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Vision Zero's Troubling Blind Spot

The safe-streets campaign has pushed for more law enforcement at a time when communities of color feel targeted.

Protesters march in New York City against the killing of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling earlier this summer. (Bria Webb/Reuters)

As the executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, it’s Tamika Butler’s job to champion safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists. She’s trying to help Los Angeles fulfill its pledge to be a “Vision Zero” city—by eliminating all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the city by 2025.

But what “safety” means depends on who you’re talking to. She knows that firsthand.

A couple years ago, Butler was driving home from a downtown L.A bar, in a neighborhood packed with bikes and foot traffic. She’d been out with her wife Kelly and a handful of colleagues from the nonprofit where she used to work. The car belonged to Kelly, who was a little tipsy. So Butler, who doesn’t drink, had taken the wheel, while Kelly sat shotgun and a few young co-workers squeezed in the back to hitch rides home.

“We get pulled over,” says Butler. “The officer steps out and tells me, ‘I felt like you were speeding, and it’s not safe, because there are people walking and biking around here.’”

Butler is black. Her staffers were all people of color. Her wife is white. According to Butler, the officer then walked around to the passenger side of the car and bent down to meet Kelly’s eyes. “He points to me, and asks Kelly, ‘Did he make you get in the car?’” Butler recalls, noting that she sometimes gets identified as a man. “And Kelly says, ‘Um, she’s my wife, and this is my car.’” The officer flashed his torch on Butler and her staff members. “Then he looks back at Kelly, and asks, “So why on earth is she driving?’”

Butler apologized for speeding (though she maintains that she hadn’t been), and the officer ultimately let her go with a warning. But the incident resonated with her as a relatively tame example of how easily things can get ugly when racial discrimination mixes with traffic safety. “There’s a special type of attention that folks of color get from police,” she says. That doesn’t only happen when she’s behind the wheel. “There are also places I intentionally won’t bike or walk because I know I will invite potentially life-threatening attention.”

Equity as an afterthought

It’s no secret that people of color face outsize risks when it comes to encounters with law enforcement. African-American drivers, in particular, are more likely to be stopped and searched than drivers of other races, even where they are less likely to be carrying or doing anything illegal. They are more likely to be subjected to excessive force. Getting pulled over for “driving while black” also leads to more arrests among African Americans, opening a “trapdoor into the criminal justice system that can have a lifelong impact, especially for those without the financial or other resources to negotiate it,” as New York Times reported last year.

And while these stops rarely escalate towards violence, things can turn lethal when they do. Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Samuel Dubose were all African-American motorists whose lives ended after getting pulled over by police over for minor driving infractions. Their names rose to national prominence through protests led by Black Lives Matter and other groups calling for an end to police killings. The movement has called attention to the quotidian horror of police violence in communities of color, and the resulting distrust. These issues have rightfully been at the front and center of U.S. politics in recent years.

A man calls attention to zero tolerance-style policing at a vigil following the shooting death by police of Philando Castile. (Jim Mone/AP Photo)

Another brand of street safety politics has also emerged, much more quietly, over a similar timeline. That’s Vision Zero, the campaign to end traffic deaths and injuries.* Started in Sweden in 1997, the movement has built momentum in American cities over the past few years. Austin, Boston, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and others have all pledged to reach that magic numeral within 10 to 15 years, by collecting data to determine which streets are most vulnerable to traffic violence and then following three “pillars” of action to end it.

The first pillar, “engineering,” focuses on designing streets with slower vehicle speeds, wider sidewalks, and protected bike paths. The second, “education,” is meant to align and unify local neighborhoods with the goals and expectations of the campaign. The third, “enforcement,” means using policing strategies to target dangerous traffic behaviors and street corridors with high crash rates.

“This is a ‘zero tolerance’ policy that seems winnable, within a certain timeline,” says Naomi Doerner, an active transportation planner and advocate who has worked informally with the national Vision Zero Network. “That’s very enticing for leaders within a city administration.”

