The Pedestrian Safety Task Force Issues its Final Report to the Town Board
The editors of News of Davidson asked Connie Wessner and Scott Denham, who led the Pedestrian Safety Task Force, to reflect upon the work of the group and its final report.
Connie Wessner, who earned her master’s degree in Politics and Public Policy, is a Director of the Community School of Davidson. She served on the Planning Board and Town Board of Davidson, as well as on numerous nonprofit boards.
Scott Denham, PhD, is the Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies at Davidson College, as well as the Coordinator, Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Literary Theory.
Both have lived in Davidson for over 25 years, are bike commuters, and are deeply concerned about the quality of life in our town.
The Town Board will discuss the report and consider its adoption on Tuesday night, November 9, in follow up to their decision to pass the Vision Zero resolution. The Board passed thiis resolution unanimously on the night the Task Force presented it to them
- What was the impetus for you to volunteer for this task force and then agree to be co-chairs?
Connie: I think just about everyone on the Task Force (and likely many of the folks who also applied) could claim a direct contact to one of the Davidson neighbors we’ve lost. We are a tightly connected town, which is exactly what we strive to be, and it’s no surprise that so many of us were affected deeply by these tragic accidents. For my own part, I was a Town Board member when we lost Robert Whitton, and it was and remains the deepest regret I carried away from the time I served. You can’t take that oath and not feel a visceral and deep responsibility for keeping the commitment that you will do everything you can to keep people who live in Davidson safe. It was clear to me we had failed in that promise then, and sadly we continue to fail in that promise today.
Scott: I have commuted on my bicycle for decades, in Chicago, Boston, Berlin, and since 1990 in Davidson. I’m also a road cyclist. I’ve seen it all in terms of cars endangering walkers and cyclists. And my office at the college is in the Carolina Inn, on the west side of Main Street, so I cross Main Street many times a day. Then I happened to be a near witness to both the car crash that killed Earl Gillon on his bicycle just north of Presbyterian Road on 115 in January 2020, and then again when Suzanne Younts was killed by a vehicle on Main Street in June of this year. I felt really angry about both of those deaths, which I saw moments after they occurred. Then I saw the call for task force volunteers, and I think my anger turned toward hope to help make some real change in Davidson. When I learned I had been appointed I immediately started organizing the group—making ways for us to communicate on Slack and setting up some common folders so we could share all our work and information in an open and public way. I guess that early organizational move caused folks in our group to nominate me to be vice-chair. I think Connie’s experience with town governance made her the obvious choice for everyone to lead our work. [NB Connie is chair; I am vice-chair. Not co-chairs.]
- How many times did you meet? Who served on the task force?
Connie: We met weekly for 13 weeks. Attendance at each of those 90 minute to 2 hour Zoom meetings was extraordinary. Scott and I met weekly as well for about an hour on Thursdays after our weekly Wednesday Task Force meetings. Many of us also donated hours of time facilitating listening sessions with the public, creating and managing the survey, drafting a grant proposal for the town, assisting with the Walk to School day, and providing graphic design and layout expertise.
There were 19 Task Force members who represented every part of Town, as well as a wide variety of age groups. We included people who’ve lived here for decades and people who are new to Town. There were professional planners, people with graphic design and marketing backgrounds, educators, scientists, small business owners, faith leaders, and social service providers.
I’m so proud to have been associated with this group and to have learned from all of them. We are incredibly fortunate as a community to have people at the ready to step up in the way this group did.
Scott: The Board’s charge to us made it clear we had a lot to do and that we would need to meet often and work in between our meetings. We developed a committee structure to divide the work. Our Slack workspace shows that we exchanged about 1000 messages over our time working. Many in the group also exchanged lots of emails between our meetings.
The group really did come together to do the work. We developed a culture of respect and we listened to each other. We learned from each other.
- Including hours spent of doing background research and writing the report, how many hours would you say you invested in this effort?
Connie: Golly, I won’t hazard a guess. We all have day jobs, professional demands outside those work hours, and family obligations. We fit it in, and I think I’m not being presumptuous in saying that every Task Force member invested the time without hesitation because the demands placed on us fall far short of the depth of the burden carried by the families who have lost loved ones. Every member has told me personally that they remain ready to work with the Town Board to advance the work we have started in producing this report.
Scott: From watching all the communications and the work members put into shared documents, plus all the reading of previous plans (there are lots of those) and plans and policies of other towns, plus all the work we mention above, and our meetings and further conversations, I’d estimate between five and ten hours per week per person. That’s lots of hours.
