Speed cameras can reduce speeding and collisions while simultaneously bringing in funds to make permanent physical safety improvements to streets. And they can do all this without involving an armed police officer, sidestepping the issue of biased policing. Or at least, that’s how it is supposed to work.
Whose Streets? Our Streets! is “a BIPOC-focused workgroup” that Seattle Neighborhood Greenways convened in 2020 to “use a pro-equity, anti-racist framework to review laws and practices related to transportation in Seattle,” according to the group’s press release (see full text below or in this PDF). They are “asking the City of Seattle to put the brakes on expanding its automated speed camera program until critical equity issues are resolved.”
The problem is that biased policing isn’t the only source of injustice baked into our city. Communities of color are also more likely to live near streets with high rates of speeding dues to a long list of historical injustices such as redlining, segregation and so-called “urban renewal” projects like freeways and their related high-traffic collector roads. At the same time, our city and state departments of transportation have historically neglected to make street safety improvements in communities of color.
The result is that communities of color are more likely to have streets designed to encourage speeding, such as streets with too many lanes that are too wide. These are the kinds of streets most likely to give out automated speeding tickets, which means that a disproportionate share of speed camera tickets end up going to people of color. It’s a classic example of trying to create a “color-blind” system that actually just reinforces existing inequities. Instead, it will take intention to craft a speed camera policy that is both effective and fair.
Whole Streets? Our Streets! has produced a report documenting the problem and suggesting ideas (PDF). More details from their press release:
Whose Streets? Our Streets! (WSOS), a BIPOC-focused workgroup of community members examining the role of enforcement in transportation, is asking the City of Seattle to put the brakes on expanding its automated speed camera program until critical equity issues are resolved.
A recent SDOT analysis of the program revealed that existing cameras have been placed disproportionately within Seattle’s communities of color, reflecting historic disinvestment in the safe design of roadways that run through those communities. While automated ticketing can reduce speeding and collisions, the cost of a speeding ticket – currently $237 – can also cause significant financial distress for low-income Seattle residents.
Few realize that the number of automated traffic camera tickets issued in Seattle has soared to nearly 200,000 each year. In contrast, Seattle police currently write an average of just 11 tickets per day in traffic stops, about 50 times fewer than are issued by automated cameras. Last year, a budget amendment by outgoing City Councilmember Alex Pedersen directed the city to double down on this mode of traffic enforcement by expanding the number of school zone speed cameras from 35 to 70 in 2023 and 2024. An implementation plan by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is due to City Council by July 1, 2023.
Drawing from our BIPOC-focused community outreach and policy research, Whose Streets? Our Streets! is releasing a report with 15 detailed recommendations on how Seattle can balance safety and equity considerations when expanding its automated enforcement program. These recommendations focus on four key areas:
- Mitigating the disproportionate impacts of fines and focusing on highest-risk behavior
- Creating an equitable citywide distribution of cameras
- Developing robust policy to prioritize physical street safety improvements before implementing automated ticketing
- Addressing surveillance concerns by documenting, publicizing, and strengthening protections around the use of images and data collected by automated enforcement cameras
We have heard from Seattle residents that doubling down on punitive ticketing is not the right solution for our city’s current traffic safety crisis. On March 14, 2023, WSOS hosted a community town hall centered on automated traffic enforcement. Through small group discussions and a survey, we gathered feedback on how automated ticketing has affected Seattle residents and how the system can be more equitable. Our town hall and a separate online survey were advertised within a South Seattle Emerald op-ed on automated enforcement. In the words of community members who attended the town hall or responded to our surveys:
- “I was between jobs and had to pay for my medication, and when I got a school zone speeding ticket, I had to choose between paying the ticket or reducing my medication.“
- “We need safer streets all over Seattle but especially in South Seattle where traffic related deaths are highest. But not [with] traffic cameras. That would further punish those communities for poor design. We need to spend our money on better design… of our streets.”
- “There are speeders everywhere – in Ballard, in Laurelhurst, in Loyal Heights. Why target communities of color? If the city is going to put cameras in, they better be everywhere.”
Learn more about this important issue by reading our new recommendations report: https://www.our-streets.org/s/WSOS-automated-enforcement-summary.pdf.