Against Punitive Approaches to Safer Streets

Yesterday, on Halloween, a driver killed three people and injured four on a sidewalk in The Bronx. This morning, across New York City many streets were free of automobiles. Public space usually reserved solely for cars and trucks became dedicated to runners in the Marathon, spectators, and anyone who wanted to enjoy a bit of the fleeting car-free utopia on foot, bicycle, skateboard, or whatever. The contrast is stark. Not only are NYC streets given over to private vehicles almost all of the time, when a driver rampages onto a sidewalk, on the day when children are most likely to be frolicking on sidewalks and streets, the city seems to give a collective shrug—despite waking up to the pacific, friendly experience of today’s utterly different streetscape.

Advocates for safe streets rightly insist that deaths like yesterday’s are preventable, not inevitable. (So too can we fix the very dangerous situations of aggressive and irresponsible driving witnessed daily on city streets that don’t lead to death or injury.) Advocates also recognize that such deaths signal or portend the failure of the efforts on the part of the Mayor’s office and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to make streets safer, whether as “Vision Zero” or in the more diffuse and myriad forms that have proliferated since Janette Sadik-Khan began her six years heading the DOT in 2007. For many advocates of safe streets, however, this failure also signals a need for a punitive, police-led effort in preventing such vehicular violence. Here is where I part ways with (some of) my fellow advocates for safe streets. The carceral state is no answer.

In fact, it is useful to think comparatively and relationally about the carceral state and what might be called the automotive state. The carceral state attenuates and deadens social, political, and community possibilities by enacting a single extremely blunt answer to a variety of problems. It is an answer that mostly makes these problems worse. So too has the donation of public space and resources to private vehicles—rather than to trees, art, parks, playgrounds, pedestrians, trolleys, high-speed trains, bicycles, etc.—destroyed so many possibilities of living life otherwise. At the local scale of the block or the neighborhood that is rendered unsafe, threats range from asthma to persistent noise to actually getting run over. At the planetary scale, now visible are the massive, though uneven, threats of climate change. The conscious decisions made by industry and state officials to center the US transportation system on private cars have cascading deleterious consequences that take many forms. In this way, the carceral state and the automotive state share commonalities.

There is another similarity, which relates to passive prevention as the fall-back option in a neoliberalized, hollowed-out system that abjures proactive methods of social intervention. When it comes to property crimes, like theft and burglary, many people across the political spectrum share the belief that emerged in the 1960s that physical engineering is the best answer. The result is the “hardscape” of cities: bars on windows, heavy locks on doors, bulletproof glass, barbed-wire fences, bright lighting at night, and so on. In many low-income neighborhoods, nary an architectural flourish is to be found.  Stretched budgets instead go to such security features. These hardened aspects of the streetscape typify the extensiveness of the carceral state, the reason why even a term like “prison-industrial complex” is inadequate. The sheer ubiquity of such carceral forms engineers governance, rather than the other way around.

When it comes to preventing drivers from killing or maiming pedestrians or cyclists, designers favor passive protections. These include bollards, which double as anti-terrorism devices in our ludicrously fear-mongered era, to a range of street features including speed bumps, neckdowns, sharrows, and more. They are passive means of forcing drivers to drive more safely. I do not mean to say that these passive methods are bad per se, but they are passive enactments of the police power of the state to protect and foster well-being.*  

What is interesting to me is the affinity in the neoliberal era between these two passive expressions of the police power. One, however, is supposed to control crime. The other is to control the automotive state itself, the giving-over of everything to drivers, including everyone’s safety.

Another affinity, of course, is the seeming twin intractability of the carceral state and the automotive state. It is difficult to imagine ways out of their pervasive organization of our social, economic, and political lives. That passive forms of control of the automotive state are seemingly the best option, thanks to the political efforts of dedicated activists and “enlightened” policymakers, is depressing. Yet that depression should not lead advocates of safe streets to demand punitive answers when nothing else seems to stem vehicular violence. To envision active, not passive, methods of ending the scourge of vehicular violence that do not entail carcerality must be the goal.

Activists must not cede any more political ground to the carceral state. Nor should activists fall prey to the idea that calling something bad "crime" is a good way to start to control it. Already, people who are not well-off economically are the most likely victims of vehicular violence in its many forms, whether because their own cars are unsafe, because they are more likely to commute to work by bicycle or on foot, or because they live in more car-heavy areas. Extending the discourse of crime to vehicular violence will selectively impact the marginalized and disadvantaged, who tend to be its victims anyway. Furthermore, economically vulnerable people and people of color are more likely to become ensnared in the carceral state and robbed and dispossessed by police because of automobile violations (and even when no violation has occurred), as numerous recent studies have shown. Moreover, on occasions that the New York Police Department (NYPD) has cracked down to improve safety for cyclists, the crackdown often entails ticketing the cyclists themselves!

Some radical critics argue that because safe streets advocates tend to be white and well-off, they are relatively blind to the fact that outside of a few headline-grabbing and sad cases, the vast majority of pedestrian and cyclist deaths that occur are not on the Upper West Side or in Park Slope. The dead are frequently people of color, many undocumented, often commuting in areas with little street infrastructure for their safety. There is something to this argument, but the reality is that advocates themselves do not make decisions. Elected and appointed officials do, and they are likely to answer pleas from politically connected quarters of the city (and heed activists on Community Boards).

