How should we respond to the UIC and ProPublica reports on Chicago traffic cameras?

A red light camera in Chicago's West Ridge neighborhood and a paint-and-post sidewalk extension in the Austin community. Photos: Jeff Zoline, CDOT
A red light camera in Chicago's West Ridge neighborhood and a paint-and-post sidewalk extension in the Austin community. Photos: Jeff Zoline, CDOT

Traffic safety and sustainable transportation advocates have long promoted automated enforcement cameras as an effective way to reduce injury and fatality crashes caused by speeding and red-light running, without the potential for racial profiling and violence that exists when police officers conduct traffic stops.

However, for years transportation advocates of color have pointed out that there’s still a possibility of racial and economic inequities in the way traffic cameras are deployed. For example, In 2017 Oboi Reed, currently head of the Chicago-based mobility justice nonprofit Equiticity, discussed the pros and cons of automated enforcement during an online discussion of the Vision Zero crash elimination movement. While Reed strongly advocated against using additional traffic policing as part of Chicago’s Vision Zero program, which launched that year, he acknowledged the potential for speed and red light cameras to help eliminate racial bias from enforcement.

Oboi Reed
Oboi Reed

But Reed added that the cameras shouldn’t be concentrated in communities of color, which – due in part to racist 20th Century urban planning – are more likely to have car-centric street layouts that encourage speeding, as well as higher levels of serious and fatal crashes. Moreover, he said, the penalties shouldn’t be regressive, disproportionately impacting low-income residents.

A year earlier I’d argued in a Chicago Reader op-ed that traffic fines should be income-based, as was already the case in several European countries, and diversion programs like traffic school should be offered as an alternative to fines.

Reed recently revealed that in 2017 he and other Black transportation advocates made recommendations to Chicago officials on ways to make the city’s automated enforcement program, originally launched in 2003, more equitable. These included not putting a disproportionate number of cameras in Black and Latino communities; ensuring the camera placements impact all residents and communities equally in terms of race, income, and geography; implementing an income-based fine system; and publicly sharing automated enforcement data. While most of these recommendations are currently in place or launching soon (more on that in a bit), Reed said the city did not formally agree to them at the time.

The requests Oboi Reed and other transportation advocates of color made to city officials in 2017, and the city's response, per Reed.
The recommendations Oboi Reed and other Black transportation advocates made to city officials in 2017, and the city’s response, per Reed.

First the good news about Chicago’s automated enforcement program: Multiple studies have found that the cameras are doing their job by preventing a significant number of traffic injuries and fatalities.

A city-commissioned report on the red light camera program conducted by Northwestern University researchers released in March 2017 concluded that they resulted in an overall ten percent drop in injury crashes, with a 19 percent reduction in particularly dangerous “T-bone” and/or turning collisions. The study also noted a “spillover effect,” with the cameras resulting in less red light running at intersections that don’t have the cams.

A recent Chicago Department of Transportation analysis of the speed cameras compared of crash data from 2012-13 (before CDOT installed the cameras) and 2018-19. The department found that while serious injury and fatal crashes increased by 21 percent citywide during this six-year period, the increase was only 2 percent within the eighth-mile zones around the cameras. And while speed-related crashes spiked by 64 percent citywide during this period, they only went up by 18 percent in camera zones.

Comparison of crash numbers from 2012-2013 with data from 2018-2019 from a recent CDOT analysis. Chart: CDOT
Comparison of crash numbers from 2012-2013 with data from 2018-2019 from the recent CDOT analysis. Chart: CDOT

Still more evidence that automated enforcement is saving lives was last Tuesday’s release of the executive summary of a study the city commissioned from University of Illinois at Chicago researchers. (To my knowledge, the full report has not been released yet.) They concluded that during the period of 2015 to 2017, compared to expected traffic violence levels, the speed cameras reduced the number of severe and fatal injuries by 15 percent, and prevented 204 people from being injured (at any level of severity) or killed.