But as with other kinds of zero tolerance policies, Vision Zero risks handing low-income people of color the short end of the stick. In particular, that last “E” is troubling to Doerner and other advocates of both racial and transportation justice, in light of how easily the lives of people of color can be threatened by traffic stops. For many cities pledging to the platform, the negative impacts of discriminatory law enforcement has seemed to be a non-issue, or an afterthought at best, according to Adonia Lugo, a transportation equity consultant and urban anthropologist. “It always seemed off to me that it wasn’t coming up as a special topic,” says Lugo. “How do we rely on enforcement in a settings where people are pointing out that we don’t actually enforce these laws in an equitable way?”

Imported origins

Lugo has thought a lot about this question. In September 2015, she wrote a lengthy blog post, “Unsolicited Advice for Vision Zero,” which touches both on the question of Vision Zero’s support of law enforcement as well as on some of the underlying tensions that keep many bike and pedestrian advocates from even recognizing the concerns of people of color. She drew on first-hand experience from a job (which she wound up quitting) managing an equity initiative at the League of American Bicyclists:

I remember the meeting in summer 2014 where my boss told us that Vision Zero would be the policy framework the organization furthered from then on. With my inclusion filter on, it sounded like another example of white bike advocates looking to Northern Europe for solutions instead of turning to urban communities in the U.S. to find out how they've managed to get by walking, biking, and using transit all these years.

Those Northern European societies that created Vision Zero are far more racially homogenous than the U.S., explains Lugo. The history and social policies of these countries present very different realities than those faced by Americans of color. To put it bluntly, racial profiling in traffic stops may not be a problem of the same magnitude in Sweden as it is in the U.S. And the white, relatively affluent, and male-dominated world of American bicycle and pedestrian advocacy can often be blind to that fact.  

Vision Zero’s Scandinavian roots are especially concerning given the fact that in many American cities, lower-income communities of color suffer from the highest rates of pedestrian fatalities and unsafe street design. And because of that long history of excessive policing with little accountability, there can also be a major lack of trust in law enforcement in these neighborhoods. “Traffic violence is a huge problem, but not everyone is ready to see policing as a solution,” Lugo writes in the blog post. “Why hasn't this element of Vision Zero been drastically changed by now?”

Protestors hold hands across from a line of Chicago Police. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Missteps acknowledged

It’s near impossible to say whether Vision Zero campaigns in U.S. cities have contributed to over-policing and winnowing public trust in law enforcement. What is clear is that, although officer-initiated enforcement is supposed to be a last resort under the Vision Zero platform, that hasn’t always been the case. New York City’s changing traffic-safety culture has been lauded as the campaign’s greatest success in the U.S. to date; Under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 63-point action plan, the city saw traffic deaths plummet 22 percent, with pedestrian fatalities down 27 percent between 2014 and 2015. But as Fast Company recently reported, it and other Vision Zero cities have been coming down hard with officer-initiated enforcement:

In New York, police have significantly ramped up traffic safety policing as priority in Mayor de Blasio’s administration (though they are still shockingly unlikely to prosecute hit-and-run drivers and often spend time ticketing cyclists). And while the emphasis is supposed to be on dangerous violations, data show that the NYPD still focus on minor offenses. In Chicago, the dangerous streets that would be targets for more traffic safety enforcement are mostly on the South and West sides. In D.C., the government wants to increase speeding fines to $1,000.

Leah Shahum, the founder and executive director of the Vision Zero Network, stresses that enforcement is, and was always, meant to be a secondary and complementary to engineering, and that additional traffic enforcement is never supposed to occur without intensive community engagement. But she also frankly acknowledges that the campaign didn’t take the question of equitable enforcement seriously enough from the start. In the wake of “appalling violence in Minnesota, Louisiana, and Texas” earlier this summer, she wrote a candid statement on the Vision Zero Network website about her early “missteps” with the campaign, including failing to include a more diverse range of perspectives when developing Vision Zero’s goals in U.S. cities and over-emphasizing the role of enforcement. Perhaps if the organization had been more inclusive from the start, it might have done things differently, Shahum wrote:

From a traffic safety perspective, this includes relying on enforcement too much and not being bold and brave enough in other areas, such as designing streets and setting policies that truly prioritize safety…. No amount of police presence can overcome road designs and policies that simply don’t work well enough.

