Why we don't support traffic enforcement

This blog post is based in part on a presentation Elissa Schufman & Emily Wade gave at the City of Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting held on June 26th, 2019. 

At Our Streets Minneapolis we firmly believe traffic enforcement is not a good strategy to make streets better places to bike, walk, and roll. 

We know that this sets us apart from many local and national advocates who believe law enforcement is key to making streets spaces for everyone. Here in Minneapolis, the idea that we need more police enforcing traffic laws is popular in conversations about blocked bike lanes and the City of Minneapolis Vision Zero Action Plan

Given what’s going on with these conversations in our local community, we wanted to explain why we think traffic enforcement is a bad strategy in a bit more detail.

Downtown Minneapolis intersection with folks using many transportation modes

There are two main reasons we think enforcement is a bad strategy: 

  1. Increased traffic enforcement will almost certainly amplify racial disparities in our city
  2. Changing street design is a more effective way to make streets better places to bike, walk, and roll

Let’s take a look at each of these more closely. 

Increased traffic enforcement will amplify racial disparities 

In Minneapolis, our local police do not enforce traffic laws in the same way for people of different races. Minneapolis police have skewed interactions with both black folks on bikes and black folks in cars. 

A report created by Melody Hoffmann, Ph.D, and Azul Kimecik, MPH, former volunteers for our organization, found that internal Minneapolis Police Department reports suggest black bicyclists face greater threats of police violence than white bicyclists, especially for small infractions like failure to use a light or riding on the sidewalk.

When we pulled data from the Minneapolis Police Department Stop Dashboard, we found that from January 1st to June 25th of this year, 45% of the people stopped for traffic moving violations in our city were black or East African, while 38% were white and 5% were unknown.

After police stopped someone in Minneapolis, sometimes they searched their vehicle. 70% of those searches were performed on black or East African drivers. 

Sometimes police searched the driver’s body. 68% of those body searches were performed on black or East African drivers. For reference, black and African American folks make up about 18% of our population in Minneapolis

From these numbers we can see that Minneapolis has a problem with race and traffic enforcement. Do other cities do any better? Unfortunately, no. 

Let’s take a look at two other cities where we could find published data on race and traffic enforcement:


Chicago adopted Vision Zero informally in 2012 and formally in 2017. Early on, Chicago slowed their Vision Zero efforts following concerns about the role of enforcement. As of 2017, people biking in neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of black people still received the most tickets. Folks in black neighborhoods received 56% of the tickets issued to people biking in 2017 despite those same neighborhoods only making up one third of the city.  

Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. adopted Vision Zero in 2015. The City went into Vision Zero with black residents making up 70% of traffic related arrests, despite making up less than 50% of the population. Five years later in 2018 data showed drivers in predominantly black neighborhoods were 17 times more likely to receive a moving violation than those in predominantly white neighborhoods. Notably, these disparities exist even though Washington D.C. relies heavily on automated camera enforcement. 

Sometimes we hear from folks that the solution to racially biased policing is police reform, not less policing. What that says to us is that folks know there is a problem with the police. But, rather than pressing pause on policing and the harm it causes, they think it would be better to continue with our current levels of enforcement, or even increase them, and write off the disproportionate outcomes as an unfortunate side effect. 

At Our Streets Minneapolis, we don’t think that’s good enough. Especially because we know that for black men in our community, being pulled over can be deadly. It was for Philando Castille

Want better streets? Build better streets

If the racial disparities weren’t enough to oppose enforcement as a strategy--which we think they are--it might help to know that focusing on traffic enforcement doesn’t necessarily translate into better environments for folks to bike, walk, and roll. 

Given the discretion police officers have in how they do their jobs, they at times end up handing out more tickets to cyclists for minor infractions rather than ticketing speeding or reckless drivers. And, for people of color, fear of being profiled by police can keep them from riding a bike in the first place.

Fortunately there is a much better way to make our streets better places to bike, walk, and roll: change the streets

We know that good infrastructure makes a huge difference. Folks tend to drive in the way the built environment around them allows. For example, wider lanes make drivers feel comfortable speeding, so they do. Where there are protected bike lanes, on the other hand, folks driving slow down and everyone benefits

But don’t just take it from us. Take it from the U.S. Department of Justice. In their 2009 guide on effective policing and crime prevention, the U.S. Department of Justice states:

The most important principle in speed control is that motorists tend to drive at the speed at which they feel safe and comfortable, given the road conditions. Therefore, the key to reducing speed is to alter road conditions such that motorists feel uncomfortable speeding.