The UIC report, titled “Red-Light and Speed Cameras: Analyzing the Equity and Efficacy of Chicago’s Automated Camera Enforcement Program,” was written by Dr. Stacey Sutton and Dr. Nebiyou Tilahoun, professors in the university’s Department of Urban Planning and Policy. Due to the prior Northwestern study, the city didn’t ask them to look at the effectiveness of red light cameras.

Stacey Sutton and
Dr. Stacey Sutton and Dr. Nebiyou Tilahoun

So there’s no question that Chicago’s automated enforcement program is effective in delivering safety benefits. However, the UIC study also found racial and ethnic disparities in who the cameras recorded breaking traffic laws. Drivers of cars registered to households in majority-Black census tracts were most frequently caught speeding or running reds, followed by majority-Latino tracts, compared to majority-non-Hispanic white (henceforth referred to as “white”) and majority-Asian-American tracts.

(Tickets are issued to the car owner, who is not always the person who committed the violation. And some people who commit infractions may live in a neighborhood with completely different racial or ethnic demographics than the owner. However, that percentage is likely so small that I will proceed by simply saying “drivers from majority-X census tracts or ZIP codes,” rather than continuing to use the clunky phrase “drivers of cars registered to households in majority-X census tracts or ZIP codes.)

One could argue speeding and red light tickets are totally optional, and there’s nothing inherently inequitable about the program if it happens to be the case that Black and Brown Chicagoans choose to speed or blow stoplights at higher rates than other residents. After Streetsblog Chicago reported on the UIC findings, many of our readers took an “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” attitude.

It really is a bit of a mystery why some Chicagoans haven’t learned to modify their driving behavior after racking up, say, nine speed camera tickets, like Vanessa Ortiz, an editor interviewed in a recent article on speed cameras from the right-wing Illinois Policy Institute. She complained about getting a tenth and an eleventh citation during a coffee run.

But in reality the factors behind why the cameras capture more violations by African-American and Latino motorists is more complex than simply, “They happen to break traffic laws more often.”

According to Sutton and Tilahoun, the program is in compliance with the Black advocates’ recommendation to the city that the cameras not be concentrated in communities of color. “The number of cameras in close proximity to majority-Black or majority-Latino neighborhoods is not significantly greater than other neighborhoods.”

But the researchers also quantified ways that the playing field still may not be completely level for Black drivers. They found that while red light cameras located within 350 feet of expressway make up only 13 percent of RLC’s citywide, they issued 31 percent of all stoplight citations. In addition, red light cameras near expressways accounted for 21 percent of RLCs in Black communities.

The UIC study also found that cameras on streets with low traffic volumes and in high-crime areas captured more violations.

And even if it was true that Chicago’s traffic camera placement is completely fair, the UIC professors found that the current system of traffic fines and additional fees – including late charges, booting fees, and impoundment charges – is impacting Chicagoans of different income levels in profoundly different ways, which is regressive.

“Over four years, more than 1 percent of annual aggregate household income is going to paying camera ticket fines and fees in some areas of the city,” they wrote. “Economic burden follows a stark racial pattern, even after accounting for household income and number of tickets issued.” Low-income Chicagoans were almost three times as likely to accrue additional fees than upper income residents.

Sutton and Tilahoun made the following recommendations to make the program more effective and fair (their language):

Regarding Camera Locations

  • Analyze red-light cameras proximate to freeways. Particularly examine the types of movements generating tickets in these locations and set fines to reflect severity/risk of harm from movement.
  • Examine processes that led to differences in the choice to install school or park safety zone speed cameras given the apparent differences in majority Latino vs other areas across Chicago.

Regarding Fines and Fees

  • Reduce base fines commensurate with risk of harm.
  • Introduce late fee caps, stop doubling of fines as penalty for late payment.
  • Implement a statute of limitations for non-payment.
  • Scale fines and fees by ability to pay.
  • Scale fines and fees based on number of infractions.
  • Introduce a graduated pricing structure for red-light violations, comparable to speed violations.

