Betty Smoot-Madison is an urban planner who has worked on community planning and transit-oriented development in the Washington DC suburbs of Prince George’s County, MD, served as the ombudsman for automated enforcement in Baltimore, and is now a director for the Atlanta Department of Transportation. She is leading Atlanta’s work and commitment to Vision Zero and creating safer streets for all.
Vision Zero Network: Atlanta is one of the most recent cities to commit to Vision Zero. Thank you and congratulations on your progress! The city’s Vision Zero legislation creates a task force, refers to the 6E Road Safety Framework, and lowers the default speed limit on Atlanta roads from 30 MPH to 25 MPH. We saw that in 2019, speed contributed to more than half of Atlanta’s 73 traffic fatalities. What are the next steps for effectively managing speed for safety in Atlanta? And what are the biggest challenges and opportunities?
Betty Smoot-Madison: In all honesty, we began our Vision Zero work with development of a “6E” approach, but quickly learned that this was not the best way forward if we really wanted to have an impactful program. And while we believe that enforcement and education have important roles to play, we know that roadway design and engineering is going to be THE MOST critical element in reaching zero fatalities and reducing crashes overall. Also, a closer look at our crash data revealed that speeding was a major factor in more than half of the fatalities that occurred in one year, so we know that speed management needed to be one of our leading initiatives. While developing the legislation for adopting Vision Zero, we thought there was no better time to show the public that the city is serious about this work, so we decided to package the default 25 MPH speed limit with the adoption of Vision Zero. However, because we could not include state routes or streets that were on an approved list for radar/laser enforcement, this only changes the speed limit on about 200 miles of our streets. We had an existing 700 miles of streets that were already posted 25 MPH, so cumulatively, about 83% of our street network will be 25 MPH. This is a great start but there are still a number of streets that we have to persuade our state government to reduce the speed limits on; or we have to make a choice between maintaining our radar enforcement capabilities or reducing the posted speed limits, which is going to take considerable coordination with other partners. Overall, we are excited about being able to make the speed limit changes on the streets we have control.
VZN: You achieved so much in Baltimore – initiating and leading an effort similar to Vision Zero, Toward Zero Baltimore, and playing a major role in the speed and red-light camera program. You also served as Ombudsman for Baltimore’s Automated Traffic Violation Enforcement System. What advice can you give cities on making camera programs successful? And how are you looking at automated enforcement in today’s environment, as there’s increasing push-back to officer-initiated enforcement?
BSM: I really enjoyed working in this arena and believe that automated enforcement is the best way to go about traffic enforcement. In Baltimore, we were aiming to create a fail-proof system, especially since previous programs in the city were unsuccessful. Each citation goes through a multi-layer review, by the vendor, then by DOT, then a final review and sign off by the Police Department. So, by the time a citation is sent out to a driver, the accuracy of the violation is extremely high and that citation is going to be really difficult to beat in court. Also, having the Ombudsman in place was a state requirement, and essentially that role gave citizens another opportunity to have their citation reviewed for error prior to requesting a court date. This really helped relieve the court system of having so many of these cases to review, but also gave the public an opportunity to talk with the city about the violation and receive a detailed explanation about why they received it. This system really made it difficult to issue erroneous violations, which had been an issue in previous programs. Here in Atlanta, we are currently having dialogue with other city partners about bringing automated enforcement to city streets. It’s critical to not let revenue generation be the driver for onboarding these systems, but to purely look at the opportunity to change driver behaviors. The difficulty for Atlanta is that the state restricts placement of cameras to “designated” school zones, and [at the time of this interview] less than half of the city’s schools are designated as school zones, so we would have to go through a process of getting all schools designated, which is something we are working through now with our state government. We want our efforts to be data driven and be able to place cameras in locations that are most problematic and dangerous, while also ensuring that we do not overburden already disadvantaged communities. If we are very intentional and thoughtful about our processes and camera placement, we will definitely create a successful and impactful program.
VZN: Like many around the country, we are concerned about the inequity of traffic fines and fees. Was the Maryland pilot project for income-based fines (HB 1178 – Fair Fines Act of 2020) tied in to this work? What advice can you give communities on the equitable implementation of automated enforcement?