The report goes on to recommend that local leaders install traffic calming devices, narrow streets, or even just make streets appear narrower so folks driving slow down. When it comes to changing driver behavior, even the police don’t think they’re right for the job. 

Infrastructure changes don’t have to be expensive or time consuming, either. The mid block signs that led to success in St. Paul’s Stop for Me Campaign start at only $65. And earlier this summer we saw how quickly work crews can be sent out to add a painted buffer to a bike lane after our community put pressure on the City and County to restore the buffers on Park & Portland

Don’t get us wrong--we love total street reconstructions and curb protected bikeways. But we don’t have to wait for a full reconstruction every time we want change. 

Let’s be bold

Here’s what we know about traffic enforcement: 

  1. Increased traffic enforcement will almost certainly amplify racial disparities in our city
  2. Changing street design is a more effective way to make streets better places to bike, walk, and roll

But, as far as we know, traffic enforcement has been part of every Vision Zero effort to date. 

This gives us a unique opportunity in Minneapolis: we could be the first city to try Vision Zero without enforcement as a strategy. As a city that’s known for innovative approaches, and prides ourselves on creating equitable policies, this is the kind of thing that ought to be right up our alley. 

We could show our neighbors and the country that we will not put more resources into a deeply flawed police system. We could take those resources and invest in improving the infrastructure on our streets. We could make big changes to what it’s like to bike, walk, and roll in Minneapolis.

So Minneapolis, let’s do it. Let’s take enforcement out of our Vision Zero Action Plan, and out of our conversations about better streets. Let’s be bold. 


Want to learn more? Take a dive into these resources  

Andersen, Michael. “
For People of color, Barriers to Biking Go Far Beyond Infrastructure, Study Shows.” Streetsblog USA (April 2017)

Butler, Tamika. “Can Vision Zero Work in a Racist Society?Vision Zero Cities Issue 2. (2017)

Biking Public Project. “A More Equitable Definition of Safety,” Vision Zero Cities Issue 3. (2018)

City and County of San Francisco. Automated Speed Enforcement Survey Findings and Lessons Learned from Around the Country. (November 2015)

City of Minneapolis. “Public Safety Emergency Management Committee Agenda Regular Meeting February 7, 2019 - 10 am.” (February 2019)

Collins, Bob. “Biking While Black Means You’ll Probably Get Stopped More Often,” MPR. (October 2016)

Conner, Marco. “Racial Inequity in Traffic Enforcement,” Vision Zero Cities Issue 1. (2016)

Cox, Stefani and Charles Brown. “Silent barriers to bicycling, part III: Racial profiling of the Black and Latino community,Better Bike Share Partnership blog. (March 2017)

Editorial Board. “Reduce Racial Bias in Traffic Stops,” Star Tribune. (February 2019)

Ferrier, Kathleen. “Vision Zero: Planning an Effective Road Map for Action,” Vision Zero Network. (December 2017)

Farrell, William. “Predominantly black neighborhoods in D.C. bear the brunt of automated traffic enforcement, DC Policy Center. (June 2018)

Glidden, Elizabeth. Amendments to the City of Minneapolis Code of Ordinances Title 2, Chapter 21. Definitions of equity and racial equity.

Greenfield, John. “Slow Roll Chicago: Vision Zero Must Address Structural Racism as a Cause of Traffic Violence,” Streetsblog Chicago. (September 2017)

Hoffman, Melody and Anneka Kmiecik. Bicycle Citations and Related Arrests in Minneapolis, 2009-2015. (October 2016)

Jany, Libor. “Hennepin County report finds stark racial disparities in traffic stops,” Star Tribune. (October 2018)

Jezard, Adam, “Sweden has a plan to end all traffic deaths,” World Economic Forum. (April 2018)

Kaul, Greta. “New Minneapolis police data dashboard confirms that yes, black people get stopped more,” MinnPost. (October 2017)

Laker, Laura. “Vision Zero: has the drive to eliminate road deaths lost its way?The Guardian. (September 2018)

The League of American Bicyclists, “The 5 E’s.”

