Vision Zero is often described through the “five E’s” of street safety — engineering, enforcement, education, encouragement, and evaluation. In the United States, enforcement is often the most prominent and increasingly the most controversial, with activists across the country demanding that law enforcement not be a part of their Vision Zero plans. Systemic racism, enforcement of the law regardless of social impact, and the historic disinvestment in lower-income urban spaces that are predominantly communities of color make equitable enforcement in Vision Zero an almost insurmountable challenge.
White Supremacy in Law Enforcement
Documented racial bias is woven into the United States’ policing culture. This pervasive inequity in policing trickles down to bicyclists. Data from cities including Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Minneapolis show people of color, especially African-Americans and Latinxs, are proportionately more likely to be cited for bicycling infractions than their white counterparts. Citation inequity is found with drivers as well.
Looking at crash and death rates in lower-income neighborhoods, it is easy to conclude more law enforcement is needed to combat these problems. When residents note an uptick in reckless driving, asking for additional traffic enforcement is a common refrain. Yet to argue that law enforcement can help these communities stay safe disregards the systemic racism and resulting danger built into policing and our society.
Communities of color have a historically tenuous relationship with police. If you are a person of color in the United States, it can be life-threatening to simply exist in public spaces. Michael Brown was killed by a police officer while walking in the street. Tamir Rice was playing in a park. Eric Garner was standing on a sidewalk in a business district. There is no element of Vision Zero that can keep people of color safe from police harassment.
Given the status quo of urban policing in the United States, it is hard to argue for law enforcement involvement in Vision Zero. Cities that have put a focus on enforcement do not always focus on behavior that causes fatal crashes. Rather, enforcement is often used to police marginalized communities.
Enforcing Laws Without Impact
Pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers are expected to follow traffic laws for personal and community safety. But like a sad game of rock, paper, scissors, bicyclists and pedestrians never beat drivers. In a ten-year study of bicycle-vehicle crashes in Minneapolis, 87 percent of the crashes resulted in a bicyclist injury, with 12 bicyclist fatalities. No drivers suffered injury or death.
Law enforcement should target those who kill the most, but the tendency of the police is to enforce laws without a relationship to the social costs of the road, furthering the inequitable premise of enforcement in Vision Zero. For example, three years after New York City became the first U.S. city to adopt Vision Zero, Mayor Bill de Blasio directed law enforcement to crack down on electric bikes (e-bikes), which in that city are primarily used by delivery cyclists of color. Delivery workers on e-bikes became a main target of Vision Zero enforcement, despite no public safety data that showed e-bikes were a risk to other road users. On the other hand, hit-and-run crashes in New York City result in frequent injuries and deaths, but the police have not put additional resources towards investigating these crashes.
One impactful, and potentially less biased, way to employ enforcement is occurring in cities using automated speed and red-light enforcement cameras in areas where there are a large number of crashes. By sending citations via mail, these cameras can eliminate the implicit bias of police officers as a factor in enforcement. Acute implicit bias (who the police choose to pull over for an infraction) is likely to decrease with cameras. However, cameras cannot account for streets that are unsafe due to historic racial and class-based disinvestment.
Historical Inequities in Infrastructure
In the neighborhoods that face the greatest threat of racially motivated harassment by the police, pedestrians are also more likely to be killed by drivers. Black and brown people who live in lower-income communities face a greater risk of being killed while walking compared to white or higher-income people.
In many cities, higher crash rates correlate with historical disinvestment in infrastructure. For example, in a ten-year study done by the City of Minneapolis, the greatest amount of bicyclist-motorist crashes happened in lower-income communities of color. These areas also lack traffic calming infrastructure. For example, a large number of crashes occur on East Franklin Avenue, a well-known bicyclist thoroughfare and a four-lane street with no bicycle infrastructure. The intersection of East Franklin Avenue and Nicollet Avenue has a high rate of pedestrian-motorist crashes, yet no changes have been made to that intersection to calm traffic. In a Star Tribune article, a resident argued that if that intersection was in a middle-class, white neighborhood, “it would have been addressed 20 years ago.”