Regarding Safety Impacts

  • Reevaluate methodology for camera placement, make the process transparent.
  • Justify placement of cameras with local speed study.
  • Reassess camera locations that are not improving safety outcomes or where worsening crash records have been observed.
  • Decommission or relocate cameras when not found effective.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot promised that the city will use the UIC findings to improve the program. “This study will guide this ongoing work and highlights our commitment to transparency and making policy decisions guided by facts,” she said in a statement. “Traffic violence is a major issue here in Chicago and across the country, and the speed camera program is helping to keep our most vulnerable residents safe. We thank UIC’s academic team for their detailed and diligent report on the city’s camera enforcement programs as we continue implementing their recommendations and working to create a more equitable fines and fees structure.”

The UIC report’s recommendation for income-based fines, also suggested by Oboi Reed and his colleagues, and fee reforms is already in the works as part of the city’s Clear Path Relief Pilot Program, which kicks off at the end of March. Chicagoans who make less than $38,640 will get a 50 percent discount on traffic fines. That means a ticket for speeding 6 to 10 miles over the limit will cost them $17.50, less than half the average cost of a tank of gas.

In addition, low-income motorists will only have to pay the tickets they’ve received in the past three years, with the late penalties waived. All other debt, such as booting, towing, and storage fees for impounded vehicles, will be forgiven. The pilot runs until the end of 2023.

Emily Hopkins and Melissa Sanchez
Emily Hopkins and Melissa Sanchez

Also on Tuesday, in conjunction with the release of the UIC report, ProPublica reporters Emily Hopkins and Melissa Sanchez published an article featuring their own analysis of the program. Their piece shed more light on the subject of potential inequities. It also generated some heat by raising the question of whether traffic cameras should be abolished altogether, since they asserted that “racial inequities [are] baked into the camera program.”

The article is titled “Chicago’s ‘Race-Neutral’ Traffic Cameras Ticket Black and Latino Drivers the Most,” which suggests that the city promised the program would be perfect from a racial equity standpoint, but failed to deliver on that selling point. However, the authors told me they were actually unaware of local officials or advocates ever using the phrase “race-neutral” to describe automated enforcement.

And, like just about all local coverage of automated enforcement, Hopkins and Sanchez gave minimal airtime to the safety benefits of the technology. The lengthy article contains little more than a single paragraph on the subject, acknowledging that “In general, research has found that the cameras help reduce serious [crashes] by changing driver behavior,” and briefly citing some of the Northwestern and UIC collision prevention stats.

The piece talks at length about the economic ravages the regressive fine and fee structure has inflicted on some Chicagoans of color, such as Rodney Perry, a young Black man with a digital marketing and production company, who said he had to take a second job and borrow money from his sister after he racked up 11 speeding and red light tickets and numerous penalties, leading to his car being booted. That’s an important story, and hopefully thanks to the upcoming reforms there will be far fewer such cases of economic hardship.

However, the experiences of Chicago families, particularly families of color, who have been devastated by the kind of traffic violence automated enforcement prevents are also important. To their credit, the authors note that, according to the city’s Vision Zero Chicago Action Plan, Black Chicagoans die in crashes at twice the rate of their white counterparts.

But about a week before the ProPublica piece came out, Sanchez tweeted that she was “Looking to talk to a Chicago resident in a Latino neighborhood who has struggled financially with camera tickets.” Apparently she wasn’t able to find any, since none are quoted.

I responded by suggesting Sanchez also talk with crash victims from Latino communities or their loved ones, and provided a dozen links to Streetsblog write-ups of recent cases in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, the voices of people impacted by traffic violence are completely absent from the ProPublica article. Instead, the piece mostly focuses on the financial difficulties faced by some drivers who speed and run reds, with relatively little time spent discussing the harm these motorists often inflict on innocent bystanders and their families. The animated illustration at the top of the piece, a driver’s-eye view of a road as the car fills up with traffic tickets, is quite apropos, since the article mostly just provides the windshield perspective on this issue.

