Re-thinking the Role of Enforcement
in Traffic Safety Work: Our Role Within Vision Zero

by Jenn Fox | October 5, 2021 | in News, Webinars

We were pleased that so many people joined us on September 29th, 2021 to re-think the role of enforcement in traffic safety work. Our goal at Vision Zero Network in facilitating this conversation and other related work is to better understand and help change the racist systems we are working within. We invite you to watch the 1-hour recording:

As we shared in our introductory comments, too often, racialized enforcement – including discriminatory traffic stops and inequitable traffic fines and fees systems – are conducted in the name of “safe streets”. But it does not have to be this way. 

As Vision Zero advocates, we have a responsibility to call out when the status quo is not working. Part of our role is changing the long-held and systemic acceptance of sacrificing some people’s overall public safety (particularly Black people at the hands of police and the criminal justice system) in the quest for safe streets for those walking, biking and driving.

In short, advocating for safe mobility does not justify discriminatory enforcement. We, as Vision Zero advocates, need to be proactive in calling out the problems and making changes. This was the main topic we discussed with our excellent panelists: Charles T. Brown, Founder and CEO at Equitable Cities; Warren Logan, Director of Mobility and Interagency Relations with the City of Oakland; and Ethan Fawley, Vision Zero Program coordinator with the City of Minneapolis.

Below, we’ve summarized our key takeaways from the conversation and, in places, suggested additional ideas or questions to consider. We encourage you to listen to the 1-hour recording to hear the panelists’ points in full. We hope this will stimulate more discussion and action. And we invite you to our next webinar, Rethinking Enforcement: A City-to-City Conversation, on October 28, 2021. Please register here.

Key Takeaways on Re-thinking Traffic Enforcement

➤ Let’s acknowledge that many people have been working in the space of racial justice far longer than many of us in the traffic safety world have been thinking about these issues. We need to listen to and learn from others, particularly people with lived experiences and local knowledge. We encouraged webinar attendees to do their own homework (and shared these materials) in advance of the webinar. We need to do individual work to better understand the history and context of discriminatory enforcement and the broader racist systems we all work within.

Traffic safety work – including Vision Zero, as it has evolved in the U.S. – is entwined with deeply problematic systems of racism, including but not limited to, discriminatory traffic stops and inequitable fines and fees programs. The first 10 minutes of the webinar summarized some of the impacts and examples of racialized enforcement. We, as safe mobility champions, have a role and responsibility to be part of calling this out and in making change.

➤ Vision Zero advocates, planners, and practitioners are sometimes challenged by knowing where to start to make a difference. A first step we can take is recognizing that we all have a responsibility to engage. One panelist reminded us to take time to educate ourselves of the history and context, as well as understanding the local dynamics to recognize where we can have influence and when we might need to step aside. We were reminded to study how power works and to understand how we and others obtain and operationalize power. As a presenter encouraged: “Put yourself out there. Find ways to share information, bring up the conversation and really elevate it.”

➤ There are many ways that Vision Zero planners can elevate issues of equitable enforcement within their regular work. Examples include sharing data about enforcement disparities in traffic safety presentations within your department, to elected leaders, and in the community; adding and pursuing explicit strategies and goals for non-discriminatory enforcement in your Vision Zero Action Plan; and adding the topic to regular meetings of cross-departmental Vision Zero stakeholder groups and in community meetings, in order to keep the topic front and center.

➤ Hastening the pace of safety improvements on the streets is key to getting past longtime over-reliance on enforcement. Panelists spoke of the need for more “quick fixes” in street design, particularly traffic calming measures to slow drivers; and pointed to the benefits of using pilots to be “hyper-responsive” to safety problems and test results, rather than depending on long, drawn-out studies. And they challenged the idea that real change must take a long time. As one panelist said: “I think we can do it overnight…We choose not to because we’re afraid of the inconvenience and change.” Examples of moving quickly for safety are Oakland’s Slow Streets, Essential Places, and Flex Streets programs; which have successfully slowed vehicle speeds and improved safety with a focus on racial equity, all at low costs to the city.

➤ Along with right-sizing the role of enforcement, panelists talked about the need to invest more in upstream solutions, especially re-designing streets to be self-enforcing. Public agency staffing and resources are sometimes too limited to make the necessary changes to streets to make them safe by design. The same goes for changing policies (including at the State level) that hinder the use of proven safety measures, such as lowering speed limits and using speed cameras in cities.

➤ Beyond funding, another challenge in shifting to more self-enforcing road designs and related policies is public pushback — mainly because some people resist any change. For example, people say they want safe streets and less reliance on traffic enforcement, but then the same people often oppose design changes, such as adding bike lanes and traffic-calming streets, because they don’t want to lose parking or drive slower speeds. So, we need to find ways to build public buy-in and political leadership for street safety improvements (yes, changes!) as part of – not separate from – the strategy to lessen the need for police enforcement.

➤ The causes of traffic violence extend further upstream than a few problematic people and even beyond the direct transportation systems (how roads are designed and speeds are set). Panelists discussed examples, including discriminatory land-use policies that have made it difficult for people to live near where they work; too few reliable alternatives to driving; significant lack of safety technology that could be required in all vehicles; increasing size and dangers of everyday vehicles; economic pressure on professional drivers to speed to meet delivery quotas; funding streams that often silo agencies and deter collaboration; and a lack of oversight on traditional strategies, such as Federal funding of police enforcement conducted in the name of traffic safety.

➤ We acknowledge that there is no simple roadmap to “fix” long broken, racist systems that we work within. The question is more complex than whether enforcement is “good” or “bad.” As one panelist shared, “just removing enforcement from Vision Zero” does not solve the problem because the issues are already deeply connected, and we should not let ourselves off the hook in addressing existing problems and helping to develop alternatives. The panel discussed potential alternatives, such as working to end pretext traffic stops and using automated speed enforcement in equitable ways. We were reminded of the importance of being clear on the problem we’re trying to address and the priorities to articulate while making change.

➤ The panelists reminded us that this is not easy work and there will always be critics. The work for equitable, non-discriminatory strategies to ensure safe mobility takes courage. As one participant shared: “If you don’t have the courage – given all the data that is out there – to speak openly and candidly about the changes that are needed in these communities, you are holding a seat that is meant for someone else, and it is time for you to hand it over.”

Update:

We went deeper on this important topic in Rethinking Enforcement: A City-to-City Conversation October 2021.


Thanks to our insightful and generous panelists — Charles T. Brown, Warren Logan, and Ethan Fawley we invite you to learn more about the important work they’re doing: And gratitude to SPIN for their support of these important conversations and for supporting the Vision Zero Network’s efforts toward equitable and just safe mobility for all.

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