Ultimately, asking who holds political power leads to an important conclusion that is less about the automotive state than about the carceral state. Despite the activism around safer streets and even the mislaid demands for a more punitive approach to traffic violations and vehicular violence, it is notable that the NYPD has been deeply reluctant to rethink its approach to automobile deaths, despite Vision Zero's call for it to do so. The legislature too has not been eager to criminalize the homicides that occur on city streets involving drivers. As advocates point out, if you want to get away with killing someone in New York City, run a dude over while you’re sober and remain at the scene. You’ll get off scot-free.

Now, if it is true that most advocates demanding a more aggressive form of traffic enforcement are white and well-off, why has there not been greater criminalization of dangerous driving? This is a complicated question to answer. To make it seem even more probable that such an initiative would occur, vehicular deaths tend to be spatially concentrated, like the crime that used to ravage the city. Think of the phrase "Boulevard of Death" to describe Queens Blvd. It would not require much of a rethinking of the anticrime tactics that stop-and-frisk, ticket, or lock up so many people for other offenses for the police to do so for vehicular offenses. Yet they are not, it seems, doing so. New Yorkers can offer a very tentative thank you for that fact, because the result would not necessarily be safer streets.

Thus, I believe that comparison of the automotive state and the carceral state suggests thinking differently about the latter. Supporters of the carceral state routinely point to murder rates either to argue that the prison build-up that began in the 1980s was necessary, or to argue that it was effective. The idea is that murder rates are the most reliable historical indicator of crime overall. Some critics are persuaded; others are not. As New York City’s murder rate has declined massively over recent years, its rate of vehicular deaths has declined only a little bit. (Also, though there were less than 300 deaths in auto crashes last year, there were over 38,000 injuries.) It is possible to imagine, despite Vision Zero, a time in the near future when the murder rate is lower than the vehicular death rate.

The comparison of the carceral state and the automotive state indicates that, despite the powerful ideological arguments about crime that are the foundation of the carceral state, if the carceral state were actually designed to prevent and control crime, particularly wanton homicide, drivers who kill trick-or-treating children would go to prison. Especially given that some white and well-off and very vocal critics of the automotive state want to see a more punitive approach to it, many of the seemingly necessary conditions exist for a greater criminalization of automotive violations. Again, I am grateful that that does not seem to be occurring, because it would have many rippling negative social consequences, in line with what the carceral state already does.

Recently, arguments have been circulating that Black activists who were angry about crime were crucial to the rise of the carceral state. (I'm unconvinced.) Yet a very unsystematic comparison of the carceral state and the contemporaneous automotive state shows that even white activists who try to turn social problems into crime discursively in order to summon a proactive response from the state have not necessarily been successful. To explain why is challenging, but one place to start would be to reconsider the apparent relationship between what is called crime and policing, punishment, and incarceration. You and I have inherited the notion that the latter activities of the state are designed to control the horrible effects of the former. Maybe it is time to drop that connection, which can cause frustrated activists to label the objects of their activism crime. Doing so will enable clearer thinking about social problems and their solution.


*The control of traffic is, in fact, as some theorists recognize, a most central and intensive form of contemporary social regulation within the terms of the police power of the state.



Submitted by Dan Connor on Tue, 11/03/2015 - 17:50

Punishment as a deterrent is a red herring.  If murder were no longer punished, how many of us would run off to murder someone? If heroin were no longer punished, how many of us would run off to buy a hit?  The people inclined to commit punishable crimes are typically not deterred by the threat of punishment.  Most people do not purchase heroin because they are educated about the dangers of heroin. Most people do not murder because they have ethical compunction about harming others needlessly.  The problem of traffic safety is part physical, part psychological. Despite laws on the books and the infrastructure on the ground, motorists DO NOT feel ethical compunctions about reckless driving (or even outright vehicular assault). The "protections" put in place to try to make it difficult for motorists to harm others in a sense legitimize their behavior. With bikes and pedestrians out of the way, motorists take this as license to behave quintessentially motorized. With protections in place, motorists are less inclined to feel personal responsibility for vulnerable demographics.  The solutions are: * Make cars less aspirational and non-cars aspirational. * Educate motorists about their responsibilities, about safety, and about the benefits of *not driving*.  I still assert that these problems are *cultural problems*. They are not infrastructure problems (we have sidewalks and bike lanes but people are still being killed). They are not legal problems (we have laws but people are still being killed).  We need to stop fostering a culture that creates transportation psychopaths. A psychopath is not concerned about punishment. You can't genuinely punish a psychopath.

Submitted by Brian Coyne on Sat, 11/07/2015 - 00:47

I agree with you that impunity for drivers who kill people biking and walking is to a great extent a cultural problem, but I think you go too far by saying that it's "not an infrastructure problem." If that were true, then infrastructure wouldn't help, but in many cases it does. Here is a link to a page of empirical studies, including one that found that "Protected bike lanes reduce bike-related intersection injuries by about 75 percent compared to comparable crossings without infrastructure." So infrastructure reduced the problem by 75 percent in those cases.  


© 2017 Stuart Schrader