Clockwise from upper left: Chris Didato, 52, on 9/2/21;
Clockwise from upper left: Chris Didato, 52, critically injured by a driver on 8/30/21 in Ashburn; Prisca Reynoso-Benitez, 64, killed by a motorist on 10/8/21 in West Ridge; Connie Ratzel, 81, fatally struck by a driver on 11/19/21 in Morgan Park; Jose Velásquez, 16, killed by a truck driver on 12/10/21 in Back of the Yards.

Still, there is plenty of valuable reporting in the piece, which elaborates on potential equity issues associated with how automated enforcement operates in Chicago, particularly those related to the built environment. It also details the truly staggering amount of fines and fees that have been levied on Black residents over the course of the traffic camera program.

The authors make the important point that socioeconomic factors often force Black and Latino Chicagoans who drive to spend more time behind the wheel than white motorists, and thus have more exposure to the cameras, something I’ve previously noted. Many Chicagoans of color work jobs such as delivery or ride-hail that involve driving, probably at higher rates than whites. And if you live in a South or West Side community with long distances between destinations to due neighborhood disinvestment, sub-par transit access, and major street crime issues, you may feel you have no choice but to take a car for essential trips.

ProPublica detailed how that issue has been exacerbated during the pandemic. African-Americans and Latinos were much more likely than other groups to have jobs that can’t be done remotely. And fewer people driving during Illinois’ Stay at Home order meant less congestion, encouraging more speeding by those residents still on the road.

Hopkins and Sanchez found that in 2020 the rate of camera-recorded speeding and red-light violations by drivers from majority-Black ZIP codes increased to three times as often as infractions by motorists from mostly-white areas. There was a smaller increase among drivers from Latino ZIP codes.

The authors studied camera-recorded traffic violations between 2015 and 2019, finding the cameras recorded 3.1 million incidents of speeding and red light running. 38 percent of those infractions were by drivers from majority-Black ZIP codes, although those areas only contain 27 percent of Chicago households. 19 percent of the infractions were by motorists from majority-Latino ZIP codes, which contain 16 percent of households.

In the article, Rodney Perry makes the valid point that in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods one often encounters fewer people walking, and more vacant lots and industrial zones than in other parts of town. That provides fewer visual cues to encourage drivers to slow down, compared to neighborhoods with more foot traffic, housing density, and retail, particularly on the North Side.

To illustrate that principle, Hopkins and Sanchez visited the one of busiest speed camera locations in town, on 127th Street at the Major Taylor Trail in West Pullman, a majority-Black, low-income Far South Side community. They noted that 127th has four lanes and only one sidewalk, and there’s a fenced-in steel plant next to the crossing, so there seems to be little obvious reason to hit the brakes. These cameras have recorded a whopping 22,389 violations of the 30 mph speed limit by 11 or more mph in 2020. As ProPublica has previously discussed, studies show that while people struck by drivers at 30 mph usually survive, those hit at 40 mph or higher almost always die.

A speed camera on 127th Street at a Major Taylor Trail crossing. Image: Google Maps
A speed camera on 127th Street at a Major Taylor Trail crossing. Image: Google Maps

In contrast, the speed cameras on the two-lane stretch of Montrose Avenue on the north side of Horner Park in the Irving Park community, a North Side neighborhood that’s mostly white and Latino, and wealthier, recorded a mere five such violations that year. The authors attribute that to the narrower street layout, the presence of a pedestrian island and crosswalk, and more foot traffic.

A speed camera on Montrose Avenue next to Horner Park. Image: Google Maps
A speed camera on Montrose Avenue next to Horner Park. Image: Google Maps

Far South Side bike advocate Anne Alt, secretary for the advocacy group Friends of the Major Taylor Trail, told me that despite the huge number of recorded violations on 127th, costing $100 a pop, it would be wrong to characterize that speed camera as simply a revenue scheme. “There is a MAJOR issue with speeding there,” she wrote me. “The camera installation has made a HUGE difference in reducing speeding.”

