We’ve created a monster. For a century, traffic engineers and car companies have designed roads and vehicles to enable speed while expecting people to have the self-control to slow down. We post little black and white signs telling people to drive below a certain “speed limit,” which, predictably, drivers ignore.
Nationally, because of these design decisions, traffic violence is the leading cause of death for children and adolescents. People of color suffer the most: Black pedestrians are hit and killed by motorists at twice the rate of white pedestrians. Speed is a problem here in Berkeley, where a third of all severe and fatal collisions are caused by drivers traveling at unsafe speed or failing to yield at crosswalks.
Yet none of this has to happen. We know how to design streets to keep all road users safe and prevent tragic and life-altering crashes.
But rather than design a safe system, we have designed our roads to optimize speed for cars and then rely on enforcement as a “stick” to compel safer driving behavior. But as part 1 of this op-ed explained, that enforcement stick, wielded by police, is rife with systemic racism and violence toward Black and Brown people in our communities. And because police are primarily focused on crime rather than road safety, they often exploit the vehicle code, using minor traffic violations as a pretext to stop and search people in public spaces. These pretext stops do not make our community safer.
We see a clear path toward a more comprehensive vision of safety through the City Council’s Department of Transportation (BerkDOT) referral. Here’s how BerkDOT can support an equity-focused holistic, integrated approach to improving both road safety and community safety on Berkeley’s streets.
How BerkDOT can achieve safe, equitable, and sustainable mobility in 3 (not so easy) steps
Step 1: End pretextual traffic stops in Berkeley
In February, City Council unanimously adopted the mayor’s Fair and Impartial Policing working group recommendations – directing the city manager to “minimize or de-emphasize…stops for low-level offenses.” To do so, Chief Andrew Greenwood indicated that the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) would develop and implement a “precision policing strategy” to “minimize non-safety-related enforcement.” We look forward to learning more about how, and to what extent, this strategy will prevent police from using minor traffic violations as a pretext for further search or harassment. In developing an effective strategy, city leaders should look to legislation like the state of Virginia’s, which recently ended stops for tinted windows, the smell of marijuana, and other minor infractions. It also decriminalized jaywalking.
Step 2: Reduce the footprint of police in transportation
Limiting traffic enforcement to safety violations and removing police from most traffic activities is a critical part of reimagining public safety and advancing the movement for Black lives. The city should transfer the following police functions to BerkDOT, refocus them to prioritize equity, safety, and mobility, and integrate them along with the city’s other transportation work:
- parking enforcement
- most traffic law enforcement
- school crossing guard management
- collision response, investigation, data collection, analysis, and reporting
The school crossing guard program and parking enforcement are the most straightforward of these functions to transfer. These tasks are currently managed by transportation departments in Oakland and San Francisco.
Our more transformative goal involves transferring most traffic law enforcement from BPD to unarmed BerkDOT traffic monitors. This groundbreaking proposal has drawn considerable attention, including praise from police reform experts. We envision these unarmed BerkDOT traffic monitors, rather than police, using equitable in-person and automated strategies to enforce most traffic laws in Berkeley. They would conduct stops and issue citations for the sole purpose of advancing road safety. They could also manage automated enforcement programs like the red-light cameras that the city has used in the past.
They wouldn’t be able to detain, search, or arrest people like the police can, and they wouldn’t conduct criminal investigations. Monitors could, in some circumstances, request police assistance when they observe a more serious offense, like a DUI, while making a stop. This approach wouldn’t bar police from conducting vehicle stops if they had evidence that the vehicle was involved in non-traffic-related crimes, like an assault. And the city could still allow police to make traffic stops for certain serious traffic offenses that pose imminent harm to people.
Traffic enforcement without the police will be tricky to realize, and could include several legal and bureaucratic challenges. But even while police continue to conduct traffic enforcement, the city should implement the mayor’s Fair and Impartial Policing Work Group recommendations: develop and use data-driven, equitable enforcement strategies only as a traffic safety solution of last resort.
Finally, we propose transferring collision response and data management to BerkDOT for several reasons. While police currently conduct collision investigations, it is traffic planners and engineers who are actually responsible for designing safe roadways. With traffic experts as the primary collision responders and data analysts, the city can efficiently collect more comprehensive and accurate collision and injury data and be more responsive in making the engineering improvements our city needs to prevent collisions.
Step 3: Create BerkDOT to reinvest in safe, equitable, and sustainable mobility
With transportation accounting for 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Berkeley, the city should create BerkDOT to achieve an integrated and holistic approach to safe, equitable, sustainable mobility in Berkeley. BerkDOT should center equity and prioritize safety with careful street design and genuine community engagement strategies, relying on the education of road users and non-police enforcement only as backstops.
This new department should report directly to the city manager’s office and include above-ground street and sidewalk planning, maintenance, and engineering responsibilities, along with the aforementioned police functions. According to the city manager, these functions involve about 100 existing full-time positions and budgets of close to $50 million, which would make BerkDOT the fourth largest city department.
Combining all of these functions would enable a system of accountability where one single department is tasked with transportation safety and success. BerkDOT would be held responsible for equitable mobility outcomes, from convenient, sustainable and affordable transportation options to creating environments safe not only from severe and fatal collisions (Vision Zero) but from police harassment related to pretextual stops. BerkDOT staff would be able to prioritize their focus and budget on community-engaged planning and engineering, to design and build truly safe streets where education and enforcement are less necessary. And they would design and implement data-driven, equitable enforcement strategies in the rarer cases in which enforcement is needed.
Ben Gerhardstein is a Walk Bike Berkeley coordinating committee member and public health professional. Karen Parolek is a Walk Bike Berkeley coordinating committee member and serves on the city’s Transportation Commission. Darrell Owens is the co-executive director of East Bay for Everyone. The authors are part of the BerkDOT coalition.