Can speed cameras be racist? Yes.

In the urban planning and transportation world, the word that is regularly bandied about is EQUITY. 
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What is equity? Equity is not equality and it isn’t diversity. Equity is providing access and opportunities taking into account systematic and historical oppression or barriers and giving supports in an attempt to remedy those oppressions and barriers.

I bring up the definition, because even though everyone claims to know what it means, when equity involves money for infrastructure then equity turns into equality and pictures of “diverse”  people riding their bicycles.

Can automated enforcement, for example speed cameras, be racist? Yes, especially in hypersegregated communities where there is a concentration of dangerous infrastructure (roads designed for speed, with no account for pedestrians). If your neighborhood was designed to be a highway, then you’re going to drive differently.

From William Farrell of the DC Policy Center’s study Predominantly black neighborhoods in D.C. bear the brunt of automated traffic enforcement, “My analysis of moving violations citations and crash data suggests that the racial geography of D.C. does play into in the enforcement of traffic violations: census tracts with higher proportions of black residents are associated with a higher incidence of traffic fines, despite not experiencing a greater number of crashes.”

The US in many places has adopted Vision Zero. The cornerstone of Vision Zero is infrastructure, but there are also education and enforcement components. The United States can interpret just about anything to make it uphold its addiction to racism and it has not let us down in its warped interpretation of Vision Zero.

In the United States if enforcement is an option, especially in Black communities, it will be used. The United States racism is rooted in its infrastructure and policy. It was that way in the past and it is that way currently.

[A] driver in a black-segregated area is over 17 times more likely to receive a moving violation (at a cost of 16 times more per resident) than in a white-segregated area,” from Farrell.

When making policies and spending money on infrastructure the US  still has a very challenging time viewing non-white people as human beings worthy of investment. Not only that, but the history of redlining and the encouraging  of white people to move to the suburbs created a network of fast roads from work centers, through Black neighborhoods, to white suburbia. Those fast roads are still there. If you grew up in Black America you probably got run down by a person driving a car at least once, I did.

From the “Roads to nowhere: how infrastructure built on American inequality” in the Guardian, “The process of routing roads through black communities was so common it even had a name: ‘White roads through black bedrooms.’”

This results in Black communities being the home to some of the most dangerous configuration of roads in the United States, arterial roads. Arterial roads are polluting and deadly and they exist to quickly get you out of the neighborhood and onto a freeway or highway. Where do these death traps go through? They disproportionately go through, according to both National Association of City Transportation Officials and American Public Health Association  Black and Latinx communities.

The US has managed to make street design racist, so that means that we can’t just have automated enforcement. Technology can be more racist than a human, especially if the system has made oppression work with zero human intervention.

Black communities are hypersegregated. It is a designation that applies to Black people specifically, no other group in urban America is hypersegregated at the level of Black people. Hypersegregation is a term created by Princeton’s Douglas Massey. Hypersegregation occurs when a group has a high segregation score in 5 of  20 possible criteria of segregation. According to the book American Apartheid Segregation and the Making of the Underclass  by Massey and Denton the criteria in which Black people in the US are segregated are distribution of races, isolation of a racial group, proportion of land to groups size, proximity to business district, and interaction with other races, this lays the groundwork for automated enforcement being racist in Black communities.  You don’t need an individual human being to ruin a Black person’s day, the system is on automatic pilot in regards to ruining Black people’s day.

Owing to the United States’ history we cannot have enforcement as any part of Vision Zero, not if we want to truly grasp the spirit of its origins. We can not give the US the opportunity to be even more racist, because if given a choice, it almost always chooses to be racist and pro-car.

We need to get the street design in Black and Latinx communities to a safe level. At the bare minimum automated enforcement of any kind should not be allowed in any community which in the last 20 years has been designated as hypersegregated.

If our only mechanism to make a street safer is to go out and have police out there or speed cameras, we’ve already failed at the design of the street,” said Greg Billing Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association from an interview on the  Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU referenced in Farrell’s study.

If we want to get to zero deaths, we need infrastructure and we need to stop playing with enforcement, robocop or human.

by Lark Lo


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