Leber, Jessica. “U.S. Cities Want To Totally End Traffic Deaths–But There Have Been A Few Speed Bumps,” Fast Company. (August 2016)

Lugo, Adonia. “Unsolicited Advice on Vision Zero.” (September 2015)

Miller, Stephen. “NYPD Bike Enforcement Carries High Price in Communities of Color.” Streetsblog NYC. (October 2015)

Minneapolis Police Department Stop Dashboard (Data 1/1/2019-6/25/2019)

Moriarty, Mary F. “Traffic stops as criminal investigations: Pretext stops should be disallowed in Minnesota,MinnPost. (June 2019)

MPD150. Enough is Enough: A 150 Year Performance Review of the Minneapolis Police Department. (2017)

New York City Department of Transportation. New York Automated Speed Enforcement Program Report. (2017)

O’Keefe, Zachary P. & Christopher M. Sullivan. “Does more policing lead to less crime--or just more racial resentment?The Washington Post. (July 2016)

Quintanar, Sarah Marx. “Man vs. Machine: An Investigation of Speeding Ticket Disparities Based on Gender and Race,Journal of Applied Economics. (May 2017)

Reed, Olatunji Oboi. “A Matter of Life or Death: Vision Zero Chicago,” Slow Roll Chicago blog. (August 2017)

Routh, Stephanie. “Vision Zero & Campaign Zero: A National Conversation,” Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About This? podcast. (August 2016)

Schmitt, Angie. “To Get Drivers to Yield, St. Paul Uses Psych Trick.” Streetsblog USA. (Oct 2018)

Scullin, Karen. “Minneapolis residents call for return of traffic enforcement unit after uptick in violations,” FOX9 News. (May 2019)

Shahum, Leah. “Vision Zero, Equity & Law Enforcement,” Vision Zero Network blog. (July 2016)

Shahum, Leah and Jenn Fox. Vision Zero Equity Strategies for Practitioners. (May 2017)

Singer, Jessie. “The Thin Bike Lane,” Reclaim Magazine. (October 2018)

Theodore, Nik. “Insecure Communities: Latino Perceptions of Police Involvement in Immigration Enforcement,” Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (May 2013) 

Transportation Alternatives. Death, Danger and Ignoring the Data: How the NYPD is Getting Vision Zero Wrong. (July 2016)

Untokening Collective. “Untokening 1.0 - Principles of Mobility Justice.” (November 2017)

Untokening Collective. “Untokening Mobility: Beyond Pavement, Paint and Place.” (January 2018)

U.S. Department of Justice. Effective Policing and Crime Prevention: A Problem-Oriented Guide for Mayors, City Managers, and County Executives. (2009)

U.S. Department of Justice. “Justice Department Finds a Pattern of Civil Rights Violations by the Chicago Police Department.” (January 2017)

White, Paul Steely. “NYPD Needs To Ease Up On Cyclists And Target Reckless Driving,” Gothamist. (June 2016)

Whitford, Emma. “Report: The NYPD Is Failing Vision Zero,” Gothamist. (July 2016)

Wisniewski, Mary. “Black neighborhoods still see most bike tickets, police data show.Chicago Tribune. (Feb 2018)

Zimmerman, Sara. “The 6 E's of Safe Routes to School: Embracing Equity,” Safe Routes to School. (November 2015)


Showing 2 reactions

  • Magdalen W.
    You hit the nail on the head with your point about good infrastructure doing much of the traffic law enforcement for us automatically. But one thing I learned working for a drainage Victoria BC company at https://www.perimeterdrainagevictoria.com/ is that sometimes traffic control is needed. For example, when working on a public drain system traffic will need to be goaded away from the area, where drains are open creating hazards. Other times traffic laws need to be enforced is doing other such construction, after car crashes, etc. But I agree wholly if they were to spend millions in a city to enforce traffic laws then putting that money toward better infrastructure that directs traffic where it should go without the use of surveillance instead would be a better investment with long-term benefits. Well said!

    Kind regards,
    Magdalen W.
    #trafficlaws #lawenforcement #traffic #ourstreets
  • Tina Cho
    Thank you for writing this. The power dynamics at play here are deadly, and too often against the goals of Vision Zero. It’s not like bike cops are chasing bicyclists… For folks who haven’t heard about it yet, a NYPD police officer driving a police vehicle rammed a cyclist (on a Citibike!!!) with the vehicle, for the cyclist’s “safety.”

    The direct quote from the officer is below, as well as the link to the article:

    “So I am going to use whatever means necessary to stop you, OK? And that’s for your safety.”


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