Op-Ed: Transportation and the Police Part 2: The Enforcement Problem in Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety

This article is the second piece in a Transportation and the Police op-ed series by Eno’s Romic Aevaz. You can read the first article here.

Policing and enforcement is at the foundation of today’s traffic safety regime. As we explored in ETW last week, routine traffic stops are the public’s most common interaction with law enforcement, who disproportionately stop and search Black and brown drivers on much less grounds than white drivers. The emphasis on fines, moving violations, and criminalization of unpaid tickets has created a vicious cycle of debt and incarceration. Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to driving. Enforcement has also become major component of pedestrian and bicycle initiatives.

Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities have continued to increase over the past three decades, reaching an all-time high in 2019. Fatalities for pedestrians increased 3.4% from 2018 to 2019, and bicycle fatalities increased by 6.3% in the past year. Advocates have organized and fought against unsafe road design, automobile-centric traffic laws, and reckless behavior by motorists. Ensuring the safety of all people on our streets is critical, but relying on an enforcement-centric approach to pedestrian and cyclist safety too often turns a blind eye to the vastly different lived experiences of Black and brown people with law enforcement.

Enforcement of Pedestrian and Cycling Rules is not Equal

Black and brown cyclists are not immune from racial profiling and unequal traffic enforcement that has been frequently documented for motorists. A study in New York City found that citations for biking on a sidewalk were primarily concentrated in majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods, which represented 12 of the 15 neighborhoods with the highest number of summonses, between 2008 and 2011.

In Fort Lauderdale, an effort to prevent bicycle theft by requiring bicycle registration led to an uptick in traffic stops for cyclists to check for registrations. Between 2010 and 2013, 86% of all citations were issued to Black cyclists, and were concentrated almost exclusively in predominately Black neighborhoods despite far lower registration rates among white cyclists.

Similar patterns were uncovered in Chicago, where a majority of bicycle citations, primarily for biking on sidewalks, occurred in largely non-white neighborhoods, which were also less likely to have bicycle infrastructure than majority white neighborhoods. Black residents made up nearly half of all bicycle citations, but only 18% of the population in Minneapolis.

These patterns also hold true for pedestrians. Between 2012 and 2017, Black pedestrians in Jacksonville, Florida were three times more likely to receive a ticket, and constituted 55% of all ticketed pedestrians despite making up only 29% of the population. These disparities grew worse for minor and obscure violations like “walking in the roadway where sidewalks are provided” (78% of those ticketed were Black) and “failing to cross the road at a right angle or shortest route” (68% of those ticketed were Black). Black and Latinx pedestrians in New York City received nearly 90% of all illegal walking citations in 2019, and Black pedestrians in Sacramento were 5 times more likely to receive a jaywalking citation.

These patterns are not exclusive to sidewalk and bicycle safety enforcement, but also enforcement of social distancing in public spaces in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 68% of residents arrested for social distancing violations in New York City were Black, and nearly a quarter were Latinx. As some cities move to restrict vehicular traffic on certain streets to provide more opportunities for safer, socially distanced recreation and transportation via walking or biking, policymakers should be weary of relying on a punitive, enforcement-centric approach in implementing and monitoring social distancing on open streets programs.

Our sprawling list of traffic violations and reliance on enforcement against pedestrians and cyclists not only perpetuates racial profiling and policing of Black and brown people in our streets, but also make walking and cycling feel less safe. In a 2016 survey of Black and Latinx cyclists, Black cyclists in particular expressed fear of being racially profiled as a barrier to biking, with many respondents noting that they avoid certain routes or areas that would put them at risk of being stopped by the police or victims of harassment. Others recalled instances of being stopped by law enforcement under the assumption that a valuable or expensive bike they had been riding was stolen.

These examples barely scratch the surface of the disproportionate impact of traffic enforcement on non-white communities, but illustrate the relationship between our traffic safety system and the criminalization of Black and brown pedestrians and cyclists.

Same Road, Different Rules

Acknowledging the disparate impact of traffic enforcement on Black and brown people also requires us to reevaluate the basis of many traffic safety laws for bicyclists and pedestrians in the first place. As discussed last week, much of today’s traffic safety laws and infrastructure like stop signs and signals were intended to govern movement of automobiles on public roads. Our current body of traffic law is often applied to bicyclists under a “same road, same rules” philosophy that treats bicycles and automobiles as equals on the road, despite their vastly different sizes, speeds, visibility, and ability to cause damage. There has been significant debate over whether cyclists should be treated as equals on the road, or whether cities should provide separate, protected infrastructure for cyclists with equal funding, maintenance, and enforcement priority. Regardless of one’s school of thought, it is clear that the same body of traffic law that provides broad authority for law enforcement to stop and detain drivers for minor violations also implicates cyclists.

In the pedestrian realm, laws like those criminalizing jaywalking are similarly problematic. The push to criminalize jaywalking itself was borne out of a 1920s effort by automakers to place the burden on pedestrians to yield to cars at intersections, as opposed to drivers yielding to pedestrians. In many cases, jaywalking is largely a result of poorly spaced crosswalks, short crossing periods, and poor pedestrian safety infrastructure, not to mention a pedestrian’s own assessment whether it is safe to pass. Jaywalking and other similar behavior, like biking on a sidewalk, is needlessly criminalized and often a function of bad design (i.e. poor or nonexistent bicycle infrastructure or unsafe road conditions) and outdated rules and infrastructure that cater to the outsize role of automobiles on the road.

Shifting the Traffic Safety Paradigm

Calls to move beyond enforcement and infrastructure and incorporate equity considerations into pedestrian and bicycle planning and outreach are not new. Many in the field have brought attention to the over-reliance on enforcement in traffic safety, especially in response to the heavy role of enforcement as one of the “Four E’s” guiding Vision Zero campaigns across the country. These critiques call for a shift away from punitive measures like ticketing, and instead prioritizing both street design and behavioral science-based interventions that aim to prevent or change reckless motorist behavior.

One notable announcement on traffic safety came early this week by the Safe Routes Partnership, which announced it will remove Enforcement as a foundational organizing pillar and add Engagement as its first pillar to prioritize community input when determining the best methods for implementing Safe Routes programs. The Safe Routes to School program aims to promote biking and walking to school through targeted infrastructure improvements, educational materials, and enforcement campaigns. In elaborating on its statement, the Partnership cited past work promoting and emphasizing public safety strategies that do not involve police, including utilization of community crosswalk monitors and engineering changes initiated by local residents.

This move is a welcome step in centering the concerns of the communities most impacted by traffic enforcement in conversations and initiatives around the safe movement of pedestrians and cyclists in their neighborhoods. Protecting pedestrians and cyclists in our streets should not stop at promoting good infrastructure and design, but also fighting for protection against racial profiling, harassment, and police brutality.

More than a century after the publication of William P. Eno’s Rules of the Road, we must take a serious look at our traffic laws and resulting approach to traffic safety. Our body of traffic law has grown considerably over the past 100 years, and little-known violations like those cited in Jacksonville provide dangerously broad authority for law enforcement to stop and fine people on public streets. It is long overdue to rewrite the Rules of the Road and create a fair traffic safety system that not only encourages the safe and equitable movement of road users, but also does not serve as a legal basis for racial profiling and criminalization of Black and brown people in public space.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation. 

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