A More Equitable Definition of Safety

The Biking Public Project was founded to amplify the voices of immigrant food delivery workers in New York City, but from time to time in this work, we are asked about Vision Zero. Since our work centers on representation, answering how to address crashes and fatalities through Vision Zero always makes us pause.

Why ask us? We are asked about Vision Zero because in New York, the city officials in charge of Vision Zero — namely Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York Police Department — invoke the adopted-from-Sweden safety policy as a rationale for hyper-policing the immigrant delivery workers we work with. While most of these workers use electric bikes to complete their deliveries, and are themselves at risk from the unsafe streets and dangerous drivers who cause the majority of traffic crashes in New York City, and despite public safety data that shows that food delivery cyclists on e-bikes are not dangerous to New Yorkers, delivery workers are a main target of Vision Zero enforcement. This illustrates how Vision Zero fails to prioritize the rights of all New Yorkers to feel safe in public space.

What does feeling safe mean? Feeling safe should certainly encompass the current Vision Zero definition of not fearing that a car is going to run into you. But feeling safe might also include street harassment that women face walking outside, a parent feeling comfortable letting their kids play on the sidewalk or people with black and brown skin not having to fear for their lives every time law enforcement officers are nearby. Still, it is important, when we think and talk about helping people feel safe, that we pay attention to the present power relationships and inequalities. For example, if wealthy privileged people feel unsafe around people from marginalized groups, it does not mean that this feeling of danger should be taken at face-value without understanding the powerful ways in which systems of racism and classism manufacture safety and danger.

When it comes to feeling safer on the street, communities of color, especially black and brown communities, are disproportionately affected by a multitude of dangers, including police discrimination, gun violence, traffic violence, divestment, and displacement. All people are not treated the same in public spaces, nor are all people allowed to participate in the creation of public space in the same way. Where people of color and immigrants are “othered,” treated like they do not belong, or viewed as dangerous when using the street, white people are welcome and made to feel safe. At the same time, people of color and immigrants disproportionately bear the brunt of traffic-related violence. Until we recognize the intersectional nature of what people of color experience on city streets and in public spaces, we are only scratching the surface in terms of making streets safe for all people.

Recognizing the problems with enforcement is key to making spaces truly safe for all people. While Vision Zero is not only about enforcement, the enforcement strategies that have been used in the name of Vision Zero since it began in the U.S. have negated any trust built between Vision Zero proponents and people of color. Issues with unfair policing of marginalized people in public spaces, such as the criminalization of the homeless, confiscation of immigrant delivery workers’ e-bikes in New York City, and black people getting killed by police, have led people of color to feel fearful of simply being in a public space. All too often, Vision Zero becomes just another mechanism and excuse to enact zero tolerance — a form of disregard for people’s complex humanity.

Calls for zero tolerance policing often ignore how laws are designed to exclude certain people from the boundaries of legality. For example, in New York City, a crackdown on e-bike use was justified by the idea that immigrant delivery workers were using “illegal” and “dangerous” bikes. This focus on legality ignores how New York City’s motorized scooter law has been crafted and shaped to criminalize marginalized groups while maintaining the legal status for privileged people. For example, in 2004, New York City’s motorized scooter laws targeted pocket bikes (or, motorized mini-bicycles), which were used by black and brown teenagers, but exempted low-speed e-bikes and Segways, which were used by wealthier, privileged riders. By 2013, after the rise of a more widespread app-based food delivery economy, and the immigrant e-bike workers who followed, the City Council amended this law, removing the exemption and making it easier for the NYPD to police immigrant delivery workers. In the last few months in 2018, Mayor de Blasio permitted the use of pedal-assist e-bikes, most commonly used by white-collar riders, but maintained the criminality of throttle e-bikes, which are regularly used by immigrant delivery workers. Throughout the history of New York City’s motorized scooter law, legality has been determined by who is riding which kind of vehicle. This is just one example of how aggressive policing and unfair treatment leads to a compounding effect for people of color, where they do not feel safe in multiple ways, not just due to traffic violence.

Neither street safety laws, nor their enforcement, are made for every community equally. As advocates and government officials committed to Vision Zero, what can you do? How can you build a woke Vision Zero? It starts with community organizing.

In order to bridge historical divides, build trust, and create actual safer streets for all people, we must listen to the local experts on the ground, step back, figure out fair ways to include all people in the Vision Zero movement, and let those people use their voices. This is not easy, but it is necessary in order to make Vision Zero a broad movement that all people can rally around.

The good news is that there is a process for doing this, and it’s based on participatory community organizing principles — like trust, listening, and meeting people where they are — in order to pursue a common agenda. Right now, Vision Zero is prescriptive and data driven. But that data-driven approach is problematic if it is not coupled with the expertise of locals on the ground. The key to governments and advocates acting more like community organizers is a willingness to adjust the agenda depending on what you hear from the people affected. It is a process that takes time and trust-building.

For example, when the Biking Public Project first started working with delivery cyclists, we made our approach not as experts who knew what the solutions were, but as organizers trying to understand the issues of affected delivery cyclists. Vision Zero might tell us that the issues that delivery cyclists faced had to do with street design, but for delivery cyclists, that was far from a top concern, falling below issues of wage theft, unsafe working conditions due to the accelerated pace of the job, unfair policing, as well as confiscation and ticketing for e-bike use. Without knowing this information, we would have missed the mark of helping the affected community by spending our time in design meetings to create better street designs for delivery cyclists. Instead, we partnered with immigrant and workers’ rights organizations to fight unjust and racist policies and enforcement.

Beyond listening, it is critical that you focus on the most marginalized people from any given room. This starts with understanding the barriers keeping them from participating. Public Vision Zero meetings — whether in advocacy or officialdom — should include providing food, childcare, interpreters, and translators. Organize meetings around schedules that are convenient for community members, not the traditional 9–5 schedules of advocates or government officials, understanding this could mean having meetings on weekends or during the day. Instead of just using their faces for marketing materials, support people of color leading movements by creating middle-income jobs for people of color, and providing funding for people of color-led advocacy.

Perhaps most importantly, in order to create truly safe streets, policing should be on the back burner as a solution, and trust-building, by including all affected people in creating safer streets, should be at the top of the agenda.

We must update our understanding of Vision Zero to require that all people feel free to bike and walk without fearing for their lives on all streets and in all public spaces — free from fear of traffic, police, harassment and discrimination, and regardless of race, class, or legal status. It is time to look past Vision Zero to think, imagine, and implement radical ways to restructure streets so as to undo these oppressive systems and begin to heal the historic and modern traumas they wrought.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2018.]

Biking Public Project works with groups who have been traditionally left out of cycling discussions, such as women, people of color, immigrants, and working cyclists. It began as an initiative from the 2nd Annual Youth Bike Summit in 2012. Biking Public Project’s work has included a project of portraiture and interviews with bicyclists in underserved neighborhoods, a zine about organizers’ experiences as minority cyclists starting an organization, and the conducting of public workshops. Biking Public Project currently partners with immigrant food delivery cyclists and other community organizations for participatory action research and advocacy on issues like the unjust and racist hyper-policing of workers’ electric bikes.



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Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for walking, bicycling, and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.