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Instead of police randomly enforcing traffic laws, cameras and smart design could make safer streets

Part of reallocating police budgets could involve taking the bias out of traffic stops and instead doing real work to change our streets.

Instead of police randomly enforcing traffic laws, cameras and smart design could make safer streets
[Photo: JayLazarin/iStock]

In New York City, police issue more criminal summonses for cycling on the sidewalk in Black and Latino neighborhoods than in white ones. Those neighborhoods, it turns out, tend to lack protected bike lanes, and research has shown that when a protected bike lane is available, the prevalence of sidewalk cycling plummets by as much as 94%. What if the money spent on that sort of policing was used instead to build safe bicycling infrastructure, so people didn’t feel like it was necessary to ride on the sidewalk in the first place?

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In a recent report, transit advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives is calling for some NYPD funding to be reallocated to build such street safety infrastructure and install automated enforcement technologies such as speed cameras. This reinvestment of police funding would not only make New York City streets safer for cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers, TransAlt says, it would also reduce the harm of racial bias that comes from traffic enforcement stops.

The most common interaction between police and the public is through traffic enforcement. Nationwide, Black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over by police than white drivers, even though white people drive more on average. In New York, this enforcement affects all the ways residents get around. E-bike enforcement has notoriously targeted immigrant delivery workers. Fare evasion enforcement has been concentrated in poor communities: Black and Latino New Yorkers account for roughly 92% of those arrests. In 2019, 90% of the people NYPD officers summonsed for jaywalking were Black or Latino, even though those populations make up only 55% of all New Yorkers.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that many police officers don’t view this work as real police work,” says Marco Conner DiAquoi, deputy director of TransAlt. “So let’s just remove it.” The best way to do so, he says, is through “self-enforcing streets,” where investments in street design and automated traffic enforcement make streets safer without the presence of police.

[Photo: deberarr/iStock]

Take bicycling on the sidewalk. TransAlt doesn’t condone it, but Conner DiAquoi understands that most people do it out of a sense of fear. When you implement a protected bike lane, two things happen: the street and sidewalk become safer for everyone, and, he says, “you eliminate, pretty much, the need for enforcement.” Narrower streets have also been shown to reduce speeding, and intersections can be designed to reduce collisions.

Automated traffic enforcement technologies also lessen the need for so many in-person police. Speed cameras already installed in New York have reduced the number of people killed or seriously injured by as much as 50% and reduced the daily rate of excessive speeding violations by 60%. TransAlt wants the city to add cameras that automatically issue tickets when drivers fail to yield to pedestrians or when they block an intersection as well. As long as this automated enforcement is deployed in neighborhoods equally, it wouldn’t have the bias that exists when the decision is left up to individual police officers.

Paying for these new cameras and new street designs would be easy if the city reallocated NYPD funding to the Department of Transportation. TransAlt is also asking for NYPD to roll back its 2019 expansion of transit police to instead create a multiagency unit that would include the Department of Homeless Services to support the unhoused in New York’s transit system, create more data transparency around traffic enforcement, and pilot sliding-scale fines for low-income drivers.

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Conner DiAquoi did not specify how much funding they’d like to see rerouted from the NYPD’s budget, because TransAlt doesn’t have enough information on how much the department currently allocates to this type of policing. Some of the measures can be implemented right away, he says, and others can be assessed in the city budget, which will be finalized by July 1.

TransAlt has been calling for some of these changes for years and has long been critical of New York City’s implementation of the Vision Zero street safety strategy, which relies heavily on traffic enforcement over infrastructure changes. Rerouting police funding in this way may have seemed far-fetched a few weeks ago, but Conner DiAquoi says the moment we’re in could make it possible. “This moment calls for more than just every white person in the country to acknowledge the responsibility they have in actively addressing or recognizing the racism that exists, and for organizations to acknowledge it as well,” he says. “It needs to be followed with action.”

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