Why We Don’t Support Traffic Enforcement

Emily Wade and Elissa Schufman
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Emily Wade is the former Development and Communications Director at Our Streets Minneapolis. A year-round bike, walk, and transit commuter, she’s never owned a car. She believes transportation policy has a critical role to play in eliminating racial disparities and connecting and strengthening our communities.

Elissa Schufman is a member of the Our Streets Minneapolis board of directors. As a queer speculative fiction writer, she sees expanding our imaginations as a necessary part of the work to create a more just and joyful world.

(Photo Credit: Diego Fabian Parra Pabon)

 

A version of this editorial was originally published on July 18th, 2019 on the Our Streets Minneapolis blog.

At Our Streets Minneapolis, we firmly believe traffic enforcement is not a good strategy to make streets better places to bike, walk, and roll. As we use it, traffic enforcement means the enforcement of all traffic laws like speed limits. It does not mean failing to act when road users crash, especially when someone is injured as a result. We developed this position over several years with leadership from a multi-racial group of staff and volunteers through detailed research, hours of work group meetings, and their own lived experiences. 

There are two main reasons we think enforcement is a bad strategy: 

  1. Increased traffic enforcement will almost certainly amplify racial disparities in our city
  2. Changing street design is a more effective way to make streets better places to bike, walk, and roll

When Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25th, 2020 we renewed our call to de-police our streets. Yet despite years of advocacy and growing local support for alternative approaches to traffic safety, traffic enforcement remains a go-to strategy for people looking to prevent harm on streets in Minneapolis and cities across the country.

The harms presented by our streets are not small ones: over 38,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes annually in the United States, and 4.4 million people are injured seriously enough to require medical attention. Here in Minneapolis, people walking and biking are overrepresented in these serious and fatal crashes, and Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by fatal crashes. 

It’s realities like these that have led cities across the nation to adopt a policy framework known as Vision Zero, which recognizes that the dangers on our streets are a result of the way they’re designed, and seeks to eliminate serious injuries and deaths caused by people driving. Traffic enforcement—both police enforcement and use of cameras—have long been seen as a necessary tool to reduce dangerous driving, and traffic enforcement is a standard component of Vision Zero plans in the United States. 

We know that our position against traffic enforcement sets us apart from many local and national advocates who believe law enforcement is key to making streets spaces for everyone. Here in Minneapolis, the idea that we need more police enforcing traffic laws is popular in conversations about drivers blocking bike lanes, speeding, and the City of Minneapolis Vision Zero Action Plan to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. People who support traffic enforcement believe enforcement deters drivers from engaging in dangerous behaviors.  

Given what’s going on with these conversations in our local community, we want to explain why we think traffic enforcement is a bad strategy in a bit more detail.

Increased traffic enforcement will amplify racial disparities 

In Minneapolis, our local police do not enforce traffic laws in the same way for people of different races. Minneapolis police have skewed interactions with both Black folks on bikes and Black folks in cars. 

A report created by Melody Hoffmann, Ph.D, and Azul Kimecik, MPH, former volunteers for our organization, found that internal Minneapolis Police Department reports suggest Black bicyclists face greater threats of police violence than white bicyclists, especially for small infractions like failure to use a light or riding on the sidewalk.

When we pulled data from the Minneapolis Police Department Stop Dashboard, we found that from January 1 to June 25 of 2019, 45 percent of the people stopped for traffic moving violations in our city were Black or East African, while 38 percent were white. Black and African American people make up only 18 percent of our population in Minneapolis.  

Police sometimes search the vehicles of people they stop. When we pulled traffic stop data in Minneapolis, we found 70 percent of those searches were performed on Black or East African drivers. 

Sometimes police search drivers’ bodies when they conduct traffic stops. In the data set we pulled, 68 percent of those body searches were performed on Black or East African drivers. 

From these numbers we can see that Minneapolis has a problem with race and traffic enforcement. We found similar problems when we looked into police and automated traffic enforcement in Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C.  

Sometimes we hear from folks that the solution to racially biased policing is police reform, not less policing. What that says to us is that folks know there is a problem with the police. But, rather than pressing pause on policing and the harm it causes, they think it would be better to continue with our current levels of enforcement, or even increase them, and write off the disproportionate outcomes as an unfortunate side effect. For these people, traffic enforcement is more important than racial justice.

At Our Streets Minneapolis, we don’t think that’s good enough. Especially because we know that for Black men in our community, being pulled over can be deadly. It was for Philando Castile

We also see disparities with other consequences of enforcement. The Minnesota state laws governing fees and fines create poverty penalties and traps unavoidable in ticket-based enforcement, with a minimum $75 fee attached to fines for all moving violations. Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program calls for the elimination of mandatory fees and surcharges because they are poverty traps that disproportionately impact low-income communities—which in Minneapolis and many other places are also largely communities of color. And while fines scaled by ability to pay (known as “day fines”) sound like a good solution in theory, in practice decision makers tend towards imposing the same fine amounts they always did, while justifying their decisions under the new system’s frameworks. 

