling like what I was learning was pulling me in a new direction. Traffic safety effects so many people profoundly in the U.S. but that is scandalously under resourced, and under explored.
I started to think how I could help advance some of the concepts I’d been writing more directly. And I started thinking about how I could finance that kind of work.
One thing this particular book (Neil Arason’s No Accident) offered as a remedy was pedestrian safety audits. He noted in the book, for example, some studies have shown they have a 10-to-one return on investment (other studies have placed the ratio even higher). I got excited about the idea. I thought maybe someone like me could help sell more cities on this idea.
Pedestrian safety hasn’t been a focus in the U.S. over the last century. One point I make in my book is we don’t even really have the institutions in place to deliver good results to people on foot. Especially outside of major, fast-growing cities on the coasts. So the people that are working to address this issue, we have to build those institutions ourselves, I believe.
But there are lot of opportunities for improvement. Many commercial streets in the U.S. simply lack basic safety amenities for pedestrians. In many cases they wouldn’t necessarily be very expensive or controversial — signal retiming, or new streetlights, for example — but could save people’s lives or prevent them from experiencing life-altering injuries.
So why start a business and not a nonprofit? I thought a little about trying to start a nonprofit. But the space is so competitive. And I don’t want to compete with charities when there’s already a lot of money in the transportation realm — a lot of it just goes to things that worsen pollution and don’t have any practical impact on bettering our lives over the long term.
So what I want to do with this business is compete for that funding, and try to get some of it going to the things that will make communities a little safer, a little more just and a little more sustainable.
Another question is why start my own firm? One of my motivations is to set my own schedule. I have two kids in school and the hours are weird and they are often sick and that makes it a little tricky to adhere to a strict 9-to-5 schedule.
I also have some ideas about what is missing from the field that I wanted to try to address. For one: I want to focus on very small scale projects. Not master plans. Not necessarily even road reconstruction. We have a lot of roads in the U.S. already. But in most cases, there has been little to no effort to ensure that are safe for pedestrians.
I have some ideas about ways to approach public engagement as well. I think we’re not reaching the right people with public meetings. Meeting people in the field and interviewing them about their issues with the street environment is, I believe, a better approach. I also think these folks need to be paid a small amount to compensate for their time and allow them the opportunity for participation that in some planning processes has become sort of a luxury.
I still think the kind of activist work I did at Streetsblog and a lot of people are doing at nonprofits is really important. It opens up the space to make the kind of changes I am proposing. I’m hopeful some of the work I’ve done including the book, which will come out in August, will open up a little space to make some positive change as well. And that I can come in and help see it through.