A victory for common sense in Oklahoma

Community activists spared Downing Street from a road diet.

Angie Taylor isn’t a rabble rouser by nature. She and her husband are business owners who spend their days running the Save-a-Lot grocery store on Downing Street in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. But when the city came up with a plan to “road diet” the street she was spurred to action. Harnessing her experience on the Chamber of Commerce she forged a plan to engage the community and find out if this top-down fiat was really what people wanted. It turned out the town wanted nothing to do with it. Bowing to pressure from residents and small business owners, on February 4 the city council voted to reject the plan.

Upon learning of the proposal – part of the My Tahlequah 2040 Comprehensive Plan – Angie put together a petition opposing the four-to-three lane conversion (in reality these projects are four lane to two lane reconfigurations, with a center turn lane). “It was remarkable,” she says. “Within ten days we had more than 3,200 signatures.”

It would have been an impressive feat anywhere, all the more so considering the town’s population is 16,736. “Other business owners were asking for copies of the petition to put up in their stores.”

Despite widespread community opposition the city council and mayor seemed determined to push the project through. And so the politics of Vision Zero came to this quiet, diverse midwestern community.

People were particularly flummoxed over the city’s proposal to add bike lanes to the town’s major thoroughfare. The day I spoke with Angie on the phone the mercury hovered around 28 degrees with a wind chill in the teens. No one in their right mind would ride a bike, much less in the numbers that could justify dedicated bike lanes. Yet officials were relentless. “We have an element in this town that wants to emulate New York or San Francisco,” says Angie.

The project seemingly had more to do with politics than safety: On average the city experiences two fatal accidents per year, with alcohol sometimes a factor. Pedestrian deaths are even rarer, with most years seeing zero. These numbers are even more striking in light of a 2018 study by an organization called YourMechanic that determined Oklahoma is the third least safe state for traffic. The study considered a number of factors including driver skill, weather, road conditions, aggressive driving, and speed. While it seems the state as a whole could use some safety measures Tahlequah stands out for its record.

None of which deterred city officials. As is so often the case with road diets nationwide the city was quite selective in its “community outreach.” Business owners say they were not consulted. Resident Steve Worth was quoted in the local paper as saying Mayor Jason Nichols had written “too many political checks.”

That statement was more prescient than Mr. Worth may have realized: Tahlequah held a mayoral election yesterday, and Mr. Nichols lost to challenger Sue Catron, 57-42. Locals say the road diet controversy played a role in the incumbent’s defeat.

Americans forget that political movements in this country have originated as often in the Midwest as anywhere else, from the Populist uprisings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. We should look to Oklahoma, Iowa, and Nebraska as bellwethers for Vision Zero’s future. Citizens are speaking.

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