New NACTO Paper Recommends Reforming Bicycle Laws that Punish Minority Riders Without Improving Safety

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The working paper encourages policymakers to overhaul laws, including eliminating those used to unfairly criminalize people on bikes.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) published a new working paper today that finds bicycle laws across the U.S. often fail to improve safety while leading to harmful over-policing that disproportionately punishes Black, Latine/x, low-income and unhoused bike riders.

The working paper, entitled “Breaking the Cycle: Reevaluating the Laws that Prevent Safe & Inclusive Biking,” concludes there is little evidence that many laws regulating bicyclist equipment and behavior have substantial safety benefits, and calls on policymakers to refocus policies on the wellbeing of all road users, including by eliminating laws used to unfairly criminalize people on bikes.

Tamika Butler in downtown Los Angeles outside of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition offices. Photo by Serena Grace

The paper evaluated the three most common types of laws that are enforced by police, and found that:

  • Laws regulating equipment–from bike registration requirements and helmet mandates to penalties for dirty tires–rarely contribute to safety
  • Laws regulating behavior–including the direction of travel and strict adherence to stop signs and markings–fail to distinguish between a 40-pound bike and a 4,000-pound car
  • Laws regulating location–including prohibiting bike riders from riding on sidewalks, vehicle lanes, greenways and bridges–are most often enforced when a bike rider has no safe alternative to the facility they’re using.

In the U.S., the fatality rate for Black people on bikes was 25 percent higher than it was for their White counterparts between 2015 and 2019, and Black pedestrians were twice as likely to be killed while walking as White pedestrians in that period. This is largely the result of unsafe infrastructure: cities and neighborhoods that have been systematically disinvested tend to lack protected bike lanes, sidewalks, and safe crossing points.

As a result, people on bikes are often forced to use sidewalks and vehicle lanes in ways that were not intended—especially in neighborhoods where investments and routine maintenance have been withheld. Yet studies show that Black, Latine/x, and low-income people are policed for violating bike laws at much higher rates than other demographics, often for infractions like biking on the sidewalk, even where there are no safe on-street bike facilities.

In New York City, for example, Black and Latine/x bikers received 75% of all tickets for bike-related infractions in 2021, despite constituting just under half of all people on bikes. A Los Angeles Times analysis of more than 44,000 bike stops made between 2017-2021 across L.A. County revealed that 70% of stops involved Latine/x bicyclists, even though only 50% of the County’s population is Latine/x.

NACTO’s new working paper is a resource to help policymakers, advocates and practitioners understand the adverse impacts of biased enforcement of bicycling laws, and includes recommendations for how to refocus policies on the safety and wellbeing of all road users. The paper also suggests short-term actions local leaders can take, like better informing bike riders about laws, providing free helmets and other required equipment, and educating police officers about why people choose to violate a law like biking on the sidewalk to preserve their own safety.

“America’s over-use of policing in an attempt to correct for systemic safety issues leads to devastating outcomes, especially in Black and Latine/x communities,” said Corinne Kisner, Executive Director of NACTO. “To truly curb the epidemic of traffic deaths in the U.S., we need to focus on what we know works: equitably redesigning streets and public spaces to make them safe and inclusive for everybody who uses them. We want to thank and acknowledge the many leaders who have called attention to the harms of biased enforcement, and are honored to have partnered with several of them in researching this report.”

“As NACTO cities, we must cultivate a practice of ongoing critical reflection, community-based engagement and a focus on building inclusive, inviting and connected infrastructure to overcome the undue burden that people of color can experience navigating public streets,” said Richard Mendoza, Interim Director of the Austin Transportation Department.

“Ultimately, smart policing is about keeping our communities safe,” said Terrence Miller, Planner at the Professional Standards Division of the Orlando Police Department. “Policies that are not equitable and that punish people unfairly on bikes make it more difficult for law enforcement officers to effectively do their jobs. By rethinking our bike laws, we create cities that are healthier, stronger, and safer for everybody.”

“To achieve our Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic deaths, we need to be honest and transparent about which strategies actually keep people safe,” said Laura Hardwicke, Vision Zero Project Manager with the City of Orlando. “That means taking a holistic approach and re-designing streets to be safe and accessible for everyone, rather than unfairly punishing individuals struggling to navigate outdated, dangerous and inequitable transportation infrastructure.”

“Baltimore City DOT is committed to undoing legacies of inequitable, unjust enforcement,” said Meg Young, New Mobility Manager at the Baltimore City Department of Transportation. “We know that Black and Latine/x bikers and pedestrians are already over-policed; it only adds insult to injury when already contending with the dangers of sharing the road. It is our responsibility to proactively advocate against laws that unfairly criminalize people of color while pushing forward policies that increase connectivity and ensure safer streets for all people and road users.”

“We are excited to see conversations around equity and transportation justice moving into action,” said Kristen Simpson, Interim Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation. “Decoupling punitive practices, such as helmet law enforcement, from transportation safety supports the movement toward a more just transportation system, which we are working hand in hand with the BIPOC community to advance through Seattle’s Transportation Equity Framework. Of course, we continue to emphasize the importance of wearing a helmet, while knowing that our most important work is continuing to expand our network of connected bicycle facilities so that everyone–no matter their age, gender, race, income, or ability–feels safe on our streets.”

“For too long too many in the transportation space have separated conversations about enforcement and racism in this country,” said Tamika Butler, Founder and Principal of Tamika L. Butler Consulting. “I’m excited to participate in putting together this working paper that urges us all to confront the disproportionate punishment inflicted upon Black and brown communities–punishment many of us in those communities have been harmed by personally and speaking out about for years. NACTO elevating these voices and this research is a positive step forward in rethinking transportation decisions and infrastructure throughout its member cities.”

“I strongly believe in our collective capacity to unapologetically eradicate all systems of oppression in pursuit of freedom for all,” said Charles Brown, Founder & CEO of Equitable Cities LLC. “I applaud and am honored to work with NACTO on taking this critical first step toward more equitable cities. I’m also eager to continue critically examining other unjust policies, planning efforts, and the ever-growing impact of self-deputized citizens on Black mobility via my work on #ArrestedMobility.”

“BikeWalkKC felt it necessary to contribute to this working paper because it directly aligns with our mission to redefine our streets as places for people,” said Michael Kelley, Policy Director of BikeWalkKC. “We can’t push for changes to the built environment without confronting decades of bad policy and design decisions that have led, among other things, to the over-policing of Black bicyclists and other vulnerable road users.”

“As we saw with King County’s helmet mandate, laws intended to protect bicyclists have too often backfired by enabling the over-policing of marginalized community members, while offering minimal safety benefits,” said Ethan C. Campbell, advocate with Central Seattle Greenways. “I’m grateful that NACTO is so powerfully highlighting the need for a course correction away from criminalization and towards policies and streets designed to create true safety for all people on bikes.”

“This report raises serious concerns about inequitable enforcement of fines on cyclists,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, national campaigns and policy director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “To improve everyone’s safety on the road, local governments must invest in upstream solutions that will save lives and correct inequities in their communities. Enforcement and financial penalties can’t solve problems that stem from dangerous design and infrastructure.”

“Breaking the Cycle” is one in a series of working papers being released by NACTO in 2022 as part of an ongoing update to the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide. The working papers will cover topics related to equitable planning, engagement, and implementation, and will help inform project delivery concerns and policy considerations that should accompany the design updates in the guide. NACTO will develop a complete update to the Urban Bikeway Design Guide in 2023 by synthesizing these working papers with state-of-the-practice design guidance. See all of the working papers at the Cities for Cycling page on NACTO.org.

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