COLUMN: We got a new perspective on safer streets through a child's eyes

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO.

CINCINNATI -- Sometimes things are clearest when seen through the eyes of a child.

That old platitude seems to be proving true again at City Hall, when last week young Mount Washington resident Madelyn Gerker commanded the attention of City Council and Mayor John Cranley with a humble but clearly-worded letter, making a simple request.

"Please help me get a sidewalk."

It's the latest in a litany of demands from residents for the city to do more to make its neighborhoods safer to walk and bicycle through.

Madelyn's voice has added a new tone to these urgent pleas.

Hear Madelyn read her letter to City Council in the video player below:

 

The 9-year-old attends Sands Montessori on Corbly Road. She lives not far away, but for her and her younger sister and brother, walking to school is a challenge.

"My family and me walk to and from school every day," she wrote. "To and from school it's not safe."

Her request was so poignant that it prompted a response from the mayor himself.

"School can be hard enough," Cranley wrote in a March 27 response. "Getting there should not be hard, too."

In the letter, Cranley said he's in talks with the Department of Transportation and Engineering to make a plan to install a sidewalk by her house. Last year, the city implemented its first Pedestrian Safety Program with a $500,000 budget for such improvements.

Councilman Jeff Pastor filed a motion last week for the city administration to apply for an Ohio Safe Routes to School grant to construct the sidewalk.

Madelyn is another example of the power young people can have when advocating for change -- even if it's as every day (or could we even say pedestrian?) as installing a sidewalk.

The truth is, though: Madelyn isn't alone in her worries -- and for good reason. As WCPO previously reported, it turns out that pedestrians and cyclists in Cincinnati assume a far greater risk when getting around than other modes of transportation.

Take a look at this crash data from the last five years:

 

Non-motorists made up more than 16 percent of traffic fatalities in Cincinnati and more than 6 percent of traffic injuries. But they were less than 2 percent overall of the people involved in crashes.

Of those involved in such crashes, sheer math suggests that only a small portion are students walking to school.

That is not meant to diminish Madelyn's request or her voice in any way, or any of the tragic crashes that have claimed the lives of students going to and from school.

Instead, it begs the question: Why only now do we see such swift and vocal response from our leaders? What about the miles and miles of other Cincinnati streets that don't offer a sidewalk? 

It's not really our current leaders' fault entirely. Cincinnati is leagues behind other peer cities when it comes to people-oriented -- as opposed to car-oriented -- street design. There's a lot of catch-up left to play, and a lot of red tape to move through to get these things done.

The implementation of the Pedestrian Safety Program was also a big step in the right direction. Hopefully future budget discussions could push for more than just a half-million dollars toward the cause.

Some of it comes down to us in the media, too. It doesn't take much research to find that stories involving younger or older people involved in crashes generate more engagement with a news audience. One study tied this phenomenon to pedestrian-involved news specifically: Stories that involve pedestrians struck who were older or younger get more coverage.

That means they often have more impact.

We saw this when -- only a day after Madelyn's letter appeared before a council committee -- Councilmember Jeff Pastor submitted a motion for the city administration to study the cost of installing a sidewalk along Sussex Avenue.

Mayor John Cranley personally responded to Madelyn's request:

There's something particularly powerful about a child making the case for safer streets.

In a telling moment, once discussion of Madelyn's letter concluded during last week's committee meeting, all but one of the news outlets present left (WCPO stayed).

That moment was telling because of what came next on the committee's agenda: a general update on pedestrian safety from the transportation department. It was an update scheduled well before Madelyn's letter was added to the agenda.

A bureaucrat's slideshow doesn't carry quite the emotional weight of a 9-year-old pleading for a sidewalk, yes, but the irony here is hard to swallow.

Is this really only a story because the plea came from a child? By the same token, is this really only a story when a driver strikes and kills someone? What about the close calls? What about the moments that aren't headline grabbers, when there is no "victim" or "villain" to put in the spotlight?

To be clear, Madelyn is no victim. She is proactive, with a strong voice and a clear mission -- one our region increasingly needs. And that's newsworthy, to be sure.

I just hope -- now that Madelyn so bravely offered her perspective on the matter -- we can extend the attention she deserved to the rest also struggling to feel safe walking their neighborhood's streets.

Hope springs out of Madelyn's story in another way, too: It didn't take a death to make a headline.

This time. 

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