That was the question Santos asked me last night at the City Council hearing on the Milpas crosswalks at Yanonali and Ortega.
Both intersections have nothing other than a painted crosswalk and a yellow sign mounted on a pole to warn drivers to stop, notable exceptions to stoplights in a continuous visual line running down Milpas. Intersections outside the stoplight vernacular cause confusion. When a pedestrian steps into those crosswalks at Ortega and at Yanonali, they are dependent on sheer luck that 5 lanes of traffic will see them, and stop. Two fatalities and another injury in March prove this is a dangerous course of action. The police have written north of 30 tickets at a time at these intersections for drivers blowing through them. People don’t stop for anything but a red light.
The proposed solution there of flashing yellow lights didn’t seem effective. Traffic volumes at this intersection run at 20,000 cars per day. It didn’t qualify for a stoplight because people avoid it for fear of being run down, so the pedestrian counts were too low. In other words, in avoiding a known safety hazard, the neighborhood no longer met the criteria for the best remedy for it.
A neighborhood coalition formed to push for a stoplight at Yanonali and Milpas. Santos Guzman is the owner of El Bajio, a wonderful restaurant on Milpas at Yanonali. He was a cornerstone of that neighborhood coalition, along with the MCA, Father Marin of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, whose parishioner was killed in that intersection, Casa De La Raza, Latino Democrats (Latidems), and Casie Killgore, Franklin Elementary principal. Three city advisory committees also recommended a stoplight there.
I think most of us have this faith in democracy, as part of our collective roots. We the people should vote, articulate ideas, and participate in our government. We mostly trust government to keep our welfare foremost in their minds. We are always shocked when they don’t, even after repeated incidents of malfeasance. We still want to believe that our elected reps actually care about what we think.
Santos, like many, was suspicious that his voice counted, but felt called upon to make the case for Milpas pedestrian safety. He didn’t know he was signing up to lose two evenings just to speak for 2 minutes at public comment. Evenings are the busiest time for his restaurant, but he felt this was too important.
This enormous time requirement is a huge deterrent to involvement in government. If you knew that you’d burn north of 5-10 hours at lengthy government hearings, to contribute a few minutes of input, and that you would spend another slew of hours on research and organizing …well, you’d give up at the start. It’s just too much effort. People with fulltime jobs and families just don’t have the ability to regularly attend 3-hour meetings, and some issues require multiple hearings. The process grinds willing participants down, and eventually out.
Who has this kind of time? Enter the paid lobbyists, advocacy organizations, and nuts with nothing else to do.
But I digress…
Santos doesn’t ask much of the city, other than to leave him in peace to carve out a living. He doesn’t haunt hearings or write prolific emails to council. This is the first issue he’s ever been involved in.
He spoke powerfully on the dangers of the crossing at two marathon city hearings. He was joined by Pedro Nava and Abel Maldonado, the former supporting the neighborhood on this issue from the start, and the latter recently opening a campaign office on Milpas St at Ortega. Their unity on this in itself is striking – when have those two agreed on anything???
They agreed with the neighbors on traffic signals for Milpas. Score one for bi-partisanship. Score another one for prominent Latino leaders standing up for a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Surely with this kind of support, you’re going to prevail….you can’t blame Santos for thinking along these lines…
Santos also was deeply moved, as was everyone, by the testimony of the mother of Sergio, killed at the Ortega crosswalk. He pleaded with the City Council for a traffic signal at Yanonali.
Tuesday night, 6 months and 9 hearings later, they made their decision. Their comments ranged from acknowledging the need for small business parking, to how we all put our lives on the line when we step into traffic, yet let’s not be emotional and glom onto the popular wisdom of a traffic light. The council voted 7-0 to cave yet again to the Arch Druids of the Traffic Dept accept the staff’s recommendations, with Cathy Murillo perfectly willing to sacrifice parking spaces needed by small Latino business owners like Santos, for a concrete median to satisfy the walking-as-cool-lifestyle-choice set. That group longs for a world where none of us drive cars anymore, yet thinks little about the actual needs of people that have to walk out of economic necessity. Taking out bus stops to get a concrete median – no problem. Just walk a few more blocks laden with children and groceries.
Both intersections will thus join a long list featuring strange configurations: bulbouts, curb extensions, re-striping (sometimes erratic – see Chapala and Gutierrez, to accommodate a bulbout), brick crosswalks, concrete medians, and now rapid-flashing yellow lights that are supposed to stop drivers trained to brake for red. Confusing enough for locals…never mind tourists.
As the hearing concluded, I saw in Santos’ face a question I dread when urging people to advocate for their street / neighborhood / city:
Why should I bother? I had to abandon my family / business / life, just to speak for 2 minutes. The city did what they were going to do anyway. They always do. It didn’t accomplish anything.
I have no real answer to give him.