More Talking Points From the Slow Roll Chicago Discussion of Vision Zero and Racial Justice

Slow Roll's Bike Ride for Peace, hosted last July in partnership with BUILD Chicago. Photo: Daniel Perez, BUILD Chicago
Slow Roll's Bike Ride for Peace, hosted last July in partnership with BUILD Chicago. Photo: Daniel Perez, BUILD Chicago

Last week’s Chicago Reader transportation column looked at Slow Roll Chicago’s push for more ownership of the Vision Zero program by Black and Brown communities. This included concerns that the format of the planned Vision Zero Summit would have discouraged participation by residents of the current Vision Zero focus communities of North Lawndale, Garfield Park, and Austin, which led the Active Transportation Alliance to postpone the event.

In the wake of this small victory, Slow Roll Chicago cofounder Oboi Reed recently led an online discussion on several social media platforms, with participation from Vision Zero advocates and mobility justice activists from around the country. During the talk Reed argued that the national Vision Zero movement must focus on structural racism as a root cause of higher traffic violence rates in African-American and Latino communities across the country.

Reed also asserted that city officials and transportation advocates need to work harder to facilitate meaningful community engagement with the people who will be most heavily affected by crash prevention initiatives. He added that groups like Active Trans need to do more to confront unintentional bias within their organizations that can lead to problems like the flawed summit rollout.

In addition, Reed argued that, due to the Chicago Police Department’s well-documented problems with civil rights violations by officers working in communities of color, increased enforcement should be taken off the table as a Vision Zero strategy in our city’s Black and Brown neighborhoods.

You can watch Reed’s entire presentation in the following video. I also encourage you to check out a detailed post on Vision Zero equity issues which he wrote last month with input from with Rutgers University researcher Charles T. Brown and Go Bronzeville leader Ronnie Matthew Harris. For your convenience, below are a few more salient points Reed made during the online discussion, which I wasn’t able to include in the Reader piece due to word-count limitations.

Reed asserted that the basic problem with U.S. Vision Zero Programs is that departments of transportation aren’t reaching out to everyday residents of the most heavily impacted communities from the start of the planning process, but only after their plans are released.

Then they go, “Hey we’ve got something that we’re rolling out, it’s going to beautiful, it’s going to save Black and Brown babies from being killed.” For the average person, that’s a lofty goal. We’re going to slow down traffic so that I don’t have to worry about my parents or my children being hit by a car? Wonderful. But they come to us with the plan already in place. Our concern is that we want to be at the table when the plan is being discussed.

As part of his discussion of why he doesn’t support increased policing in Chicago’s communities of color as part of Vision Zero, Reed said research exists that shows that enforcement is the least effective component of crash prevention programs. (He has since put in a request to the National Association of City Traffic Officials for data to back up this assertion.)

Instead, Reed argued that engineering, in the form of street designs that protect vulnerable road users and force people to drive slower, has been shown to be the most successful Vision Zero component. Education – teaching and inspiring people, especially motorists, to travel more safely – is the next most effective approach.

“So enforcement is the least effective, and it’s potentially deadly for community of color,” Reed said. “We don’t want Vision Zero to further contribute to the criminalization of our neighborhoods.” He acknowledged that red light and speed cameras can help eliminate racial bias from traffic enforcement. But he added that that the cams shouldn’t be concentrated communities of color, which have been disproportionately impacted by car-centric urban planning, and the penalties should not be regressive.

“We’ve got ten years [until Chicago’s 2026 Vision Zero deadline] to fix this problem,” Reed said. “Invest the resources to design streets that are safer and I’m confident that through engineering and education we’ll get to zero deaths within ten years.”

During the Q & A session, on participant asked “What about pushback from aldermen against engineering low-speed traffic?” Reed responded:

Vision Zero advocates, mainstream transportation advocacy organizations, and us as Black and Brown people who want our neighborhoods to be safer, who want our neighborhoods to be more walkable and bikeable, we need to do a better job of communicating the benefits of more livable neighborhoods. I don’t blame Black and Brown people for wanting to get in and out of their neighborhoods quickly. I don’t blame them for mostly focusing on reducing [gun] violence. These are the priorities, and they should be.

But what we’re saying is that we need to have a comprehensive approach to reducing violence and healthcare disparities. We need a comprehensive approach to creating jobs. And cycling has a role to play in all three.

