Can Vision Zero Work in a Racist Society?
By Tamika Butler
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
Building on the four E’s of the Vision Zero model — engineering, education, enforcement, and evaluation — is a new opportunity for many people who look at traffic violence, particularly for low-income people and people of color, as an overwhelming puzzle that we have yet to solve as a society. For the first time in cities across the country, there is an acknowledgment that traffic deaths are preventable and an acknowledgment that prevention requires cross-sectional work across various disciplines and departments.
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
A recent study by urban planner Charles Brown, a researcher and professor at Rutgers University, found that a majority of black and Latino community members who ride bikes find the behavior to be risky, for fear of police harassment, and will not take certain routes to avoid profiling. In Los Angeles, California, where I am Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC), we hear this concern echoed by people of color utilizing all modes of transportation. As Vision Zero spreads to new cities across the U.S., some advocates fear that Vision Zero will lead to increased police enforcement, without challenging how enforcement targets low-income communities of color. 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.
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.
Vision Zero is a policy that brings together a cross-section of people from different fields trying to save lives; however, this is still a cross-section of people from fields that have been historically dominated by white men. Traffic engineers and urban planners may design thousands of intersections every year while failing to understand how to examine social problems through a lens of intersecting frames of oppression.
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
Vision Zero cannot solve systemic racism in the United States. Rather the rise of Vision Zero in the U.S. is a perfect moment to make transportation — and the advocates, planners and engineers who sculpt our streets and
cities — confront racism and equity. This is the moment to educate the planning students who will lead tomorrow’s Vision Zero on the systematic oppression of people of color. This is the moment to look at the racism institutionalized into our nonprofits, planning firms, and government agencies, and hire a workforce that reflects the diversity of our cities, at every level and in every position. This is the moment to invest in continual and consistent education of our employees. When we allow our colleagues and ourselves to live in isolation from those most impacted by our work, our work lacks impact.
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.