Saturday, February 24, 2007

No Left Turn

My County is trying to reduce childhood obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and concurrently trying to reduce car exhaust emissions which contribute to greenhouse gases and increases rates of childhood asthma. In order to do this they are receiving Federal funds, matching them, and then redistributing them to cities and schools around the County to improve the "Safe Routes To Schools" programs and encourage walking and biking to school.


We've been having audits of traffic flow at various schools, followed by community meetings. No one from the community is showing up. (We're still getting work done, but it's a bit depressing that not a single parent at the High School or Middle School has any interest. Oh well.) There's a whole crew which comes to the meetings: City Traffic Engineer, Police, City Councilmember on the Pedestrian Bicycle Safety Commitee, Superintendent, Principal, School Baord Members, and the Director of the Public Works.

By the way, I love our city's Public Works Director. He is so fun to be in a room with. Sewer systems make him gesticulate. Water treatment plants make him talk faster. Traffic flow patterns make him glow. But bring up traffic lights, signage, and (oooooo!) thermoplastic crosswalks, and he practically quivers in delight. The other School Board member on the City Council - School Board Liaison Committee and I sometimes conspire to get him to say "Thermoplastic Crosswalks" just so we can hear that shiver of glee and awe in the back of his throat. But all that's laughing at his expense, which is mean. He's actually a dedicated, experienced, and knowledgeable man who is dependably concerned about the safety of the kids as they get to school.

Wednesday morning we had our community meeting at my Elementary School (Maybe evening meetings don't work? Let's try mornings?). We had two parents show. YAY! We practically wet ourselves welcoming them into the process. One is a fairly good friend of mine, sorta. We talk a fair amount, but we're not friendly enough outside of school to get coffee together. The other one is a pleasant person, very involved with the parent groups at the school. She is the BFF of the School Board Member who resigned in a huff this past September, but we've generally been OK together.

Well. Let me tell you. THAT was an interesting meeting.

The City Councilwoman is trying to figure out ways to get kids to bike to school, the other School Board Member is trying to orient herself on the aerial map, trying to figure out where "The Old Gate" is (or was), and the traffic guys are congratulating the Principal on the order and politeness with which the drop-off and pick-up proceeded. My parent-friend says, "Well. We were all quite polite when there were three men, the principal, and a cop standing at the corner. You should see the craziness which goes on most days."

At which point, BFF of Former School Board Member (BFF-FSBM) says, "It would all work FINE if SOMEONE hadn't restricted our options!"


"SOMEONE has convinced this school that the parents don't know what they're doing, and that we cannot make a left turn out of the front circle! You're restricting our options! Let us do what we need to do, and the traffic will sort itself out."

Sighing, I jump into the fray, "The left turn out of the circle has been illegal for some time. The only thing new is that there's a sawhorse in the left turn lane. If you make a left turn out of the circle, you enter the lane which is trying to make a left turn INTO the traffic circle. Once no one can leave or enter, there's no movement."

And the City Councilwoman says, "We are trying to reduce idling cars in this program, actually. It has been shown that idling cars contribute to greenhouse gases at a higher rate than moving cars. And if those cars are idling near students, then the incidence of asthma can increase."

Oh, woe betide the woman who brings facts and figures. For Shame! Shame upon you and yours!

The Public Works director is looking a touch alarmed, and the Principal is looking down at her paper, tracing the word BICYCLE over and over in big swoopy letters. The other School Board Member is beginning to simmer; the steam is just barely beginning to wisp out of her ears.

I start to explain, "There have been all sorts of experiments tried here. I've heard about putting in a speed bump. I've heard that the street should be a one way, which I'm sure the City will not do. I've heard that we shouldn't let people make a left turn INTO the circle. I've heard that we shouldn't let people into the circle at all..."

"I've been here THIRTEEN years, and we've been able to make a LEFT turn out of that circle the whole time. When you restrict our options, you make traffic worse!" She interrupts, pointing at me.

"We're trying to prevent people from jaywalking in front of the school, so there's less parking across the street. And we're trying to get people to WALK to school, and we're trying to move the backups farther away from school. If you turn right out of the circle, you can go up one block, turn left, make a circle through the residential streets, and come right back into the traffic circle again."

(I loved this line) "But I don't LIVE to the Right. I live to the Left. I know that YOU live to the Right, so for you this is easier. But some of us life to the Left. I need to turn Left."

My Parent-friend says, "If you make that back circle though, you can get out at the bottom and go home. I live right next to you, and the right turn works for me."

"It was fine here until SOME people showed up and prevented us from driving home the way we want."

The cop is now watching this like a tennis match. The Traffic engineer is flipping through his notes, trying to figure out when he can break in. The Director of Public Works now tries to bring the meeting back to bicycles and educational incentives we can propose so that the children will WANT to ride to school. BFF-FSBM silently watches the conversation, shifting in her seat every once in a while like an upset hen. One shoulder up and forward, chin down, bounce bounce her hips, and then the other shoulder goes up and forward. I'm watching her thinking, "Oh, just lay the egg already. Make you feel better."