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  • Kelly Pierce

    Oboi seemed to overshoot here. First, he asserts the claim that traffic enforcement
    is the least effective means of reducing pedestrian deaths. It is unclear if
    there actually is substantial information that ranks efforts from most to least
    effective that is transferrable from community to community, as different areas
    have different driving habits. Education and engineering are areas ripe for
    exploration and are often not considered. Schaumberg is a car centric environment
    but red light cameras were removed there because drivers in Schaumberg obey the
    traffic laws. In a world without greedy politicians, red light and speed cams
    would be placed in areas with the most crashes, not where they make the most
    money or cause minimal outrage. Oboi seems to reject enforcement altogether, even
    refusing to say what should be done with repeat offenders. We can talk forever
    about warning tickets, sliding scale fines and the like, but increased
    penalties are usually part of the recipe in stopping dangerous driving
    behaviors. Increased penalties and enforcement have been part of the decades
    long campaign of Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the past 35 years, resulting
    in a dramatic reduction in drunk driving deaths. Now, first time offenders must
    install ignition interlock devices that require the offender to blow into a
    tube to ensure the person is not drunk before the car starts. Penalties have
    increased and habitual offenders are now serving prison sentences. We now think
    differently about people who drive drunk. Education and enforcement efforts can
    be combined, but eliminating enforcement entirely removes and important tool. Community
    members often do not like engineering solutions when it requires changes in
    driving patterns. Enforcement is often quick and easy and can turn into a
    punitive circus, like the recent enforcement action against bicyclists at North
    and Damen. Finding a balance of various elements is key.

  • It has long been known by planners that enforcement is less effective than education, and education is less effective than infrastructure. Oboi has it exactly right.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Oboi could not produce a single research paper to support “what
    has long been known by planners.” If you have any documented research Jim about
    which methods are most effective in reducing pedestrian traffic deaths, please
    share it.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I would also like to see any research studies that support this, I think there is plenty of nuance that should be thought through in any case, so it’s great to see Oboi’s group making the City think more comprehensively about the issue.

    IMO though, the topic of enforcement is pretty vast and all of it is not the same – for example, having police driving (lawfully) in traffic has a calming effect on the drivers around them, as contrasted with speed traps, which do little beyond making people slow down only until they are past the speed trap.

    So I think it depends on what that enforcement looks like, and whether its purpose is truly improved safety in a community, as opposed to revenue generation, thinly-veiled harassment techniques (pulling people over for cracked tail lights), etc.

    I don’t have the time to dig in, but surely there must be some actual science underpinning this issue. Perhaps here?

    And then there is this:

    “Overall, the findings of this paper suggest that as unpopular as traffic tickets are among drivers, motorist behavior does respond to tickets,” the researcher concludes. She indicates that possible approaches to reducing fatalities include “allocating more resources toward municipalities with higher population densities and increase traffic enforcement at night since tickets have a larger impact during nighttime.”

    I don’t want to make light of Oboi’s very important and bigger picture issues with systemic racism and law enforcement, but we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to simple motorist behavior like obeying stop lights and speed limits and respecting the more vulnerable users of the road. The bigger fix is trench warfare with the status quo, in the meantime genuinely dangerous driving behavior needs to be checked, and that is something law enforcement does. Just scan the local news and you’ll see a river of stories about DUI and distracted drivers causing fatal and life-altering accidents, these are largely due to poor individual choices. Lives are most certainly at stake here – and the studies seem very clear that cyclists across the City share a primary concern about traffic when it comes to safety.

  • Yes “motorist behavior does respond to tickets,” gosh, who’da thunk it? Which says nothing whatsoever about their effectiveness relative to infrastructure. 🙄

  • As the article points out, Oboi has requested “documented research” from NACTO, presumably because of this type of sidetracking commentary. The “three Es” are literally traffic planning 101, the thing you learn in the first week of class, but maybe that’s just a huge sham waiting for some spitballing in a comments section to blow the lid off it.

  • Carter O’Brien

    You’ll pardon people for reading this post and walking away with the impression that enforcement isn’t part of the solution. At least where I live, it absolutely is, because the highway is a big source of the problem, and that isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

    Do you have any research that describes this relative effectiveness? Studies that get into both behavior modification and relative costs would be helpful. Infrastructure solutions sound great, but those are by definition usually capital-intensive and require a lot of coordinating among various agencies and thus, time.

    As a 30+ year Chicago street bike rider and public transit user/pedestrian (I also drive), I think some actual law enforcement during rush hour specifically (which is when drivers are usually at their worst for what should be obvious reasons) would go a long way.

