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The Road to Democracy (Literally)

Jenna Spinelle is the Communications Specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. She joined the team in October 2017. This is her first post for the blog.

If you read the news and pay attention to the pundits, you might think that we Americans are locked in our tribal identities and can’t agree about anything. But, if you look beyond the headlines and the spin, you’ll see that people still can come together to find solutions to common problems.

It’s rarely easy and rarely glamorous, but it does happen. I recently experienced it firsthand through a project in my neighborhood, and it was just the thing I needed to reaffirm my faith in dialogue and the democratic process.

The catalyst for all this was about the most mundane topic you can think of — traffic.

The street I live on is a not-so-secret shortcut to get from one part of State College to another. Drive down it and you can bypass a few traffic lights and a much busier section of a four-lane highway.

This is convenient for drivers but creates a lot of unwanted traffic in the neighborhood, not to mention drivers who ignore the 25 mile-per-hour speed limit because they are trying to get from one place to another in a hurry.

People have grumbled about this for years, but a car accident last fall caused by someone driving too fast was the tipping point for us to actually do something about it.

The neighborhood is a mix of people: some have lived there for generations and some are more recent transplants like me. We represent all walks of life from business owners to maintenance workers; retirees to young professionals. This little group of 50 homeowners is a microcosm of our nation as a whole.

Over the past year, we’ve bonded at backyard barbecues and the like. But more recently, we came together to talk about this problem, and decide on a feasible solution.

How? Well, first off you have to know that Pennsylvania’s municipal government structure is complicated. There are cities, boroughs, and townships, each with its own governing body and rules. My particular municipality is governed by a five-member township council and several related committees.

When the issue of traffic on my street came to the Local Traffic Advisory Committee (yes, that’s right), they asked us residents to come up with options for what to do about it. They figured that we knew the situation better than anyone and would have the best insight about what would work.

The township funded a traffic study that gave us some solid data to work with. This is one of those situations where everyone had their own anecdotal version about what they saw out of their window so it was helpful to have a common set of facts.

Armed with the results of that study, we got down to business. We met at a neighbor’s house and attended public hearings at the township office over the course of six months. Options we considered included:

  • Closing the street entirely
  • Restricting traffic in some way
  • Doing nothing at all

Many of the opinions about what to do were strongly held. Mine certainly were, but even though I disagreed pretty strongly with some of my neighbors, it was heartening to see them come out and speak their minds just as I did. Township council members helped moderate the discussion and identify points of consensus when they arose.

After a few meetings, we decided on five options. All five were mailed to every homeowner in the neighborhood for a vote. That way, even those who did not participate in any of the planning meetings still received the opportunity to provide input.

The decided-upon option, of course, was somewhere in the middle of all the ideas originally on the table. We decided to restrict one side of the road so that traffic could go out but not come in — effectively closing the shortcut but still allowing everyone who lives in the neighborhood to get out without too much inconvenience.

There are still a few hurdles to overcome before our desired changes become a reality, but everything looks to be moving in that direction. Through the process, I’ve learned more about my neighbors than I ever would have otherwise and remembered the power that a group of people can have when they speak their minds, hash things out, and then work together to turn their objectives into reality.

If that’s not democracy in action, I don’t know what is.