Alt estimates that the average driver speed has dropped from 40-45 mph to 30-35 mph, making it much easier for trail users to cross the road. She said she’s spoken with nearby neighbors who also appreciate the change, since they previously often had trouble pulling in or out of their streets in cars without having to wait a long time for a break in cross traffic. Some said they were even hit by speeding drivers.

Alt (that’s her tweet below) also took issue with Hopkins’ and Sanchez’s statement that the Major Taylor Trail, named for the Black turn-of-the-century bike racing champion, is “not a frequently used path,” simply because the reporters didn’t see any trail users when they stopped by for a half hour. “The ProPublica folks didn’t quite do their homework on this location,” Alt said.

More importantly, though, Hopkins and Sanchez highlighted the key issues that the built environment and housing density play a huge role in whether drivers are encouraged to speed. They provided these thought-provoking statistics:

ProPublica found that all 10 locations with the speed cameras that issued the most tickets for going 11 mph or more over the limit from 2015 through 2019 are on four-lane roads. Six of those locations are in majority Black census tracts.

Meanwhile, eight of the 10 locations where the fewest tickets were issued are on two-lane streets. And just two of the 10 are in majority Black census tracts. (The analysis focused on cameras near parks, because those devices operate for more hours and days than those by schools, leading them to issue the vast majority of tickets.)

However, the authors clarified to me that they didn’t actually determine that speed cameras in majority-Black census tracts are more likely to be located on four-lane roads than in other kinds of census tracts, or that speed cams installed in majority-Black census tracts are less likely to be on two-lane roads than in other  communities. Therefore, the disparity they identified, that most of the highest-ticketing cameras are located on four-lane roads in African-American neighborhoods, and vice-versa, is not necessarily an inequity.

But if it’s actually true that speed cameras in African-American communities are more likely to be on four-lane roads, as well as the opposite, that would clearly be unfair. Therefore, CDOT needs to study that issue and make changes to camera locations if needed.

Ideally the department would also implement “road diets” on all four-lane streets with speeding problems. This strategy involves reducing the number of mixed-traffic lanes on a street and using the extra right-of-way for sustainable transportation facilities like wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes, and bus lanes. It’s especially appropriate for a street like 127th that is missing a sidewalk.

Whether or not further analysis reveals major camera placement equity issues, the ProPublica piece does a good job of laying out the massive financial toll that camera-recorded speeding and red light violations have taken on the finances of Chicagoans of color. “The consequences have been especially punishing in Black neighborhoods, which have been hit with more than half a billion dollars in penalties over the last 15 years, contributing to thousands of vehicle impoundments, driver’s license suspensions and bankruptcies.”

At the end of Hopkins’ and Sanchez’s article, UIC researcher Stacey Sutton is quoted comparing the downsides of Chicago’s traffic camera program to inequities associated with in-person policing. “It’s the same cycle, right, in terms of [Black and Latino residents’] interaction with the state and with the justice system. But the way you enter that is not through a police officer, but through this supposedly unbiased technology… I don’t think there’s a technological fix to an unjust system.”

One might interpret that statement as arguing that automated enforcement is fundamentally unfair. That made me wonder why Sutton bothered to create a list of ideas to improve the Chicago program, if she thinks that’s a lost cause.

But Sutton told me that’s not what she meant. “I think our recommendations are sound. Assuming the city were to adopt all of them, I believe the camera system would be more equitable… [But] poor people have always been thrust into the justice system because of poverty. So the ‘unjust system’ I refer to is a structural problem that cannot be remedied through a technological change or isolated policy.”

Active Transportation Alliance spokesperson Kyle Whitehead said the UIC and ProPublica reports “shows much more reform is needed to maximize the safety benefits of cameras and minimize the harm to vulnerable Black and Brown communities.” However, like Sutton, he expressed the belief that Chicago’s program can be made more fair. “This research and the mayor’s recent fine reforms are steps in the right direction. Now the city must adopt the [UIC] report’s recommendations and continue to be more transparent about camera locations, regularly analyzing the safety impacts and moving or removing cameras as needed.”

