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Want to #SlowTheCars? Don't Rely on Enforcement.
Recent events have thrust back into the spotlight the question of how best to promote public safety on our streets. The United States is suffering an epidemic of pedestrian deaths at the hands of drivers: the toll has increased by more than 50 percent in the past decade, and dwarfs that of many other countries, even though walking rates are comparatively low in America. (To quote Joe Cortright, “ We walk less, but we die more .”)
People of color and people walking in low-income communities are more likely to be hit by cars, and yet the most popular speed reduction strategy—police enforcement via traffic stops and ticketing—is not experienced the same way by communities with an often fraught and violent history with the police as it is in white and affluent places. And so the national conversation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd has brought to the forefront the issue of whether we can achieve safer streets without relying on enforcement as our primary tool.
Bill Lindeke, writing at MinnPost, has produced an excellent overview of the debate that is worth reading. Among others, Lindeke interviews Ashwat Narayanan, the Executive Director of Our Streets Minneapolis , about why that organization—devoted to making the city’s streets safe and accessible for all users including pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchair users—emphatically does not advocate traffic enforcement as a means of slowing down drivers and increasing safety. As Lindeke reports,
According to Narayanan, the organization began to shift its attitudes toward police during that time, especially after members read a blog post by anthropologist Adonia Lugo, describing working with Vision Zero campaigns. In it she argues that those efforts, such as the one in Minneapolis , have routinely ignored calls to change the role of policing: “I was alarmed that a pillar of Vision Zero was increased police enforcement of traffic violations, in the same year that multiracial groups were filling streets across the United States to call attention to the deadly effects of racial profiling in policing.”
There’s another reason, even in communities that aren’t usually subject to draconian policing or punitive racial profiling, to eschew enforcement as your speed-reduction tool. That reason is that, evidence suggests, it mostly doesn’t work. According to another expert Lindeke interviewed:
“I’ve long believed that fear of ticketing is a motivator for drivers to comply with speed limits or other roadway laws,” said Nichole Morris , who heads the HumanFIRST lab at the University of Minnesota and has been coordinating the Stop for Me efforts for the past two years. “[But] while that still may be true for some drivers, if we look to the literature, there is little or, at best, mixed evidence that speeding citations result in significant long-term reductions in speeding.”
Rather than enforcement, Morris points to other technical solutions that can reduce risk before crashes even occur. For example, Morris would love to see regulations on phone companies and carmakers and to reduce dangerous technologies — like GM’s Supercruise system. She’d also like to see many more bump-outs that slow speeds and boost safety for people on foot.
“Ultimately, enforcement in any form treats the symptoms and not the causes of risky driving,” she said. “ We can’t enforce our way out of phone-related distracted driving. It’s too pervasive and too hard to detect.”
Enforcement mechanisms that do not involve direct police presence have their downsides, too. Lindeke discusses red-light and speed cameras, which are controversial because they can be abused as a cash cow for local governments, can theoretically be used as part of a predatory, fine-based approach to funding local government (as we’ve seen in Ferguson, Missouri among other places), and have the potential to be used for surveillance in ways that violate privacy or civil rights.
Ultimately the best, most proven way to curb speeding, and thereby create streets that are platforms for congregating and value-generating activity, is to use design. Create spaces in which it is physically uncomfortable or impossible to drive a vehicle quickly, and you are very likely also creating spaces where community can flourish.
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