Vision Zero may be a flawed campaign in some ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Many transportation justice advocates agree that an even stronger focus on road engineering is the best way forward. Sam Sinyangwe, a policy analyst and data scientist who works with the police reform group Campaign Zero, says his organization originally drew inspiration from Vision Zero as a data-driven platform seeking to end police violence and improve accountability. He sees the “engineering” pillar as a promising way to encourage street planning that addresses transportation disparities faced by communities of color. “The issues with traffic-related deaths stem from the built environment, and the inequities inherent in it,” he says. “We can’t use policing as a solution to a problem that’s about racial inequity.”

Looking ahead

Sinyangwe is optimistic that groups like his can find more overlap than conflict with Vision Zero. After all, they are all part of movements focused on the safety and equality of human life. The national Vision Zero campaign could also eventually move towards more explicit support of the goals of groups like Campaign Zero. Shahum’s deputy director, Zach Vanderkooy, says via email, “I don't think it's impossible to imagine that police reform would become part of a recommended suite of Vision Zero actions.”

Sinyangwe, Butler, Doerner, and others agree that it’s crucial for traffic enforcement to focus on the handful of violations that truly endanger lives, such as speeding, red-light running, failure to yield, and impaired and distracted driving, rather than on “broken windows”-type infractions like expired tags or failure to signal a lane change (which was the offense that Sandra Bland was pulled over for, according to the arresting officer). Automated traffic enforcement, such as speed traps and school safety zone cameras, can help mitigate police bias, but where they are positioned, and how they are used, are still important considerations. Cities need to be careful about how they administer traffic fines so that they don’t over-burden low-income drivers and encourage more resentment of police.

“You can’t just give more tickets and think that changes everything,” says Butler. “Maybe it slows some people down. But for others, it just builds on years of mistrust. It stands between a mom putting food on her table and paying rent.”

Some Vision Zero cities have added a fourth E to their platforms: equity. In San Francisco, police officers has been directed to narrow their attention to a few behaviors that drive fatalities. That city is also set to launch a major speed enforcement campaign that focuses heavily on education and engagement (the police will use Lidar cameras on corridors with high injury rates). Cities like D.C., Chicago, and New York City are using cameras to enforce speed limits (several states have laws restricting cities from using these kinds of technologies). Portland has been a national leader in “diversion programs,” which educate people who have broken traffic laws as an alternative to punishing them with fines or jail time. Some cities in the Vision Zero network are also looking into traffic fines that are tiered by income, like Finland famously has. “Better officer training is another thing that we’re thinking about,” says Shahum. “How are we training law enforcement so that they’re more aware of top safety problems?”

For Tamika Butler, aligning the goals of racial justice advocates and Vision Zero boils down to one thing first: getting everyone at the same table, and figuring out what “safety” means for everyone. That means a diverse coalition that isn’t afraid to question the established schools of thought, whether from Sweden or the local police department.

Last year Butler helped assemble such a group to think about how to implement the goals of Vision Zero in L.A. The meetings involved transportation leaders, racial justice advocates, city officials, police officers, youth groups, and other community organizations that had nothing to do with transit, and Butler says they produced much more nuanced conversations than others she’s had with bike advocates alone. She was especially delighted to see a handful of LAPD officers showing up and engaging. Of course, reforming the entire department is a much bigger matter. To make safe streets for everyone, there’s still a long road ahead in L.A. and beyond.

“There will probably always be that tension,” she says. “But I hope we can figure it out how to overcome it. And that for me, personally, is coming less as an executive director and more as a young black American who feels that the stakes are too high.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier draft of this story improperly implied that Vision Zero focuses solely on pedestrian and cyclist deaths and injuries.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.