How Racial Justice Concerns Tie Into Vision Zero Policies

May 21, 2019

Last year, Alta Planning + Design supported a UCLA grad student, Rabi Abonour, in a research project to examine how racial justice concerns around enforcement practices tie into Vision Zero policies and projects. In his own words, he explains his research process and findings.

By: Rabi Abonour

As a street safety advocate, I have spent several years organizing around Vision Zero. While I agreed with many of the principles of the program, I began to question the role of traffic enforcement and its application in communities of color. When I learned that Alta was interested in collaborating on a project about equity-focused Vision Zero planning, I saw a great opportunity to work through these issues.

After considering several possible research directions, I decided to focus on the task force model of community engagement that cities often use to develop Vision Zero programs. I assumed that concerns about racist policing were raised in these task forces and wanted to know if this were true, and if so, what effect that had on the finished Vision Zero plans. I conducted case studies of four cities (Los Angeles; CA, San Francisco, CA; Chicago, IL; and Portland, OR), interviewing city staff and local activists.

In the end I found a variety of factors that prevent equity concerns from being fully reflected in Vision Zero plans: resource constraints, unbalanced task force membership, poorly defined stakeholder roles, and strained inter-agency coordination. I then proposed a set of steps that I believe can improve the process. In short, Vision Zero plans should be written with strong mayoral support and stable funding, and they should be created with proactive and continuous outreach.

The planning profession has a long way to go to ensure that it does not perpetuate systemic racism. There is no way that one paper can address the myriad of inequities in urban planning. I hope, however, that this work can help continue the conversation on traffic safety and racial justice.

  1. What drew you to this research?

Rabi Abonour: When I first learned about Vision Zero the “Three Es” (engineering, education, enforcement) made a lot of sense to me, but the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement made me really question the role of enforcement in street safety. I knew that other planners had similar concerns, but I still saw a tendency towards enforcement in Vision Zero plans. The research came out of my perception of a gulf between attitudes on racial justice and the actual policymaking.

2. How were the cities chosen?

RA: I used a couple different criteria to pick cities. They obviously all had to participate in Vision Zero, and I wanted cities that had adopted Vision Zero at different points in time to try to get an idea of if and how things are changing. I based my research on the idea that concerns about enforcement are voiced but not heeded, so I tried to focus on cities where there had been prominent conversations about Vision Zero and racial justice.

3. Why is a systematic, design-based approach important to consider when thinking about Vision Zero framework?

RA: The way we present the fundamental principles of Vision Zero are extremely important. When we define Vision Zero by the Three Es, we presuppose that enforcement is going to be part of the plan. Rather than build Vision Zero around enforcement tactics that have mixed safety results and are likely to enable racial profiling, we should focus on proven design interventions.

4. Through the case studies you found 5 issues with the Vision Zero planning process. How can cities mitigate some of these issues in future plans?

RA: The bottom line is that community outreach should not be a box you check during the planning process; it should be a guiding principle throughout the work. Take the time to develop relationships within disadvantaged communities, listen to what they have to say, and take their concerns to heart. My other recommendations — particularly mayoral leadership and stable funding — are in service of that goal.

Crafting a strong Vision Zero plan takes time, money, and political will. Cities shouldn’t shy away from the challenge. This work is too important to not do right.

5. What are some promising takeaways from your findings? How can cities build on these to create more spaces?

RA: I look to Portland as being a promising success story. Staff was open with me about how they struggled. Their initial task force wasn’t diverse enough, and to the city’s credit they recognized this and fixed it. Staff told me that this had a real impact on the discussion — and the actual plan.

Portland did not dissolve its task force once the plan was published. This goes back to my previous point: outreach is not a checkbox. The city’s Vision Zero plan still contains enforcement strategies, albeit in a limited capacity. I expect that the continued existence of the Task Force will force the city to grapple with this issue in ways it would not otherwise have had to.

6. What future areas of research did this project suggest to you?

RA: Like any research project, this raised as many questions as it answered. For the purpose of this project I took for granted the idea that Vision Zero outreach is centered around citizen task forces, but I am far from convinced that this is the best tactic. I believe that one of the most important questions in planning — for Vision Zero or anything else — is how to structure community engagement in a way that both maximizes the diversity of participants and the amount of actual influence those participants have.

Learn more about Alta’s Health and Equity service group, and how we’re working with communities to provide safe, healthy, affordable, and convenient transportation options.

Contact Jessica Roberts for more information.

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