Great News: Transportation Alternatives to Focus on Racial Justice

I just received an e-mail with the only good news I have heard in the horrific last week. Transportation Alternatives, the NYC-based advocacy organization that works on pedestrian and cyclist safety and access, has issued a statement of its commitment to putting racial justice at the core of its work. The statement recognizes not only that unsafe streets are more unsafe for people of color but also that demands for police intervention to make streets safer can put those very same folks at new risks of penal sanction and violence. This is extremely important.

A year ago, I ruffled some feathers, but also received a lot of supportive messages, when I wrote on this site about my discomfort with the demands that so often are issued among safe streets advocates for a more aggressive police-based response to dangerous driving and other traffic hazards. That post was meant as an exploration of the issues and a way to organize my own thoughts. It was not meant to be definitive. The conversations I saw among various folks that ensued were not always easy, often marked--as is usually the case in discussions of racism and racial injustice--by people talking past each other. But I do feel, and I don't mean to give myself any credit because many others have been doing the hard work, that in recent months, the tone and vocabulary of the safe streets conversations that I have seen online have changed, with greater sensitivity to the dangers of placing trust in the NYPD, for example, to solve problems. Among white advocates, I believe there is now greater willingness not just to listen to people of color but to take their concerns seriously. This announcement from Transportation Alternatives is evidence of this shift, and I applaud it. (At the same time, I also disavow some claims made recently about how bike lanes lead to gentrification. Anyone who believes that type of zero-sum nonsense clearly doesn't know what gentrification is and needs to read Neil Smith or Tom Slater.)

I come at this issue from the perspective of someone who has been watching, listening to, and participating in (a little) safe streets conversations for well over a decade, going the dreaded memorial rides and, before the RNC, regularly participating in Critical Mass. But I also come at it as a historian (with a PhD) of policing and racism. My day job, which I commute to on foot or bicycle, is to write and teach about what I call the "who, what, where, why, and how" of policing. This work makes me suspicious of any demands from social movements that lend legitimacy to the enhancement of police powers. There are few examples in history of good results for poor folks and people of color in the United States when white liberals ask the police to expand their reach.

One demand Transportation Alternatives has issued is for automated enforcement via traffic cameras because it removes the cop's discretion from the incident. But it prompts me to think that we must also then ask how and where the cameras get placed. And what happens to the data they collect? If it is true that removing the cop's discretion can remove one form of racial bias, we must be aware that other vectors of racial bias may seep in. I trust Transportation Alternatives' statement and believe they will consider these type of issues going forward.

I don't have time today to write more on this issue. I will conclude with a couple of quotations from the Transportation Alternatives statement. And though I don't have much money to spare, I'm proud to say that I followed up reading this announcement by donating a small amount to the organization. I hope this is the beginning, rather than the culmination, of difficult and time-consuming work to put racial justice at the center of safe streets efforts. There remains a lot to be done. 

A quotation:

Transportation Alternatives stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Because we fight to protect New Yorkers in every community, our fight for Vision Zero must also be a fight against institutional, individual and implicit racism.
As we advocate for more equitable streets, we must acknowledge that transportation planning and policies have historically been used as tools of oppression, segregation and displacement in New York City -- from the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway to violent police crackdowns on fare-beating and sidewalk bicycling in Black communities. We will fight to correct these historic inequities as we advocate for streets that serve all New Yorkers. Our campaigns will proceed with full acknowledgement of this history and preparedness to overcome it.

Another quotation:

We Oppose Discriminatory Enforcement: We renew our call for the NYPD to focus traffic enforcement resources on the streets that are most hazardous to pedestrians and cyclists, and on the offenses that kill and injure most New Yorkers, and we encourage disavowing historic practices that have targeted and harmed communities of color. We are concerned about melding quality-of-life policing and traffic enforcement, and we ask the NYPD to detach Vision Zero from other types of enforcement. Transportation Alternatives is proud to endorse the Right to Know Act to protect all New Yorkers against unconstitutional searches.

I hope Transportation Alternatives disseminates the statement beyond their e-mail list soon!


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