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April 2nd, 2022

A How-To Guide for Decriminalizing Mobility

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BikeWalkKC and Safe Routes to School released a new publication designed for advocates that want to repeal and modify unsafe, racialized traffic laws.

The murder of George Floyd was the straw that broke many an advocate's back — passionate people across the country utilized the mainstream attention the tragedy garnered to shine a light on the racialized enforcement of many American laws. In the mobility space, there was a renewed effort to critically examine traffic laws related to walking and bicycling that fail to meet their intended safety goals and instead disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), as well as the unhoused and low-income communities. BikeWalkKC, alongside the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, recently released “Taking on Traffic Laws: A How-To Guide For Decriminalizing Mobility,” based on the organization’s experience reforming unjust laws locally. 

Since its founding, BikeWalkKC, based in Kansas City, Missouri, has centered equity in its work, lobbying for better infrastructure but also larger policy reform. In 2020, as Floyd’s murder sparked protests around the country, the Kansas City City Council adopted Resolution #200450, which directed city staff to review the full municipal code to identify elements of racist language as well as statutes that could disproportionately harm Black and brown residents. BikeWalkKC used the resolution as an opportunity to search for laws that could specifically be used to over-police BIPOC while walking or biking.

“We essentially identified three laws related to jaywalking, bike inspections and dirty wheels that needed to be modified or repealed,” said Michael Kelley, policy director at BikeWalkKC. “Over the course of the next few months, we were able to push for the introduction of legislation, build a coalition and ultimately, successfully advocate for those changes in May of 2021.”

In his new podcast, “Arrested Mobility,” researcher Charles T. Brown explores the adverse social, political, economic and health outcomes of over-policing BIPOC movement — whether on bikes, walking, running or driving — in the U.S. The first episode is all about jaywalking and showcases how while illegal in many places, jaywalking is inequitably enforced in areas with fewer sidewalks, signals and pedestrian crossing areas. Similarly, research shows that areas with less bike infrastructure experience disproportionate ticketing, compounding the effects of racially biased policing and transportation policies.

To showcase the inequitable enforcement of jaywalking laws in Kansas City specifically, BikeWalkKC obtained data from the municipal court (because the city doesn’t have local control over its police department, it’s incredibly difficult to secure arrest data). The data showed a definite racial bias in charges related to jaywalking: 65% of jaywalking tickets were given out to Black residents, even though they make up less than 30% of the city’s population. The other two laws identified as problematic pertained to dirty wheels, which made it illegal to drive a car, bike or other vehicle that deposited mud on city streets, and bike inspections, which allowed officers to stop someone biking if they believed the bike was in a state of disrepair. 

On paper, many bicycle laws — such as those for inspections or others that require people to wear helmets, use bike lights, obtain a bike license or register their bikes — seem like a great idea. After all, inspecting a bike that’s in poor shape might save someone from injury, helmets can protect our heads in the case of a crash, lights help bikers see and be seen, bike licenses can raise money for infrastructure and bike registrations safeguard people against theft. In reality, these laws are widely virtually unknown and rarely enforced. When they do get enforced, it’s usually to the detriment of BIPOC citizens or those experiencing homelessness.

Something like a bike inspection law can be used by police officers as a pretextual traffic stop, or the practice of using a minor traffic stop to investigate a more serious crime. These sorts of stops bring with them a myriad of risks: the disruption of a person’s daily affairs, policing for profit, overcriminalization of already marginalized groups and, in extreme scenarios, even policing killings. There is also evidence that a crime-fighting approach based on traffic stops is largely ineffective.

Importantly, bicycle laws and by association, pretextual stops, also gatekeep bicycling, ensuring that certain populations feel less safe traveling on two wheels, which hurts all of us working in the bike space. Suzanne Hogan is a community volunteer and shop coordinator at the 816 Bicycle Collective in Kansas City, a volunteer-run, DIY recycle bike shop that welcomes everyone and focuses on the empowerment and education of low-income bike commuters. 

“At the shop, one of the big things I hear all the time from our patrons is about bike lights — not having lights is an excuse for someone to get pulled over on their bikes,” said Hogan, noting that other stories she hears are a direct reaction to an unsafe urban bicycling environment. “I've heard many patrons say that they've been stopped by a police officer for violating a traffic law, like say riding on a sidewalk.”

All of this creates mental stress and anguish for these communities and a general feeling of being unsafe when trying to move around. While many of the incidents Hogan hears about aren’t codified in city law, they’re part of a larger culture that polices the mobility of lower-income individuals and BIPOC. Combatting arrested mobility requires a cultural approach (this includes shops like the 816 Collective, which helps build a more inclusive community) in addition to a policy approach, like the one taken by BikeWalkKC.

Following the organization’s success, calls began rolling in from advocates in places like Atlanta, and Denver, asking for advice on how they might recreate such wins in their cities. The guide for decriminalizing mobility was a response to inquiries and is broken up into three sections: The first being an explanation of how we have overpoliced traffic enforcement and how that disproportionately harms certain groups, the second detailing what BikeWalkKC did in Kansas City, and the third is a call to action, asking advocates to learn from what BikeWalkKC did and to apply it to their own communities.

“One of the big takeaways was the importance of building an effective and varied coalition,” said Kelley, noting that in addition to people from transportation, the Kansas City coalition included folks working in housing, livability and sustainability backgrounds. “Another big part is the importance of being willing and able to get the data and the stories earlier in order to help build and strengthen your case.”

Kelley adds that an important part of that story gathering is also guarding your own vulnerability — advocacy often requires people to explain and share parts of their own lived experiences that are difficult and that they are still sometimes working through. Even though advocacy work is important and requires us to use our voices, it’s important to practice self-care and limit the parts of ourselves we share.

“We wrote this guide for other advocates,” said Kelley. “If and when there are other communities that want to take these steps, here’s our detailed account of how you can get it done and do it better than us by avoiding the mistakes we made.”

Kelly and the other authors are also clear that this is a guide, not the guide for taking on traffic laws. Language and terminology will differ from place to place; someone might be looking at laws that are more expansive or more narrow depending on where you are. Even the way BikeWalkKC went through its municipal code searching for certain terms like “sidewalk” and “walking” might be replaced with “pedestrian path” or “crosswalk” elsewhere. Kelley is also adamant that it doesn’t have to be an organization or nonprofit leading the charge — a group of community members can make a difference.

“We want people to understand that there are multiple ways to do this work,” said Kelley. “We don't necessarily think that everyone has to do things the exact same way to get the same results. You can change things to better suit the nuances of the community you’re working in.”

The guide is itself an acknowledgment that the work doesn’t end in Kansas City. Even just outside of town, in Independence, Missouri, 37-year-old Justin Layton was tackled, tased, beaten and ultimately arrested by police in 2020 after being initially stopped for the crime of jaywalking. He’d like to see the entire Kansas City metro area decriminalize jaywalking — the authors of “Taking on Traffic Laws” are thinking even bigger.

“This is not something that just ends with Kansas City and it doesn't just end with BikeWalkKC,” said Kelley. “We want this guide to be a catalyst for similar changes across the country.”

Check out “Taking on Traffic Laws: A How-To Guide for Decriminalizing Mobility,” from BikeWalkKC and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. 

Are you or any groups you know of working locally to repeal unjust traffic laws related to bicycling? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line: kiran@peopleforbikes.org.

Related Topics:

Bike SafetyInclusive BikingCity Riding
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