The sentiment of racialized disinvestment was heard in Portland, Oregon when bicycle advocates wanted to reconstruct a bicycle lane in a historically black neighborhood. “That’s part of the whole racism thing,” a longtime resident said in response to the plan. “We wanted safe streets back then; but now that the bicyclists want to have safe streets then it’s all about the bicyclists getting safe streets.”
In areas where there has historically been little investment in infrastructure, crash rates are higher. That makes lower-income communities of color prime locations for supposedly equitable automated enforcement programs. In D.C., these communities receive an inequitable amount of automated enforcement citations, demonstrating that automated enforcement is not a panacea for equity.
Enforcement is a commonly used “E” in Vision Zero plans, but it doesn’t have to be.
When a city adopts Vision Zero, it can decide what to prioritize. In the United States, bringing law enforcement into a zero-deaths plan is uniquely incongruous with the systemic and institutional racism embedded in our society.
Cities should not include enforcement in their Vision Zero plans. Inequitable policing will continue, but Vision Zero should not contribute. We should not trust that the police will enforce traffic laws equitably without the removal of white supremacy from U.S. law enforcement. That is a monumental goal far outside the reaches of Vision Zero.
A trademark of Vision Zero is the teamwork required from people across fields that typically do not work together: elected city leaders, public health professionals, traffic engineers, advocates, and urban planners. On the surface, this sounds like a meaningful opportunity to bring a diversity of perspectives to a Vision Zero plan. But many of these fields are historically dominated by white men, and thus white culture is very likely to recycle itself through Vision Zero. White culture in the U.S. overwhelmingly supports policing. This ideological framework impacts how Vision Zero is rolled out across the country. Establishing Vision Zero teams that are led by people of color will likely tamp down on this ideology and proffer innovative ideas that go beyond policing.
An institution that routinely kills people of color is not an institution that is likely to assist in lessening our country’s death tolls on the road. We owe it to our neighbors, our community, and our loved ones to try something else.
[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2019.]
Melody Hoffmann is an urban bicyclist and author of “Bike Lanes are White Lanes,” a book about how bicycle advocacy can intertwine with gentrification and systemic racism. Dr. Hoffmann’s academic work is supported by local bicycle and pedestrian advocacy work in the Twin Cities. She teaches communication studies at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, and co-hosted and co-produced the “Feminist Killjoys, PhD” podcast for its three-year run. Dr. Hoffmann received her doctoral degree in 2013 from the University of Minnesota.
 John Greenfield, “Oboi Reed Blasts the City’s Failure to Address Its Biased Bike Ticketing Problem,” StreetsBlog Chicago, 2018; Emily Wade, “Why we don’t support traffic enforcement,” Our Streets MPLS, 2019.
 Mary Wisniewski, “‘Biking while black’: Chicago minority areas see the most bike tickets,” Chicago Tribune, 2017; Alexandra Zayas and Kameel Stanley, “How riding your bike can land you in trouble with the cops — if you’re black,” Tampa Bay Times, 2015; Melody Hoffmann and Azul Kmiecik, “Bicycle Citations and Related Arrests in Minneapolis, 2009–2015.”
 Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, “Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic System,” 2017; Libor Jany, “Hennepin County report finds stark racial disparities in traffic stops,” Star Tribune, 2018.
 Cirien Saadeh, “Community sounds alarm on reckless driving in Northside neighborhoods,” North News, 2019. Ashley Luthern, “‘You will be noticing it’: Milwaukee police, sheriff’s office and state patrol ramp up traffic enforcement,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2018.
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 Julianne Cuba, “Confronted with Facts, de Blasio Still Insists E-Bikes are Dangerous” StreetsBlog NYC, 2019.
 Biking Public Project, “A More Equitable Definition of Safety,” Vision Zero Cities: International Journal of Traffic Safety Innovation (v. 3, 2018), pg. 73.
 Laura Laker, “Vision Zero: has the drive to eliminate road deaths lost its way?” The Guardian, 2018.
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 “Understanding the Bicyclist-Motorist Crashes in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” City of Minneapolis, 2013.
 Eric Roper, “Crash data show where Minneapolis walkers are hit,” Star Tribune, 2014.
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 William Farrell, “Predominately black neighborhoods in D.C. bear the brunt of automated traffic enforcement,” D.C. Policy Center, 2018.