These issues remain across all kinds of enforcement, even when enforcement is conducted by civilians or using automated technology like cameras. And of course, widespread use of cameras and surveillance comes with its own set of concerns.

We think racial disparities are a good enough reason to oppose traffic enforcement as a street safety strategy. But, on top of this, traffic enforcement doesn’t necessarily translate into better environments for people to get around their communities. 

Given police officers’ discretion in how they do their jobs, they at times hand out more tickets to cyclists for minor infractions rather than ticketing speeding or reckless drivers. And, for people of color, fear of being profiled by police can keep them from riding a bike in the first place.

Want better streets? Build better streets

Fortunately there is a much better way to make our streets better places to bike, walk, and roll: change the streets

We know that good infrastructure makes a huge difference in people’s driving behavior. People tend to drive in the way the built environment around them allows. For example, wider lanes make drivers feel comfortable speeding, so they do. Where there are protected bike lanes, on the other hand, folks driving slow down and everyone benefits

But don’t just take it from us. The U.S. Department of Justice also supports changing the built environment as the best way to reduce speeding. In their 2009 guide on effective policing and crime prevention, the U.S. Department of Justice states:

The most important principle in speed control is that motorists tend to drive at the speed at which they feel safe and comfortable, given the road conditions. Therefore, the key to reducing speed is to alter road conditions such that motorists feel uncomfortable speeding.

The report goes on to recommend that local leaders install traffic calming devices, narrow streets, or even just make streets appear narrower so folks driving slow down. 

Infrastructure changes don’t have to be expensive or time consuming, either. The ‘yield to pedestrians’ signs that helped improve drivers’ behavior toward pedestrians in St. Paul’s Stop for Me Campaign start at only $65. In Minneapolis we’ve seen time and time again how quickly work crews can be sent out to add street enhancements, like when our community put pressure on the City and County to restore the buffers on Park & Portland

Don’t get us wrong—we love total street reconstructions and curb-protected bikeways. But we don’t have to wait for a full reconstruction every time we want change. 

Let’s be bold

Here’s what we know about traffic enforcement: 

  1. Increased traffic enforcement will almost certainly amplify racial disparities in our city
  2. Changing street design is a more effective way to make streets better places to bike, walk, and roll

Black advocates and advocates of color have been pushing this conversation for years. But, as far as we know, traffic enforcement has been part of every Vision Zero effort to date, including here in Minneapolis. 

This gives cities across the country a unique opportunity to step up: be the first city to try Vision Zero without enforcement as a strategy, or eliminate enforcement from existing Vision Zero action plans.

Minneapolis is a city that’s known for innovative approaches, and we pride ourselves on creating equitable policies. This is the kind of thing that ought to be right up our alley. Yet so far, it hasn’t been. 

We could show our neighbors that we will not put more resources into a deeply flawed police system. We could take those resources and invest in improving the infrastructure on our streets. We could make big changes to what it’s like to bike, walk, and roll in Minneapolis.

We could also set an example by implementing solutions that could be scaled up and down across the country. With a new administration in the White House, the federal government also has an opportunity to lead. Street safety groups are rightly demanding big change at the federal level. Yet similar to advocacy at the city level, these calls for change include expanding traffic enforcement, often without any discussion of the disparate impact increased enforcement would have on people of different races. 

From City Hall to the U.S. Department of Transportation, it’s past time we prioritized and funded infrastructure solutions that do not further harm Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color. To get to these solutions, we must eliminate traffic enforcement and truly commit to the transportation system we need. While these conversations will be difficult, our commitments to transportation justice, racial justice, and climate action demand them.

 

Our Streets Minneapolis is a local nonprofit working for a city where biking, walking, and rolling are easy and comfortable for everyone. Their work brings together neighbors, businesses, and community organizations to advocate for an equitable, sustainable transportation system and host Open Streets Minneapolis events.

 

Want to learn more? Take a dive into these resources  

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Biking Public Project. “A More Equitable Definition of Safety,” Vision Zero Cities Issue 3. (2018)

City and County of San Francisco. Automated Speed Enforcement Survey Findings and Lessons Learned from Around the Country. (November 2015)

City of Minneapolis. “Public Safety Emergency Management Committee Agenda Regular Meeting February 7, 2019 – 10 am.” (February 2019)

Collins, Bob. “Biking While Black Means You’ll Probably Get Stopped More Often,” MPR. (October 2016)

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