BSM: When I was working with the automated enforcement program, which was 2017-2018 during the first-year roll-out of the program, there was not an income-based fine system. Fine amounts are actually set by state code and a Judge was the only one that could change that. The same goes for Georgia, there are set fine amounts established under state code for speeding violations, however, we would be very interested in learning more about any municipalities who have been able to deploy the income-based fine system. Otherwise, I think we certainly have to be careful with camera placement and ensuring that disadvantaged communities are not overburdened with too many cameras. Sometimes when these new systems roll out, there is a push to ensure that every council district has the same amount of cameras, or there’s some geographic factor that influences placement and the number of cameras deployed, but we have to be diligent in allowing the data to tell you where cameras may be needed, while also understanding the communities that may be impacted by them. Also, the focus should be on your top 10-20 locations of concern, and track whether those 10-20 cameras are changing driver behaviors over time before deploying more. These camera systems can provide tons of good data, so use that data to drive decision-making.
VZN: How are you and other leaders centering racial and health equity in Atlanta’s new Vision Zero program? Have you learned any helpful lessons from other communities on this topic?
BSM: We recently completed data analysis as a part of our Vision Zero Atlanta work, looking at neighborhood-level data for no-vehicle-access households, percentages of school-age children, seniors, and persons with disabilities, as well as race, income, no health insurance, etc., to determine what we are calling “communities of concern” or vulnerable communities. Through this lens, we’ve identified communities that need to be lifted up and are in need of better transportation options and access. So, we are now at the beginning stages of developing a strategy for engaging with vulnerable communities and are committed to prioritizing resources there. Through this work, we will partner with the Partnership for Southern Equity and other community-based organizations to identify strategies for community capacity-building and identifying community values and priorities, and ultimately achieving quick wins for the community. This work also includes paying community leaders for their time and energy, which is critical. In addition to this, and through the NACTO COVID Response Grant, we are partnering with TransFormation Alliance and Georgia StandUp to do information pop-ups within the public right-of-way that are geared towards providing essential information to residents, such as COVID-19, the Census, voting registration, and safety. There’s a great intersect between improving social, health and transportation outcomes for long-term success and quality of life for communities, and we can only achieve this by partnering with other organizations.
VZN: You are active with so many groups – from the community organizations you shared in this interview to the American Planning Association. How do you balance your time? And what should planners know to engender community support for Vision Zero?
BSM: When I relocated to Atlanta, I actually decided to take some time off from my participation with non-employment organizations. I really needed to focus on my new role, learning the city and just getting my family settled. I also started to feel really drained from everything that I was involved in when I was in Maryland, so I knew that for me to succeed in this new role, I would have to say “no” to some things. Now that I’ve been here for 2 years, I am just starting to pick back-up with organizations such as WTS International (WTS), which focuses on advancing women in transportation. I value these types of organizations as they have contributed to my career growth over the years, and I have a heart to give back to others who may be traveling along a similar path. I participated and graduated from the WTS Mentoring Program, and as a black woman planner it is important for me to show young black girls that there is space for them and a need for them in this field. I think the work/life balance is tricky but its achievable. Everyone has to find the rhythm that works for them, but I would say — know how valuable your time is and prioritize by what’s most important to you and your values. As for what other planners should know in the work toward Vision Zero, I would say build and maintain long-term relationships, not just with other government agencies, but with local, community-based partners. They can be your biggest champions and advocates if you are honest and intentional in your work. Be flexible in project scoping and timelines, to ensure you are truly able to engage these critical partners. At the end of the day, you will have a much better project that truly serves the needs of communities because of it.
Thank you, Betty. You inspire us with your caring and practical urban planning. And it is so helpful to read how Atlanta’s Vision Zero approach has evolved from the traditional “Es” of traffic safety (Engineering, Education, Enforcement, etc.) to focus on specific actions including managing speed for safety. For too long, communities have tried to enforce and educate toward zero, but that is not working and often contributes to systemic problems of racial injustice. Thanks also for sharing more about your community-based organization partnerships. Here at Vision Zero Network, we are looking forward to working with organizations – like the Fines and Fee Justice Center – that focus on addressing the intersection of health, quality of life, and transportation in our hardest hit communities.