Ask a Reporter is an occasional series about civic engagement in and around the city.
Q: There is a very busy intersection in my neighborhood that has no traffic lights, only a stop sign. How do I get NYC to install a light?
A: The official response from the city’s Department of Transportation, the agency in charge of making such a change, is to make a request through 311 or the Department of Transportation’s website or by writing to the department.
But to better illustrate how one might go about effecting a change like this, let me offer a case study from the Borough Park neighborhood in Brooklyn. I’ll give you a step-by-step guide from a college sophomore named Mahaa Tahir, who took on the issue of a dangerous intersection two years ago with her high school social studies class.
Listen to WNYC's Yasmeen Khan report on making dangerous intersections safer:
As Tahir noted: “We made a change and it was actually easy—well, not easy. But it was achievable.”
The Intersection of Dahill Road and Ditmas Avenue
Students must cross over Dahill Road to walk from the Ditmas Avenue subway station to The Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice. It’s a busy area. At that time, cars turned from both directions on Ditmas Avenue into the crosswalk. Students often felt unsafe. They heard about collisions, including a teacher at their school who was hit while riding her bike.
So, in teacher Sharon Daiello’s “Participation in Government” class, students chose to tackle the issue of the dangerous intersection as part of their curriculum with Generation Citizen, an organization that works with schools to teach action-oriented civics. Here’s the process they followed, as told by Tahir and Daiello.
1. Figure out what you’re advocating for. Through research, the class learned that one option for improving pedestrian safety was establishing a—get ready for some serious jargon—Leading Pedestrian Interval Signal. An LPI gives pedestrians several seconds to cross before cars are given a green light. In other words, pedestrians get a head start of several seconds before cars are allowed to move.
The LPI seemed the most attainable way — since it didn’t require, say, a change in law or a public hearing — to make the intersection more safe.
2. Pinpoint who has the power to make the change. In this case, the class discovered that the city’s Department of Transportation was the governing body and sent them their request. The DOT sent the class a relatively quick response informing them that the department was collecting data on collision history and undertaking a study on the feasibility of installing an LPI.
3. Back up your advocacy with research and facts. The mayor’s Vision Zero initiative had already brought attention to pedestrian safety and the city was collecting data on crashes. Students found out that their local police precinct, the 66th, had the highest number of collisions and pedestrian injuries in the city. The precinct also ranked the second-highest for cyclist injuries. These facts, plus the political pressure the mayor had already brought to the issue of pedestrian safety, helped bolster the students’ case.
4. Get your community on board. You can try to go it alone, but it’s better to have the buy-in of other people who would also benefit from the change. Is this a change that others in the community want to prioritize? Tahir and her classmates sent out a survey to the whole high school.
5. Get your issue on the radar of people in power. In addition to the Department of Transportation, the class reached out to elected officials. Their city council representative at the time, David Greenfield, came to visit them to discuss the issue.
6. Talk to the press. Students wrote up a press release and reached out to several media outlets. They even researched which ones (including specific reporters) had covered Vision Zero. Sadly, students did not get much of a response form local journalists (including, er, Gothamist). But they did hear back from News 12, which visited the school and talked to the class for a television segment that later aired. Daiello said the Leading Pedestrian Interval was added quickly thereafter. She credits the press report with nudging the city agency into action. (Daiello said she did not receive notice from the Department of Transportation that it actually made the change until well after the fact.)
7. Be patient and persistent. This, as we have discovered throughout the Ask a Reporter project, may be the golden rule of civic participation. Working through city agencies takes time. You may need to repeat steps as necessary.
All in all, it took a few months to get the LPI installed once the students started advocating for it. That’s actually relatively quick! Not all changes will happen that fast. But at least take heart in knowing that if you are ever walking along Ditmas Avenue in Borough Park, waiting to cross Dahill Road, you’ll have seven seconds all to yourself in the crosswalk before the light turns green to traffic.
And when taking on an issue of your own, it’s important to remember some civics best practices — like the ones employed by students in Daiello’s class. In fact, some of the most helpful guidance on civic action comes from organizations that focus on youth engagement. Makes sense. Civics lessons are generally written for middle or high school students. But, as we all very well know by now, adults need civics information too.
Check out the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, known as CIRCLE, at Tufts University for data and analysis on youth participation and for research on the challenges and opportunities for bringing young people into civic life. But really, much of their work can be applied more broadly to the general population.
You can also check out the step-by-step civics guidance from Generation Citizen. They offer their curriculum online, getting students to first identify a community issue they want to tackle and then putting them on a path toward solving it.
If you feel like this type of civics isn’t taught much anymore — you’re right.
“We've seen the decline in civics education in school over the last several decades,” said DeNora Getachew, the New York Executive Director of Generation Citizen. “At one point in our nation's history, students took as many as three classes related to civics or government, and they were really getting that embedded in the academic experience. And now, you know, you barely get one semester in some states.”