The meeting went on for two hours. She would stay quiet but annoyed while everyone else spoke, but the minute I spoke, she leapt in to interrupt. Any idea I brought forward was ridiculous. And if I was talking about block parents to walk groups of kids to school or punch cards the kids could redeem after a week of walking to school, she always brought it back to the Left Turn. After the fifth time she interrupted me, I asked, "Can I finish this thought?"

"Oh. I didn't know you were still talking. I thought there was a pause."

(A pause clearly being an invitation for interruption. Right.)

Two hours of this crap. At the end, the pre-schooler she had toted along got impatient, and she had to leave. The door closed behind her, and we watched her walk down the hallway. When she turned the corner, the Director of Public Works says, "I never thought this meeting was about Left Hand Turns. May I just say here, Suisan, you did a marvelous job with her. She's a very tough customer."

And the Councilwoman says, "Thirteen years she's been here? How is that possible?"

To which the cop sullenly replies, "Mormon."

We all burst out laughing. He hadn't said a word the whole meeting, and his one comment broke the tension and led us into guffaws.

In the last fifteen minutes, we tossed around all sorts of workable ideas, some really good brainstorming, some excellent programs which can be started right now with no money and no help from the County. We came up with some priorities on our engineering projects which the County would have to pay for. A really productive meeting.

Just as we were getting up to leave, the Councilwoman turned to me and said, "I've watched you on TV, but I've never worked with you before. I'm just so impressed in the way you handled yourself this meeting. For some reason she has it in for you, and you were fair and articulate the whole time. Does this happen often?"

"At this school? Every week. There's a cadre of parents here who are quite vocal politically and who absolutely despise me. But there's only about four of them this year. I hadn't realized that she was quite so bad."

The Director of Public Works says, "Just so everyone's clear on one thing. There's been a sign prohibiting a Left Hand Turn out of the driveway posted for about six years. No one notices it. I'M the one who told the principal that the only way to prevent it was to block that part of the driveway. I'M the one who had the sawhorse painted bright orange, put the No Left Turn sign on the sawhorse, and gave it to the principal in order to direct traffic away from the front of the school. She only noticed the restriction when the sawhorse went up."

But apparently it will always be my fault.

I think if/when I run for re-election I'm going to put a flyer out which says, "Bringing No Left Turns To A Neighborhood Near You."

(In the past few days, everyone who was at the meeting, except the laconic cop, has called to express their concern for my well-being after having to sit through that meeting. To which I can only say, "Gee guys. It's ALWAYS like this. And this one wasn't so bad; sort of comical actually. But I have to ask: what foxhole have you been hiding in? Welcome to my life. Want to help out? Great. Tell everyone you know that I'm a cool chick and that harpies are attacking me at every opportunity. Or better yet, at the next meeting, stop drawing on your pads of paper and speak the hell up." The Councilwoman said that she would. She's the only one so far. Humph.)


CindyS said...

Why the Public Works Director didn't say that to this woman was cowardly. I mean, just tell the person how it is already.

My head would explode!


MMcA said...

I agree with Cindy. No use saying it aferwards.

People (and I say this as a pedestrian, cos I failed my driving test three times) are so odd about saving themselves five minutes on the school run. There's a turning circle at our Primary School gate. Every year - and even with only three children I've been there eleven years - the same circular comes out. Don't park in the turning space. (Car park is 100m away) Always a few people, same people every day, who park there.

My favourite though, was at our church. The road that goes past the back door of the church is a one-way street, and it used to be you couldn't get on to it. (Town Centres were mostly pedestrianised during the Troubles, and the access roads to and from the town were only for delivery lorries etc..) Still, there's a car park 30 seconds away, so it's easy to get the children. But what a lot of parents used to do was reverse up the street instead.
It was the pretence of legality that used to throw me completely. If you're going to break the law, at least drive up the street forwards - because these are your children we're decanting on to the street, and if a four year old runs on to the road, you're bound to have a better chance of seeing them if you're driving forwards than if you're reversing at speed.

Suisan said...

Backing UP a one way street in front of a school? My Public Works Director would have a coronary.

Primary (Elementary) school parents are the absolute worst when it comes to safety. They drop their kids off in the middle of two-way traffic, or beckon them from their cars to jaywalk. U-Turns, cutting other cars off, refusing to drive allll the way up tot he cone before letting the kids out, everything you can think of.

And yeah, the Public Works Director really should have taken ownership of the sawhorse, but I also think that even if he had, that that parent would have twisted it around that I brainwashed him to do so.

What makes me giggle is the Councilwoman. Shocked at the unprofessional behavior of the community. Appalled at the lengths to which they will go to prove a point. Honey? Where you been? Because when you talk about schools, you are not working with County Clean Air Agnecies and the staff to the County Representative or Legilative Analyst's Office. These are pissed off parents who will NOT want to deal with five minutes extra of their time, thank you very much. Out of Touch Much?