Dispatches from Suburbia: Dear Candidate for Local Office
Dear Candidate for Local Office,
I’ve lived in your district a few years. I’ve been going to work, going to restaurants, reading social media, talking to local activists, trying to figure out why things are the way they are and why all the things that I see as broken are not yet fixed. I want to know if you see the same things I see.
I read here on your campaign website that you appreciate many of the issues that are important to so many of our residents—such as growing jobs, securing access to healthcare and affordable housing, education equity, and civil rights protection for vulnerable communities, including immigrants and communities of color.
You write that you’d also like to improve transportation. This is an issue quite dear to me, and that also affects all of us and feeds into all those other issues of equity and quality of life. You assert that the freeways are congested and that there’s gridlock on the local roads, and that too many people spend too many minutes of their days trapped in traffic. And, of course, we need to improve public transit too.
So, I’m asking you to do something for me. Open a map of your district. Pick a spot, outside of a major jobs or commercial center, and preferably somewhere not too close to where you live. Get in your car, drive to that spot. Look up the nearest grocery store. Now, get out of your car. Walk there, using only your own power and the least amount of time necessary.
Were there sidewalks on your route? What areas were missing? I see people on the sidewalks next to the roads near me pushing strollers. Would you feel safe on your route with a baby or small child? Would you be able to get by in a mobility assisted vehicle, or were there light poles, signs, or other obstacles in your path? How much of your route was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act?
For much of the year, it’s dark when most of us get out of work, and it’s often dark in the mornings when we leave our homes. Are there street lights on your chosen path? Would you feel comfortable walking there in the dark?
Recently, I went to catch a bus home in the evening, but the bus never came. Why not? This may also be a future responsibility of yours. Eventually, I caught a different bus, which took me about a mile from my house. I got off next to a high school near a busy commercial intersection. The bus stop was completely dark. There were lights nearby, but they faced the empty parking lot of the school. The sidewalk was wide with a grassy berm, but the entire stretch to the intersection was completely dark. I crossed the street to a different road, and kept walking. The sidewalk narrowed until it was almost entirely subsumed by encroaching dirt and weeds from adjacent single-family home lots. I passed by a large lot that had stood vacant for many years, with a sign advertising new large single-family tract homes starting at double the price of older houses in the area. Erosion from this property had spilled into the walk so that only a couple feet remained between the sloping weeds and the high-speed road. Later, I came across a large sign that completely blocked the sidewalk in one spot, warning of road work, even though there was no work that I could see. I had to push the sign into a nearby yard to get around it. I didn’t dare walk in the road, because the cars that passed moved too fast for the drivers to have noticed me before they had struck. Street lights pointed away from the sidewalk and into the road; I may have been invisible to drivers passing by.
Was your experience similar to mine?
Look up who is responsible for maintenance of the sidewalks along your route. Sometimes it’s the property owner, but more commonly it’s the local jurisdiction. The sidewalks along my route are actually the responsibility of the county, including those walks that face private homes and abut a state-maintained road. If you are elected, will your office have any say over the usability and expansion of the sidewalk network? And what will you say and do?
Did you notice any bus stops? Many bus stops in my area don’t have seating, and only a few have covered seating. Some, notoriously, don’t even have safe sidewalk access! Such bus stops appear designed for access by a future Star Trek transporter, but are actually used in our time with reasonable frequency by residents in nearby neighborhoods.
What if it were raining or snowing? Look up the schedule of the buses, using an app such as Transit or Google Maps. How long would you have to wait for the next bus?
You arrive at the store. Look at what’s available to buy. I’ve noticed that stores in different neighborhoods, even franchises of the same store, have a different quality of stock. Some run out of common staples quickly. Not all of our neighbors have convenient access to affordable fresh produce.
Now take public transit, or walk, back to your car. How long did it take you?
Look up the home values around you. Would you be able to afford to buy or rent a home here if you had to buy a home now? If yes, would you like to live in this neighborhood? Reflect on why or why not. If you had children, would you want them to walk to the nearby schools? How much have you talked to public teachers and school administrators about what they need?
Look up the demographics of this neighborhood. Imagine that you didn’t grow up in this city. Imagine that you hadn’t grown up in this country. Think of being visible because of the color of your skin or the way you choose to dress. Think of seeing vitriol directed towards your ethnic or religious group in the media and by politicians, sometimes of all parties, and almost never seeing people who look like you represented in a neutral or positive way. Pretend that English isn’t your first language. What might be your concerns?
How many people who don’t look like you or grow up where you did have you talked to since deciding to run for office? How many people not like you are working on your campaign?
Please remember that the people attending the town halls or commenting on your Facebook or Twitter are not representative of the large diverse population that you will need to serve while in office. What is your plan to be inclusive to the concerns of those you don’t see every day? What is your plan to represent those people who are out walking and taking the bus every day in the neighborhood you just walked through?
I know that many of you have thought long and hard about all of this, and about much more. Please don’t stop; there’s much more to be done. I’ve raised some questions, but I haven’t provided you the answers, because often the answers aren’t simple or easy. When it comes to fixing our infrastructure, the budget is limited, and there’s much that won’t be politically feasible. You’ll have to please those who donate and work on your campaign and post on Facebook too.
Still, I hope you’ll not be shy about taking a stand, because we are all counting on you to help us all. I wish you well.
Sanjida Rangwala is a geneticist living in Silver Spring, MD with her husband and two cats. She is passionate about infrastructure and ways to make her community better. Follow her on Twitter @adijnas.