American Trails contributor Josh Adams recently interviewed Lawrence Simonson, who serves as the Chief Strategy Officer of the PedNet Coalition, to talk pedestrian safety, projects and obstacles, and making a difference in Missouri.
by Josh Adams
Can you tell me about PedNet and how important it is to Columbia, Missouri and surrounding areas?
PedNet has been critical in changing the way Columbia looks and feels. Fifteen years ago Columbia looked like any other mid-size town in Missouri. Now, Columbia is looked at and considered an active town that people want to move to, to live an active lifestyle. Surrounding towns now look to Columbia to see what we’ve done, see the benefits of the transformation, and are working to do similar things.
Currently how many members and active participants support PedNet?
PedNet represents around 8,000 Columbia residents.
Tell us briefly about “Complete Streets” and how it is impacting Missouri Residents.
Complete streets is a policy that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to accommodate road users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. Columbia was the first municipality in Missouri to adopt a Complete Streets policy. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since it was adopted in 2005. Since then, we’ve helped many other communities adopt complete street policies, many of which are more progressive and up-to-date than Columbia’s original policy.
In 2009, PedNet was able to get the “Harassment Ordinance” passed for the Columbia area. Is harassment to pedestrians and cyclists a common problem? How do you advocate for safety?
These are really two separate questions. Yes, harassment of people walking and riding bikes is a real problem. There seems to be something about driving that makes people more easily agitated and aggressive, even towards other people driving. However, there is even greater animosity toward people walking and biking and when they are harassed there is a real threat of danger. When people who are walking or biking are harassed they are put in an incredibly vulnerable position because the person (a person driving) doing the harassing is operating a machine that can inflict death and destruction.
Most traditional forms of safety advocacy focuses on trying to change the behaviors of individuals. While that form of safety advocacy is important, and we still do a little of that, we primarily focus on systems level safety, such a policy and infrastructure.
From your website, https://www.pednet.org/projects/, there are quite a few current projects you all have promoted. How is your limited staff able to maintain these extensive projects?
Ha! Many of the projects listed on our website are past projects. Some of them we are not doing anymore. Some of them we are currently not doing but can do if an opportunity arises. With a limited staff it can be difficult to do all the things we’d like to do so we have to prioritize based on funding and mission impact. Hence, our website hasn’t been updated for awhile.
For the “Vision Zero” project, Columbia is one of the smallest communities involved. Is it more likely or less likely that Columbia will be able to meet the standards compared to the other larger cities involved?
When it comes to Vision Zero I don’t think the size of the city/community matters. I think the three most important factors in determining the success of Vision Zero in a community are the culture/values of the community, city leadership, and how it’s embarrassed by city staff.
With the acceptance by Missouri State Parks of the 144 mile Rock Island Trail, how could this impact PedNet?
The Rock Island Trail will have a huge impact on Missouri! Those most directly impacted will be the communities that live along the trail. These communities will not only benefit from the tourism of people using the trail but it will also be a benefit for them in terms of recreation options but also safe walking and biking options between residents, businesses, and schools.
A rising tide lifts all boats and with the acceptance of the Rock Island trail there will be greater awareness and support for PedNet’s vision across the state, and even locally. Obviously, making it easier for us to carry out our mission.
What are some of the biggest obstacles for your organization and how might readers help you?
As a non-profit organization that does advocacy work, funding is always in the back of our mind.
When it comes to achieving our vision, I believe the biggest obstacle we face is cultural norms. PedNet’s vision is towns built for people, where it’s easy to walk, bike, and ride transit, and everyone can get where they want to go. However, over the last 70-100 years, everything from zoning codes and street design standards have socially engineered our culture to be automobile centric to the point that a person cannot participate in our society without the dependency of a car.
Obviously, one of the easiest ways for readers to help PedNet or organizations similar to ours is financially. However, readers can also support us by learning, understanding, supporting, and even advocating for policies and infrastructure changes that help support our vision. It’s important to understand that the policy and infrastructure changes we are seeking don’t just benefit people when they are out walking or biking but give a benefit and make it better for every aspect of a community.
Does PedNet potentially have the ability to expand to other parts of Missouri or other states? How might our readers help?
PedNet’s mission and focus is primarily Columbia, Mo. However, we understand and recognize that we do not live and operate in a bubble. The more other communities, large or small, that embrace our vision, the easier it will be for us to be successful. This is also true for any state level policies or legislation. The more Missouri communities that embrace and support our vision, the easier it will be for policy and legislation to pass at the state level that aligns with our goals. Which, in turn, will make it easier for us to be successful
In 2017, since we primarily focus on Columbia, Mo and have limited staff capacity, we partnered with Bike/Walk KC, Ozark Greenways, and Trailnet to form Missourians for Responsible Transportation. The mission of this partnership is to foster strong communities by aligning advocacy efforts for streets, roads, and trails that work for all Missourians.
What are the highest priorities for PedNet for the year 2021?
Back in 2004, through the efforts of PedNet, Columbia adopted Missouri’s first Complete Streets Policy. From that time, we have been involved in helping many other Missouri communities adopt their own Complete Streets policy. However, the Complete Streets Policies being adopted today are very different from the one Columbia adopted in 2004. So, for 2021, we will be working to create a modern, cutting edge Complete Streets policy and street design standard that we hope to get adopted here in Columbia and can be a model for future policies.
Moving forward we are making a very intentional effort to incorporate equity, diversity and inclusion into everything we do. This priority has three goals:
Reflect the diversity of our community in our staff, board, members, and volunteers
Advocate on behalf of the walking, biking, and transit needs of underrepresented people with accuracy and empathy
Support underrepresented people in advocating for their own walking, biking, and transit needs
What other organizations do you all work closely with and how do you feel they will help change the future for pedestrians and cyclists?
Locally we work with many other organizations of different types. The thing about transportation is that it is the great connector. So no matter what we’re talking about or working on, transportation plays a role and there is an opportunity to apply a walking, biking, or public transit solution. I’ve often said that you can give me almost any problem and I can tell you how viewing the solution through the lens of what makes it better for walking, biking, or public transit can be a part of the solution.
Across the state we work very closely and often partner with the other regional active transportation organizations: BikeWalkKC, Ozark Greenways, and Trailnet. These partnerships have been invaluable and a key to helping move the state and our individual missions forward. Particularly, through our partnership to create Missourians for Responsible Transportation we’ve been able to normalize the conversation about improving walkability and bikeability to all corners of the state, in both rural and urban areas.
How might our readers donate to your organization and what can they do to become involved?
Individual financial donations from readers are vital! Without financial donations from individuals or businesses we wouldn’t be able to be successful. Donations allow us time to write grant’s and provide matching funds to grants. Probably most importantly, grant funding is restricted and can only be used for the particular initiative or program for which the grant was written for. Financial donations are unrestricted and allow us to be flexible and work on the projects that are probably most important to the reader, like legislation, policy change, and advocating for things like the Rock Island Trail.
The easiest way to donate is to go to PedNet’s Website and click on the donate button at the very top center of the page. https://www.pednet.org/
Readers can also sign-up for our newsletter on our website.
Or donate to the organization closes to you regional:
Kansas City - BikeWalkKC
Springfield - Ozark Greenways
St. Louis - Trailnet
Finally, as I mentioned before, the best thing readers can do is to become advocates themselves. Learn, understand, and support, policies and infrastructure changes that help support our vision. Remember, if walking, biking, and public transit can once again become the default for most our trips, rather than the exception, the world would be a better place, a happier place.
Published November 2020
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