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Albright: Looking Both Ways

This low-tech crossing sign in the center of Norwich would be replaced with a blinking, pedestrian-activated light, slated to be installed this summer.

Norwich is a talkative community – on sidewalks, in the Post Office, around kitchen tables, and especially on the town’s email listserve, where thorny issues get thrashed out in public on a daily basis. This summer, what’s got people riled up is a plan to install two sets of solar-powered blinking lights that pedestrians could activate with buttons, at busy cross walks. They’d be the only traffic lights in town.The selectboard is planning to use funding from the Vermont Agency of Transportation to help pay for the installation. Town officials cite Vtrans statistics estimating that about 1,800 cars a day drive down Main Street, and they’re worried that pedestrians, including elementary students, are increasingly at risk.

Not so fast, say opponents on the listserve.

Sure, some admit they’ve had to dodge a car or two while running an errand, but they insist that lights would spoil Norwich’s down-home village character. They say cars and walkers should just learn to get along, and point out that collisions are rare, even in front of busy Dan and Whit’s general store, where the motto is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

The anti-lighters say, in effect, that if Norwich doesn’t have it, maybe Norwich doesn’t need it.

The tone of this online argument has been pretty civil, despite some grumbling about not having been adequately informed about the plan before it was inked. It has, in fact, been under discussion at selectboard meetings for almost two years. But of course, public attendance at those evening sessions can be sparse - which leads me to wonder how the very existence of town listserves may affect turnout in town halls.

On the one hand, online debate about local issues may spur engagement in municipal government. While on the other, people may think that they can skip selectboard meetings, if they pay attention to the local listserve - a 21st-century version of the town crier.

Of course, what does seem clear is that both pedestrians and drivers need to follow the rules as they navigate Main Street and turn off their phones. Pretty ironic to risk injury while reading emails about how dangerous it is to cross without looking both ways.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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