Eliminate Cars and Traffic Cops or Keep Cars and Traffic Cops but not both

It's incoherent to oppose traffic enforcement and support automobile hegemony if you're a progressive.

There were a series of traffic enforcement bills in the California legislature that Equity Groups—defined broadly as nonprofits advocating for low income people—opposed. A bill which would’ve equipped public buses with traffic cameras and a bill which gave municipalities the power to lower speed limits was opposed by Western Center, the most prominent of the equity groups. Their argument was that more traffic laws and therefore more traffic enforcement means more criminalization of people of color. Equity groups are usually opposed to automated traffic enforcement (speed cameras, toll cameras and red light cameras) on the basis that it’ll hurt people of color either through regressive fees or discriminatory placement. Police oppose automation because they think it’ll render their jobs obsolete and police also violate traffic laws.

As a supporter of many of these bills I think the equity group’s opposition makes sense. I prefer automated enforcement to police officers but some transit activists’ insistence on automation to heavily reduce traffic fatalities is naive. But when tasked with eliminating car dependency which fundamentally causes traffic violence, many equity nonprofits don’t have any answers except opposition or indifference.

And that’s where things stop making sense.

When a bill was proposed to stop housing developers from being forced to build parking lots and garages near public transit, thus putting more residents onto public transit, the same equity nonprofit groups opposed. Their argument was that any reduction in housing construction costs should be paired with affordability mandates—the merits of which can be discussed another day.

But in this instance, equity groups are implicitly saying that preserving car centrism along with all its externalities such as deadly streets, pollution and inaccessibility are fine, provided it marginally reduces profit for real estate developers. That’s ridiculous and not equitable.

It’s not just automation either. Proposals to eliminate or meter parking spaces, car registration fees, bus rapid transit and bike lanes and things that make automobiles less competitive than public transit and cycling usually are treated with “poor people have to drive, so no.” And that’s the fundamental contradiction. Their opposition to anti-car initiatives betrays the message of Defunding the Police, in which the solution to crime was to prevent the conditions that caused crime rather than reactive enforcement by police. A message I agree with.

According to the Department of Justice, police officers interact with civilians in two ways:

  1. Traffic Enforcement (58% of all police encounters in 2018)

  2. Everything Else (42% of all police counters in 2018)

So at least half the duties of police is spent dealing with traffic violence in which they largely fail at making streets safer, since American traffic enforcement is largely just a tool to detain people without warrants. So how are you going to oppose enforcement but then also oppose eliminating the car-centric conditions that necessitate it? It doesn’t make any sense.

Now some groups will respond by insisting that reducing car dependency is indeed the solution, but it should be incentivized through better transit, more lighting and better crosswalks and not by making driving more difficult. But that suggests the transportation public sector should be forced to compete with the transportation private sector rather than regulate its use. That’s uncharacteristically not progressive.

That’s also a bad answer to disproportionately Black and brown communities being besieged by traffic violence and pedestrian deaths. The urbanist responds to those communities with “less cars,” the police answer with “more cops,” but what are the equity groups’ answers? “More public transit but if a car delays a bus then that’s too bad.”

Infrastructure investment such as traffic lights and bigger, marked crosswalks are merely band-aids too. A traffic light or cross walk is no better than a posted reduced speed limit in that they both rely on the benevolence of an aggressive driver to obey it and police officers to enforce it.

I understand that tickets, fees and license suspensions hurt low income people who need their cars to get to work. But opposing bills to put traffic cameras on buses so that cars stop blocking disabled transit riders from boarding, or reducing speed limits so that seniors and children can cross the street, does nothing to end traffic enforcement or regressive fees. Again, police conduct traffic enforcement with the intent of warrant-less searching so it’s not as if a lower speed limit gives cops the one thing they need to stop a vehicle. But it does make a difference for a child being killed when they run out onto the street.

It’s also completely counterintuitive to making public transit functional if you’re not making driving less competitive as I went over before. As one of the original activists who helped spearhead the first to attempt to remove police from city traffic enforcement, I can say that provided cars kill as many people as guns in this country, there will always be popular demand for traffic cops. There is no city on Earth where cars are allowed complete dominion of streets and traffic cops aren’t prominent realities in everyone’s life. Anyone saying otherwise is either mistaken or a politician.

To the equity groups I say: cars are Capitalist, for-profit, market-rate transportation. Yes, most people drive but just oppose them like you do private housing, for which the vast majority of people live in too. If people didn’t have to drive then expensive traffic tickets and license suspensions hurting low income people wouldn’t be a problem.