Vision Zero, Data driven enforcement, and Discrimination?

The Safe Routes Partnership moderated a Twitter chat this morning on the topic of equity and law enforcement in the context of active transportation. Among the good discussion starters, the Safe Routes Partnership asked:

A few people responded with variations of “data driven enforcement.” Data driven enforcement was recently adopted by the city of San Jose, California Traffic Enforcement Unit, so let’s talk about that.

Vision Zero employs the “Four E’s” of traffic safety — engineering, enforcement, education, and evaluation — to work toward their goal of zero traffic fatalities. As part of their Vision Zero effort, the city of San Jose, CA Police Traffic Enforcement Unit has adopted a data driven approach to enforcing traffic infractions. 50% of traffic fatalities in San Jose occur on just 3% of city streets. These “Safety Priority Streets” are portions of Almaden Expressway, Alum Rock Avenue, Blossom Hill Road, Branham Lane, Capitol Expressway, Jackson Avenue, King Road, McKee Road, McLaughlin Avenue, Monterey Road, Senter Road, Story Road, Tully Road, and White Road. Both cyclist fatalities in 2014 occurred on one of these streets, and the majority of cycling deaths in San Jose continue to occur on those roads.

San Jose Vision Zero Priority Streets

SJPD love this data, and it was very easy to convince them to use their very limited resources to target enforcement where they can do the most good.

But see what happens when we overlay the map of what our regional planning agency identifies as “Communities of Concern,” which are neighborhoods with a high proportion of minorities, recent immigrants, and low-income households.

MTC Communities of Concern - San Jose / Santa Clara County

People in all neighborhoods deserve safe streets, of course, but when people of color already feel unfairly targeted by law enforcement, sending an entire squad of motorcycle police with lidar guns to the east side might feel like harassment.

The real problem is that, historically, we’ve designed unsafe, incredibly hostile roads through these disenfranchised neighborhoods. Fatalities happen because people drive at highway speeds down eight lane thoroughfares with huge intersections. Fixing this is part of the “Engineering” component of Vision Zero, and San Jose has begun to allocate resources towards fixing these problems. This takes time and money, and in the meantime the dangerous driving and the fatalities will continue. SJPD must, unfortunately, continue playing the bad guy to make up for these design failures and improve street safety where they can.

Why is this important for cycling advocacy? For most of its history, American bike advocacy has been the province of mostly wealthy, white men who emphasized a certain style of riding and even a certain look. Many of us even enjoyed this exclusivity, and we imagined ourselves either as a counter-cultural rebel, or as an elite who’s smarter than the average American motorist. If Pedro or Jayvon got creamed by a Buick while riding the wrong way down the sidewalk on his second-hand BMX bike, well, that was his own stupid fault. Never mind that we never bothered to include him in our rides and lectures, or, better yet, biked into his neighborhood to see what it’s like. I point the finger firmly at myself, and I hope to repent of it.

The result is a pitiful half of one percent of Americans who say they bike to work, no influence in communities, and very little mindshare among planners, law enforcement, and city officials even as America becomes a majority-minority land. If whites make up the entire membership of your bike club in an area where your demographic is dropping, you might think about ways to attract a more culturally diverse membership before you become irrelevant.

Lest you think I’m just talking about Vehicular Cyclists and Go Fast Road Cycling Clubs (both of which I appreciate and participate in), I suspect our fascination with Scandinavian bike culture with their beautiful tall blonds might feel a little bit exclusionary to some people, too.

I think our local Vision Zero team have done a good job of obtaining buy-in from East Side stakeholders, but I’m part of the privileged class. I hope I have enough empathy to understand that data-driven enforcement might be problematic. I’m far from an expert and I don’t have solutions, but I’m encouraged to see some Vision Zero policies now include an “equity” component. In the meantime, I encourage you to read this recent City Lab article on “Vision Zero’s Troubling Blind Spot” for additional perspective.

Filed under “Musings“, and please feel free to fire away at my incorrect perceptions. I’m always willing to learn.


  1. Oddly enough, I have been thinking about the issue of undeserved communities, and their need for better facilities.

    It would be logical to focus the engineering efforts first in the underserved communities. The problem is they might possibly view this as another attempt to hold them now or back in someway.

    After all, the only thing you see from the media (TV and movies) is driving a car is the ticket to affluence.

  2. I live in an underserved community, ride regularly and the nonprofit that run has an apartment building in my neighborhood for people who were homeless. Many of our residents ride bikes in the neighborhood as well because it’s their only form of transportation. We could definitely use infrastructure because people would then feel safer riding on the streets instead of sidewalks (which is illegal in my city). There will have to be some education that goes with it, but we already need that whether the infrastructure comes or not. I’ve been thinking about having a bike education class for our residents so that they can be safer when they’re out and about. I’ve seen some of our residents riding well and some riding dangerously, but they are simply riding in a way that they think is safest regardless of whether that’s actually true or not.

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