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Study: How We Talk About Racism in Transportation — And Why it Matters

Image: Leonhard Lenz, CC

Sarah Brown
Sarah Brown

For far too long, the rhetoric around mobility in the active transportation field has been deeply rooted in White supremacy, classism, and other intersecting oppressions that violate our fundamental and collective human rights. And yet we still try to build equitable approaches upon this toxic foundation.

This will not work.

We need space to question our language, to disrupt these systems, and most importantly, to uproot what makes us unable to work toward justice.

This was the motivation behind my recent research into how top transportation organizations tend to frame conversations about safety, equity, and policing — and how that language is evolving.  In my paper — which is built upon the concept of Arrested Mobility coined by Charles T. Brown — I closely analyzed 44 articles and communications published by ten active transportation thought-leaders, before and after George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020.

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Ten thought leaders with power and privilege were chosen because of their large outreach and influential advocacy. Most importantly, each organization responded to Floyd’s murder in some capacity. The results of my work were broken down into the three main categories: safety, equity, and police.


When transportation leaders spoke about safety prior to the murder of George Floyd, they tended to focus on safety performance measures: crashes, injuries or fatalities, trips, and number of people who are physically active on U.S. roads. These are essential, but they do not capture a complete definition of safety, which includes safety from all racist and discriminatory barriers to transportation.

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Most organizations also tended to talk about safety for “all” users. Some took care to acknowledge that certain identities are more vulnerable than others because of racism and other targeted oppressions — but some organizations did not.

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In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, this rhetoric subtly shifted. Nine out of ten organizations spoke explicitly to safety from police brutality and violence, and they openly condemned acts of racism by police following the events of May 25, 2020.

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Many spoke specifically to how the concept of ‘safe streets’ means more than bike lanes and sidewalks, and how no one should fear traffic violence or police harassment and brutality on our streets — a more of expansive definition of safety than had never been so collectively visible in transportation discourse before May 25, 2020.

Mode Equity

Before George Floyd’s murder, most of the organizations in this study alluded to the concept of “mode equity,” which concerns the mobility and modality choices available to different people, distinct from each person’s fundamental right to mobility.

When the language of “mode equity” excludes the intersectional identity of the person who’s moving, though, this rhetoric is dehumanizing, because it works to separate a person’s specific lived experience from the way they choose to move around — even as the realities of systemic racism, police brutality, and other intersecting oppressions have a profound impact on those very mode choices.

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After Floyd’s murder, organizations spoke more specifically about the human right to walk or bike without becoming the target of violence from police or other community members — a right which is often denied to our BIPOC communities since the origins of colonialism and slavery in the U.S.

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In the first phase of this study, seven of the ten organizations spoke to disparities in traffic enforcement —  and those were the same seven that talked about working with police to end those disparities.

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All of these organizations acknowledged there are disparate and harmful impacts on Black communities and other marginalized groups, but none of them expressed an active commitment to working to end police partnerships or to remove police from traffic safety efforts altogether.

Instead, many advocated for “data-driven enforcement” as a politically viable work-around to help diminish these disparities.

Less clear, though, was what specific sorts of enforcement changes this data would actually ‘drive’ — and who gets to make those decisions about the enforcement and policing of our communities.

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After Floyd’s murder, only two organizations in my sample — the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and the League of American Bicyclists — wrote explicitly about ending partnerships with police.

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Both of these organizations dropped the “E” of enforcement from the “five E’s of Vision Zero” framework that often guides traffic safety advocates, and explicitly stated that enforcement does not equal safety because policing actively puts Black lives at risk and perpetuates white supremacy.

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Takeaways and what you can do

As advocates seek to uproot toxic frameworks from their language, here are three takeaways to bear in mind.

1. Be specific about safety from police brutality — and remember that safety is about far more than Complete Streets and sidewalks.

Be intentional and impeccable in how you talk about safety, and fully embrace that safety from police brutality is an essential part of our active transportation work.  Safety, equity, and re-examining the role of police in transportation are intimately intertwined; pretending they are distinct concepts is unacceptable.

Today, almost every active transportation thought leader in this study has explicitly said that safety from police brutality would become a focus of their work. Now, we must hold this industry accountable to keeping that promise.

2. Shift from ‘mode equity’ to ‘transportation rights’

Safe and dignified mobility is a human right, and anything that impedes that right for BIPOC communities and other marginalized groups is a blow to our collective humanity. Police brutality on our streets and sidewalks too often violates or removes the right to walk, bike, drive, and take transit — as well as the right to simply be connected to the world.

To paraphrase Dr. Destiny Thomas, mobility justice is less about mode choice and is more about freedom of movement — and the freedom to navigate space in the absence of racism.

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We must utilize the rhetoric of mobility rights because it is far more powerful than any language around 'modes' or 'choices.’

3. Question data-driven enforcement without data justice

Data can be used to oppress, police, and surveil. But it can also be used to heal and bring justice.

Data justice is essential to transportation because we can use it to deeply examine and challenge power and privilege.

As Charles T. Brown emphasizes, to begin to fill that void, we must start disaggregating everything we collect by race and ethnicity. We need new data sets and performance measures that shape our evolving definitions of safety and success.

Until we do this, questioning data-driven enforcement is key. Because of course, pretextual and discretionary stops by police that target Black and low-income communities are examples of “data-driven enforcement strategies,” too.

This is not an exhaustive list of every instance of inequitable framing in transportation advocacy circles. But as we work towards true mobility justice, we must make an ongoing commitment to being intentional in how we write and how we speak, and we must recognize how our language choices fundamentally affect how we approach our work.

To be silent about racism in the transportation realm is not just a failure. It is actively violent. We are here to serve our communities and do good, equitable work, and anything less than that in transportation is inexcusable.

Sarah Brown is a researcher at the intersections of mobility and data justice. She previously completed this work as a part of her Master of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently a Transportation Analyst at Kittelson & Associates, Inc. Find her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @sarahbrow_nn. 

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