Editor’s Note: This was put together by multiple staff members of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and is part of an ongoing series of statements, media, policy changes, and actions our organization is taking.
Vision Zero is a policy which emphasizes the “5 Es” of planning: engineering, education, encouragement, evaluation, and enforcement. “Enforcement” has always been the most controversial of the Es, and many organizations which focus on safe streets, like the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, have cautiously chalked up armed police enforcement as necessary to save lives.
But that was wrong.
Armed, police-centered enforcement has no place in traffic safety policy, and will not lead to safer, healthier neighborhoods.
We will no longer advocate for armed police enforcement as part of Philadelphia’s Vision Zero policy. We will actively advocate against it.
Advocating for Safer Streets
In 2015, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia introduced Vision Zero to the City of Philadelphia. A series of policy changes meant to bring traffic deaths down to none, the Sweden-borne Vision Zero policy uses numerous “E”-words (engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, evaluation) to bring about those safety changes.
The policy was quickly embraced by all mayoral candidates running to replace then-Mayor Michael Nutter at a forum hosted by us, and several other organizations, at the Quaker Meeting House on Cherry Street in Center City.
Jim Kenney won the Democratic primary, then the general election, and soon after signed the city’s first-ever Vision Zero executive order, creating the Office of Complete Streets.
This office, headed by Kelley Yemen, is in charge of planning, implementation, and reporting for the City’s Vision Zero Action Plan and other correlating programs.
Vision Zero in Philadelphia has been a slow-moving process; many of the proposed changes, like 30 miles of protected bike lanes, have not yet been realized.
As the program moved forward, it did not focus enough on the potential negative impacts issues like traffic stops could have on Philadelphians. And as an organization advocating for traffic safety, we have not worked enough to de-prioritize enforcement in favor of real change.
“Too often,” noted former LA County Bike Coalition Executive Director, and current Director of Planning, for California, and Director of Equity and Inclusion at Toole Design Group, Tamika Butler, in 2018, “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.”
Disproportionate traffic stops are a problem in Philadelphia, as well as around the country. As noted in a recent Inquirer op/ed, policing everywhere is racially disproportionate. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people.
Black neighborhoods are policed more frequently, and as a consequence, Black Americans are stopped more often by police — on foot, in motor vehicles, and on bicycles. More interactions with the police mean more chances for violence.
According to stats from Open Data Philly, Black people represented a full 68 percent of all pedestrian and vehicle stops in Philadelphia, since 2014, though make up about 44 percent of the population as a whole.
Vision Zero Can Become a Platform for Discrimination
The Broken Windows enforcement strategies that have been applied to Vision Zero elsewhere — like cracking down on not having a bike bells in Camden, NJ; or confiscating e-bikes from delivery cyclists in New York City — have led to negative interactions with police officers and disproportionately affected Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Immigrant communities.
An analysis by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia in 2018 found that the most violent corridors in the city are also the poorest and, in a majority of cases, majority-Black communities. Arguing that law enforcement can help these communities stay safe disregards the systemic racism and dangerous situations built into policing and our society.
Many of the worst crashes in Philadelphia are happening on poorly-planned highways and pseudo-highways built during mid-Century “urban renewal”, which, in addition to the danger they’ve caused road users, have contributed to further segregating our city.
Traffic violence is an engineering and equity problem. It’s not going to be solved with armed police enforcement.
The “Other” Enforcement
The Bicycle Coalition has advocated for automated enforcement in recent years. We believe automated enforcement does a better job at deterring dangerous driving than armed, police-centered enforcement could.
In testimony to the City Council last year on the potential of bringing automated enforcement cameras to Roosevelt Boulevard, we spoke in favor of the program because they have been shown to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries in places they are installed. Additionally, we noted, they cut down on police-citizen interactions which could escalate and result in injury or death.
The problem with automated enforcement, though, is that it is not evenly distributed. Too often, automated enforcement, like speed cameras and red light cameras, are designated to the worst intersections and roads as a band-aid of sorts over the real, engineering, problem.
We do not support automated enforcement as a permanent solution, and never have. While we advocated for automated enforcement on Roosevelt Boulevard, for example, we support the long term “Route for Change” plan along the Boulevard and hope that, when that project is complete, the speed cameras are no longer needed. Automated enforcement as a whole should be part of larger planning to remake streets and intersections to make their usage moot.
In the meantime, there are aspects to the automated enforcement program that could be amended to make it more equitable. Because, right now, the money raised from automated enforcement in Pennsylvania is not evenly distributed.
It would make sense that revenue raised from automated enforcement would be spread equitably to the communities most negatively impacted by poor highway engineering of yesteryear planners.
But Pennsylvania red light camera and speed camera laws were written to distribute half the money raised in Philadelphia to communities outside Philadelphia — a political move to get state lawmakers around the Commonwealth to vote for the legislation which made automated enforcement legal.
It’s well past time the state legislature amends these laws to make sure the safety aspects, and the money raised from automated enforcement, is evenly, and equitably, distributed. Additionally, our support of crash investigations, via the Accident Investigation Division, remains unchanged.
Vision Zero and Racism
As Tamika Butler additionally noted in 2018: “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.”
Our role in making streets safer cannot amount to making them unsafe for Black, Brown, Immigrant and Indigenous communities. Policing and planning has historically been racist and confronting those bad policies requires rethinking how we work toward zero traffic deaths while making bicycling a more viable alternative for recreation and travel. Promoting armed police as a solution accomplishes neither.
The fear of being unfairly targeted by the police has often been a “silent barrier” to folks riding bicycles at all in cities. In fact, researchers Charles Brown and James Sinclair found that one in five Black and Latino males they surveyed felt they had at some point been unfairly stopped by police.
“In the focus groups, Black residents in particular discussed police harassment as a barrier to bicycling,” note Stefani Cox and Rutgers University Researcher Charles Brown in a Better Bike Share Partnership post. “For many, bicycling felt like an activity that simply makes one too vulnerable to be worth it. In fact, participants said that they routinely avoided certain towns and certain routes due to fear of police profiling.”
Vision Zero is supposed to look holistically at traffic patterns and engineering in part because we bicyclists will not be safe if people walking, rolling, and driving aren’t safe.
The same holds true for racial violence: If Black, Brown, Indigenous and Immigrant communities are not safe to enjoy their communities and streets, none of us are safe. And if Vision Zero in Philadelphia utilizes police enforcement and fear over equity and engineering, we are simply replacing one type of violence with another.
It is time to move beyond police enforcement and toward equity.
We will actively advocate against police enforcement in Vision Zero.