  • Olatunji Oboi Reed

    Have you considered that our varying perspectives on the value of police traffic enforcement is rooted in the fact you are a White male enjoying all the privilege this affords you? And, I am a Black male targeted by structural, systemic, institutional racism on the daily.

    Have you considered that your relationship with police is far and away different than my relationship with police? This is true because when I or my brother or my friends are stopped by the police, we are fearful of being ticketed or arrested for the same things committed by you with no repercussions form the police. We are also fearful that we may be killed by the police because we twitched, or we reached, or we questioned. Are these your concerns? Do some research to better understand police enforcement inequities along racial and income lines.

    Where do you live? Do you live in an LMI community of color?

    Perhaps police enforcement is a part of the solution in your neighborhood because you, your family and your neighbors are not victimized by structural racism, civil rights abuses, overpolicing or unjust murder at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. This is not conjecture. Do your googles. Both Mayor Emanuel and CPD Superintendent Johnson admitted publicly that structural racism is part of CPD. Read the USDOJ’s CPD investigation report. Read the countless articles detailing inequities, corruption and abuse in police enforcement here in the City I love.

    My people are dying as a result of racism. My people are disproportionately, adversely impacted by mass incarceration, hardship, poor quality of life, unemployment, poverty, healthcare disparities, interpersonal violence, lack of mobility, lack of affordable housing, lack of healthy foods, and underfunded, under-performing schools.

    Go read up on racial equity. And, when you are sufficiently informed about racism and it’s deadly impact on people of color, go talk to White people about dismantling racism. Don’t talk to Black people, go talk to White people who clearly hold biased, paternalistic or racist views.

    Better yet, suggest you stop talking and instead you start listening.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I hear everything you are saying and am always listening. I did in fact listen to the entire video linked above, I would just like to see some evidence specifically supporting your goals for vision zero. If you find that unreasonable that’s your prerogative, but
    you didn’t actually read what I wrote to understand – you read it to respond. I didn’t actually disagree with anything you wrote so much as suggest we likely need different solutions for different parts of the City. As I said, where I live (Belmont and Kimball) we have a lot of cut through traffic due to multiple bus lines, the expressway, the turnaround at the Blue line stop and the pinch point of the river a bit east. I saw car crashes requiring ambulances on at least a bi-weekly basis and was nearly hit myself countless times going under the expressway until the red light camera went in. It has helped a lot and gets triggered by cars blowing the light. I am not seeing how that discriminates against anyone.

    Bottom line is I do support you and your neighbors being heard and having your absolutely legitimate and justifiable concerns addressed. That doesn’t mean mine don’t have merit as well.

  • rohmen

    Tough subject to discuss in short comments, but here it goes.

    I do not live in a west-side neighborhood, but my daily cycling commute takes me through Austin and Garfield Park, so I’m very familiar with the infrastructure, and I am a fairly consistent non-vehicle user of said infrastructure, in most of the west side neighborhoods under discussion.

    Infrastructure improvements have helped, and I’m sure more education would too. But, at the end of the day even with clearly-marked buffered bike lanes, I still have to consistently deal with cars that blatantly ignore them and place me in danger. Unfortunately, I do think enforcement is ultimately the only check on that sort of conduct—i.e., blatant violations of well established traffic rules. People know not to drive in bike lanes, but they do it anyway. Same for people running red lights and stop signs.

    That said, there’s two extremely important points. First, on the whole, the instances of aggressive driving that I’ve seen on the west side are no worse or more prevalent than what I encountered when I lived in other areas of Chicago. Maybe the City needs better enforcement practices on the whole, but I’m not convinced those practices are needed solely in west side neighborhoods, or that the west side deserves more enforcement attention than other areas (and it already is getting that increased attention anyway for very suspect reasons).

    Second, and more importantly, as Oboi notes the enforcement issue is directly tied to the systemic racism issue. I have little doubt that increased and better-focused enforcement would make me safer as a cyclist on my commute, BUT I can’t in good conscious support increased enforcement efforts in those communities where CPD has an established track record of using traffic enforcement stops as a pretext to engage in aggressive encounters with POC. Until change happens to address and solve those issues, I’m personally not advocating for increased enforcement in the communities we’re discussing. Even though I think enforcement could yield a benefit in terms of safety, the level of benefit achieved isn’t worth the harm to those communities at this stage.