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Five ways Vision Zero should address race and income injustice


Oregon Walks Executive Director Noel
Mickelberry.
(Photo courtesy Oregon Walks)

This is a guest post by Noel Mickelberry, executive director of Oregon Walks and a member of the City of Portland’s Vision Zero Task Force.

Transportation advocacy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our city’s new goal to eliminate traffic fatalities doesn’t, either.

It’s something that shouldn’t need saying, but I feel it needs constant reiteration. It is entirely too easy, and too common, for us to look at our streets as a series of connections, people divided by mode, unattached to the other issues surrounding us or how our lives are inherently impacted by transportation decisions on a daily basis. The ease by which many of us working in transportation advocacy are able to view our streets — of course a bike lane should go here, of course a crosswalk is the answer there — is in itself a privilege.

As we develop Portland’s Vision Zero policies, I’m asking us to go further. And I’ve got five specific suggestions for how to do so.

In 2014, around the time I started working on Vision Zero, two people lost their lives in one weekend simply trying to walk across the street here in Portland. It felt so urgent to demand that no family go through what these two families had to endure. This is the most visceral of the impacts transportation has on our lives: the loss of human life. Every single person deserves to get to where they need to go without risking their life doing so.

“We can’t work on Vision Zero without prioritizing the intersection between the transportation justice movement and the social and environmental justice movements.”

But another thing that happened in 2014 has shaped my thinking, too.

When Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO, it brought into mainstream consciousness the reality that a lack of traffic fatalities does not ensure safety on our streets. Racial profiling exists. Biases perpetuated by society and within our institutions result in direct violence based on the color of one’s skin and the assumption of character. These things are often amplified when someone is walking on our sidewalks or crossing the street — a vulnerable position on roadways in more ways than one.

Walking is the most accessible form of transportation, meaning that many people who walk (or roll) are doing so out of necessity, when there are absolutely no other options. The glaring infrastructure disparities in our city most directly impact low income people and communities of color. The same people are also the most likely to be targeted as threats or criminals.

This reality can’t be ignored. We can’t work on Vision Zero without prioritizing the intersection between the transportation justice movement and the social and environmental justice movements on the issues of racism, police brutality and criminal justice reform.

Just getting around East Portland.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Active transportation advocates around the country have begun articulating this intersection (please listen to the locally produced, nationally focused podcast covering this over at Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About This?). Here’s my question to Portland transportation advocates and to the community at large: What can we do here in Portland to craft a Vision Zero policy and movement that protects all residents from traffic violence and builds a movement that creates the types of communities we all deserve to live in?

I’ll add that I am new to this and still learning. When Oregon Walks developed the policy recommendations in our Vision Zero for Oregon report with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance last year, we focused heavily on working with partners like OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, APANO, Coalition for a Livable Future and the Center for Intercultural Organizing to ensure our recommendations did not perpetuate racial profiling while also ensuring that increased and unchecked enforcement wasn’t the emphasized strategy pursued in our work toward Vision Zero.

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The success of a Vision Zero policy will depend on the community that creates it. We have a chance in Portland to propose the right actions that meet our unique needs. This takes time and thoughtful discussion, as well as implementation and accountability. There are new faces and leadership around the Vision Zero table. That’s a testament to the importance of this work. It also shows that there are times when, for some of us, stepping back is more important to a movement’s success than leading.

Everyone must feel safe on our streets.

It’s time for us all to lead with these notions front and center. We’re doing a disservice to our shared goals if we don’t start pushing on this in unity. To make the question of what to do here in Portland a little less theoretical and a little more practical, I’ve compiled some avenues to explore this as we work together toward achieving Vision Zero:

1) Our data must track law enforcement patterns by race and income

When we talk about being data-driven, we have to include all data. Of course this includes crash data; who is getting killed, where and how. But does it include police data? If we recommend changes in enforcement, we must also monitor who that enforcement falls upon. Where is this enforcement taking place and what are the actual traffic violations being given out? The Portland Police Bureau’s recent report shows a clear disparity in police stops, with African Americans receiving a disproportionate rate of tickets in almost every category (patrol vs. traffic, pedestrian vs. driver) in 2015. Vision Zero strategies that call for an increase in enforcement shouldn’t take effect until the PPB addresses why this disparity exists and takes steps to mitigate it.

2) Education must be used before penalty whenever possible

Education is less invasive than enforcement, and it also changes behavior. One of the City of Portland’s amazing assets is our ‘Share the Road’ class, an option that is available to people as an alternative to paying speeding tickets – and is chock full of powerful safety information. But referrals to this class are currently up to the police officer issuing the ticket. A more systematic referral system along with with crosswalk-education based campaigns to ensure people know where to legally stop for pedestrians can fill a huge gap in public knowledge of traffic laws without relying on police discretion or the use of enforcement at all. And no organization in Oregon is better positioned to educate new and renewing drivers than the DMV. It should be enlisted in any statewide effort.

Waiting to cross SE Foster Road.

3) If we’re not careful, traffic safety cameras will selectively enforce laws too

Traffic safety cameras are a newly available option for speed enforcement here in Portland. However, low income people and people of color are most likely to live along the most dangerous stretches of road — exactly where these cameras will be placed. This is one reason we need a better referral process for the Share the Road class. Ensuring robust community outreach to the people who travel near cameras will help these cameras to do the job they are created to do: not give people tickets, but slow people down. And maybe cameras aren’t right for certain places. The public process to choose camera locations should also acknowledge that other safety options might fit a community’s needs better, as identified by the community itself.

4) We need to organize and turn out on connected social justice issues

Many policies fall outside the transportation wheelhouse but make tangible impacts on livability and the disparities between low-income and middle-to-high income neighborhoods. This one is on us, advocates. Why are our busiest and most underinvested areas the places where low income and communities of color live? Because we don’t have the housing tools to ensure people can live in any neighborhood regardless of income. (Support inclusionary zoning NOW.) Why are many pedestrian fatalities people who are houseless or struggling with mental illness? (These are the ones you don’t see vigils for, news stories about, or outrage on social media.) Because people who are the most vulnerable are not currently supported by our local government or by our community as a whole. Why are migrant workers unable to access insurance or driver’s education when required to drive for their jobs? Because Oregon didn’t show up to support Measure 88 to ensure all people driving on our roads have the opportunity for education, licensing and insurance. These things matter to undoing racist and unjust policies and behaviors that are deeply ingrained here in Oregon. And they also matter to Vision Zero.

5) We must all take personal actions to resist exclusive decision-making

Show up, listen, and speak up if voices aren’t at the table that should be. Many tables are already set, and it’s up to those of those of us already sitting at them to change how decisions are made and what the table looks like in the future.

Just like Vision Zero, the work to end police brutality and gun violence are also addressing the visceral reality of needlessly lost life. Families are grieving that should never have to be. We need to support the overarching notion that no family deserves this type of harsh, violent and painful loss of a loved one.

Getting that done depends on both movements. We depend on each other to make Portland a community where all families thrive.

What else can we be doing as transportation advocates to be more intersectional and more intentional – to unseal the vacuum? Let’s turn these ideas into action – in policy conversations, in grassroots efforts and in our day-to-day interactions on the street. I’ll continue working toward that with Oregon Walks, and I look forward to more ideas and partnerships that are necessary to accomplish the big and important goal of safe streets for everyone.

— Noel Mickelberry – noel@oregonwalks.org

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