But Oboi Reed told me that while back in 2017 he was agnostic about automated enforcement, these recent findings have convinced him that Chicago’s traffic camera program is fundamentally broken and needs to be dismantled. He said he was particularly troubled by the revelation in the ProPublica piece that while in 2020 the UIC professors shared with city officials their initial findings that Black drivers were racking up more tickets, and the city then hired the researchers to further study the issue, Mayor Lightfoot still lowered the speed camera ticketing threshold from 10 mph to 6 later that year.

The mayor pointed to a 39 percent spike in on-street Chicago traffic deaths during the first nine months of 2020, likely due to more speeding as a result of lower traffic volumes during Stay at Home, as her motivation for the change. I didn’t endorse lowering the threshold during the depths of the pandemic, a time of economic hardship.

The graph below from CBS Chicago shows that after Chicago speed cameras began issuing ticketed for 6 mph+ violations on March 1, 2021, the number of citations skyrocketed compared to previous years. However, from the peak in ticketing on May 1, through November, the number of recorded speed violations steadily fell to nearly the same level as previous years, which suggests the new rule has been very effective in encouraging safer speeds.

"Equiticity's position is automated enforcement is not the right solution," Reed told me. "Our primary position is that the most effective way to reduce traffic violence is not punitive measures, but safety infrastructure." He pointed to traffic calming strategies like road diets, and installing speed humps, pedestrian islands, sidewalk bump-outs, and other tactics that discourage speeding and make walking and biking safer. CDOT installed 400 such "Complete Streets" projects last year, with a focus on high-crash areas on the South and West sides identified in the Vision Zero plan, and 400 more projects are slated for 2022.

Before and after the four travel lanes on Broadway in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood were converted to two mixed-traffic lanes, a turn lane turn, and parking-protected bike lanes. Images: John Greenfield, Google Maps
Before and after a road diet on Broadway in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood that converted excess travel lanes to parking-protected bike lanes. Images: John Greenfield, Google Maps

Data from other cities suggest that if Chicago's traffic camera program were to be abruptly shut down, many more residents would be injured and die in crashes. A 2017 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looked at 19 cities that removed red light cams during the previous decade. Compared to peer cities that kept their cams, the rate of deadly crashes at intersections with stoplights was 16 percent higher in the cities that removed them. And after Houston banned RLCs in 2010, fatal intersection crashes increased by 30 percent, and collisions rose 116 percent overall, according to data from Houston police.

Moreover, the Vision Zero Chicago Action Plan findings indicate that if our city's automated enforcement program was immediately cancelled, a greatly disproportionately number of Black residents would be injured and killed as a result.

As such, Reed said he would support gradually replacing traffic cameras with similarly effective traffic-calming installations, earmarking revenue from the cams to pay for the infrastructure.

That seems like a reasonable approach to me, but it's a solution that's much easier said than done. A major obstacle to that strategy is that many of the people who loudly protest that automated enforcement is unfair to motorists are the same folks who bitterly oppose road diets, or any other street changes that make driving a little less convenient.

For example, South Side alderman Leslie Hairston has been a vocal opponent of speed cameras and red light cameras. But in 2016 she helped kill a CDOT proposal for a road diet with protected bike lanes on eight-lane Stony Island Avenue in her ward, arguing that reducing the number of lanes for drivers to a mere six lanes would cause traffic jams.

Two years after Hairston blocked the project, a driver fatally struck Luster Jackson, 58, while he was riding a bike on that stretch of Stony Island.

And the following year a motorist struck and killed Lee Luellen, 40, while he was biking on Stony Island, only five blocks north of where Jackson was killed. That driver was cited for failure to reduce speed.

Luster Jackson and Lee Luellen.
Luster Jackson and Lee Luellen

But Reed told me he doesn't think opposition from car-focused aldermen and residents should be a major obstacle to replacing automated enforcement cameras with effective traffic calming. "The mayor lowered the ticketing threshold to 6 mph in the face of significant opposition. Why can't she overhaul Stony Island in the face of opposition too?"