Can Vision Zero Work in a Racist Society?

By Tamika Butler

Oct 23, 2018 · 6 min read

Vision Zero was invented in a European country far more homogeneous than the United States. When bringing this concept to the U.S., it is important to acknowledge, examine, and understand how the history of this country — marked with the scars of killing off the native peoples of this land, enslaving the native peoples of another, and the ongoing oppression of people of color — will influence our ability to save lives. Vision Zero cannot succeed in a vacuum devoid of context.

Low-income people and people of color are disproportionately the victims of traffic crashes and collisions. At the same time, people of color are disproportionately negatively impacted by police interactions. Black people and Latinos are more likely to be stopped by police and encounter police violence, often resulting in death or severe injury.

As advocates and policymakers, how can we ensure that we understand the struggles faced by the most vulnerable people in our cities? Do we look to Europe for solutions that gloss over our structural and institutional racism, or do we push ourselves out of the “best practice” comfort zone to confront how transportation plays a role in our nation’s most deep-seated problems? It’s a question of how we wish to use the promise and hope of Vision Zero — and it’s up to us.

A Milestone Policy

Declaring a Vision Zero city is the first step and a significant milestone for advocates and policymakers. This often marks a city’s first real commitment to protecting the safety of all road users, and officials’ first real recognition that some people — people of color, children, older adults, people who walk and bike — are more vulnerable than others.

When tackled aggressively, implementing Vision Zero in a city often is the first step in ensuring that a city prioritizes evaluation and commits to cultivating transparency and accountability. These are remarkable byproducts for a traffic safety initiative. All byproducts of Vision Zero, however, are not rosy.

What Enforcement Means

Too often, advocates for Vision Zero stay focused on enforcement for safety and fail to acknowledge that enforcement is not safe for people of color; in fact, it too often results in death.

As more and more cities mark enforcement as an essential pillar for achieving the goals of Vision Zero, advocates must push local lawmakers, and lead by their own example, to ensure that the promotion of enforcement includes language that acknowledges the systematic racism that is prevalent in policing in this country. The Vision Zero Network has acknowledged that word choice matters, both in terms of building public support for Vision Zero and holding police departments accountable for their role in implementation.

As a member of the Los Angeles Vision Zero Alliance, LACBC pushed back against a Vision Zero action plan published by the City of Los Angeles that failed to meet this challenge. Currently, our advocates are pushing city leaders to understand that their commitment to “unbiased policing” falls short because it fails to explicitly address racial profiling in policing and fails to acknowledge the disproportionate enforcement that is aimed at communities of color. Our city, our police force and our department of transportation
must acknowledge that there is a problem with racial bias in policing before they can consider Vision Zero as a goal.

Inserting Intersectionality

For instance, if a woman of color faces harassment on the street, she often does not know if it is because she is a woman or because she is a person of color. However, she is able to acknowledge through lived experience that her identity as both a woman and person of color are linked and therefore looks at the harassment through both lenses. For people who do not live at the intersections of different marginalized identities, empathizing with the challenge of experiencing daily microaggressions can take intentional professional and personal development.

This is not historically a job requirement for planners or engineers, and it is not professional development or training universally provided by institutions that employ these individuals. For Vision Zero in particular, and urban planning and traffic engineering at large, to be relevant and impactful as the country continues to diversify, this tradition of myopia needs to change. The people who are pushing Vision Zero in cities across the U.S. must reflect the diversity of those cities.

At LACBC, we are engaging in these difficult conversations. That starts with confronting privilege in our organization and amongst ourselves as individuals, and working towards solutions to what we find in consistently held formal and informal trainings.

Vision Zero in a Racist Society

For Vision Zero to succeed, there must be an explicit acknowledgment that racial bias in policing and planning is a problem. People of color know that race is a major factor in our safety and in our ability to succeed as we move about our cities. Any Vision Zero strategy that fails to explicitly and affirmatively acknowledge this disparity is one without true vision, honesty, and an ability to take into account the realities that people of color in this country face.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2017.]

Tamika Butler is the Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Prior to leading LACBC, Tamika was the Director of Social Change Strategies at Liberty Hill Foundation, overseeing the foundation’s boys and men of color program and LGBTQ grant strategy. Before Liberty Hill, Tamika worked at Young Invincibles as the California Director. She transitioned to policy work after practicing employment law for three years at a legal aid organization. She received her J.D. in 2009 from Stanford Law School, and in 2006 received her B.A. in psychology and B.S. in sociology from Creighton University.

Vision Zero Cities Journal

An international journal of traffic safety innovation and…

Vision Zero Cities Journal

An international journal of traffic safety innovation and the global movement toward Vision Zero published by Transportation Alternatives.


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

Vision Zero Cities Journal

An international journal of traffic safety innovation and the global movement toward Vision Zero published by Transportation Alternatives.