- What were the major questions and issues the task force sought to answer?
Connie: Scott is really good at answering this one because he can reel off the five charges we received from the Town Board expertly. In summary I would say the central question we sought to address was: Why haven’t we delivered on the promise of a pedestrian-friendly, pedestrian-safe community?
Scott: The questions for us were clear. How to stop any other deaths or serious injuries of pedestrians by motor vehicles? How can we live up to our claim that we’re a pedestrian-friendly community? How to help the Board direct the staff to make change? We came with those kinds of questions in mind. I would say we began our work with a kind of passion and intensity that felt new to me. Then we had the charge from the Board, which was clear. We were to be:
- Reviewing past progress and recommendations from previous studies, including the recently adopted Mobility Plan,
- Engaging with public safety and other town staff to receive valuable input
- Soliciting feedback from the wider community to broaden the discussion and encourage new ideas
- Identifying short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals and solutions for pedestrian safety
- Providing recommendations for priority pedestrian infrastructure improvements
So that meant we had to know the previous policy documents, back about thirty years. Then we got reports on current practices from town staff members; then we built and distributed a lengthy survey and held listening sessions; then made our recommendation for the future and, finally, made recommendations for priority changes that can save lives and make change right now. As Connie notes, running throughout all our work was the haunting question: why haven’t we lived up to our claim that we are a pedestrian-friendly town.
- What did the task force then coalesce around bringing to the town board?
Connie: I think it became almost immediately clear to us that we know— and have known and effectively documented for some time—what we need to do to keep pedestrians safe. Infrastructure improvements, consistent enforcement of traffic rules, and community culture-building that asserts pedestrian safety over driver convenience are all critical and fully interconnected. We want to work with the Town Board to ensure that the concern and fear we all feel in the aftermath of a loss translates this time out to a sustained and coordinated commitment to eliminate pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries from this point forward.
Scott: We demand a fundamental, transformational culture shift. Our recommendations show how to make that change so we can truly be a pedestrian-friendly community. All the best practices are out there. They are in town documents and planning reports. So, it’s not like the answers are mysterious, What’s been lacking until now is a mandate from citizens, political will, investment and budget commitments, and a sense of urgency to do things right and do them promptly. I think the task force members all feel a sense of urgency and we sought to bring that energy to the board through our recommendations.
- Do you believe that there are efforts that can make Davidson truly safer for pedestrians? What are some of those that you would like to highlight?
Connie: We absolutely do, and we are grateful that the Board shares our sense of urgency. We were grateful for the unanimous vote to approve a Vision Zero resolution at last Tuesday’s Board meeting. Vision Zero is a data-driven effort underway internationally, nationally, and here in NC through the auspices of NCDOT, to address pedestrian safety as the public health issue it is. Our meetings with the Vision Zero folks were striking for the alignment we already share with that framework, including the Board’s quick action in appointing a Task Force to shape a comprehensive, local response. There are tangible, immediate changes to be made, including 1) introducing pedestrian-only phases for crosswalk/traffic signaling, 2) eliminating right turn on red, 3) closing the central block on Main Street to car traffic more regularly to accommodate pedestrian-focused events like the Farmers Market and Concerts on the Green, and 4) embedding the WalkSafeDAV campaign so deeply in our day to day experience in Davidson that pedestrian safety becomes our practice, not merely our promise.
Scott: We are hopeful. Finding out what to do is the easy part. Best practices are well-known, well-studied, data driven, and straightforward to put into place, but it takes commitment and ongoing, consistent work—if the Board and town staff will commit to the work, citizens will follow, and we can do it. 451 people filled out the survey; we held 18 hour-long listening sessions and read hundreds of comments. Four out of five citizens in Davidson want change and are interested in supporting change and in paying for change. The mandate is crystal clear. Connie mentions the basics. When we prioritize pedestrian safety, the changes become obvious: slow down (“twenty is plenty”); change the driving culture (pedestrians always have top priority); use enforcement to teach drivers not to endanger pedestrians (enforce speeding, distracted driving, crosswalk violations); teach kids to be safe walkers and cyclists (teach good practices in schools and through town programs). Build pedestrian spaces that bring people together. Create a holistic, cross-departmental culture of pedestrian-safe priorities in town hall. I hope everyone will read the report to see what else we recommend. And I hope everyone will help support our newly elected board members to make some real commitments to change so we can live up to our promise.
To see the report in its entirety, please go here.