CalBike is working on several fronts for bicycle safety. Traffic violence against people walking and biking has been increasing in recent years as more people turn to active transportation for our daily activities and pleasures. The concept of Complete Streets, or reconfiguring our roads to allow for all modes of transportation, is one of the safest and most accessible approaches our state’s decision-makers can take toward transportation equity, which is why we’re making it a priority in our policy advocacy this year through our multi-year Invest/Divest campaign.
But poorly designed streets coupled with careless or aggressive driving aren’t the only sources of danger on our streets. For too long, we have leaned on traffic enforcement rather than infrastructure to make our streets safe. Unfortunately, rather than targeting dangerous driving, biased traffic stops disproportionately target Black and Latino Californians, making no one safer and and our most vulnerable residents less secure.
To be truly safe, Californians need to be able to get where they need to go without fear of being stopped, harassed, and potentially harmed by police violence. That’s why CalBike is working to pass our Biking Is Not a Crime slate of bills.
Two kinds of danger for people on bikes
Almost every Californian who uses a bicycle for transportation or recreation has experienced some form of aggression or violence on the road. It might have been a driver passing so close you almost got clipped by their mirror or a right-turning vehicle operator cutting you off. Your community probably has stretches of roadway where bikes must ride uncomfortably close to fast-moving traffic.
These and other types of traffic violence have a clear solution: We need better infrastructure to make biking safe. This includes separated bikeways, protected intersections, Complete Streets, connected bike routes, and more.
Unfortunately, California invests far too little in safe bike infrastructure and instead spends huge amounts of money on policing to enforce traffic laws.
There’s a problem with this approach: Police enforcement does little or nothing to prevent traffic violence. And it leads to a second type of danger for people who get around by bike.
If you’re White or you live in a well-resourced neighborhood, you might never have been stopped by the police while on your bike. But Black and Latino Californians, especially men and especially those who live in disadvantaged communities, do get stopped, often for minor infractions such as riding on a sidewalk where there are no bike lanes available or riding without a front light.
Police stops of people on bikes are often attempts to preempt criminal activity, rather than enhance traffic safety. And they fail on that account, too. As a 2021 LA Times investigation showed, police are more likely to stop Black and Latino Californians on bikes, more likely to search people stopped while biking, and rarely find any evidence of criminal activity during those stops.
California’s Racial Identity Profiling Advisory Board (RIPA) came to the same conclusion in its 2023 report: “During stops for bicycle-related offenses, officers were 3.2 times as likely to perform a search, 3.8 times as likely to detain the individual, and 2.7 times as likely to handcuff the individual. Overall, officers were more likely to search, detain, or handcuff a person during a bicycle-related stop when compared to stops for reasons other than bicycle violations.” On top of this, police are more likely to search, detain, or handcuff individuals who were perceived to be Latino and Black.
Adding to the injustice, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color often have little safe bicycle infrastructure, so decades of systemic racism and neglect become a weapon to further punish people in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Fortunately, we can solve this problem and take a more effective approach to making our streets safer.
Changing the way we think about safe streets for people biking and walking
Unfortunately, just updating our street infrastructure is not enough to protect people walking and biking. We need to consider the equity and justice issues at the center of this problem. As we do that, our focus changes to the well-being of people who travel through streets rather than centering the well-being of streets. Complete Streets not only have well-designed crosswalks and protected bike lanes; they are also places where people of all identities and bodies are safe.
[pull quote] As we pass through public spaces, we experience multiple kinds of security and insecurity due to societal attitudes toward race, class, gender, age, ability, and modes of transportation.
Since the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, the role of unequal and violent police enforcement on our public streets has become a topic of heated debate and urgent reforms. The protests that followed that and other police shootings, usually of Black people, exposed deeply embedded racial divides.
The institution of policing and law enforcement has a long, sordid history in the U.S. and California, particularly for Black Californians. Criminalization has been a key tool for maintaining racial hierarchies. And the criminalization of mobility through traffic enforcement is one of the main ways the public interacts with the police. The recent RIPA report is the latest of many government studies to show that traffic stops are the number one reason people encounter law enforcement and are the greatest source of Black-White disparities among routine law enforcement activity.
So it’s essential to advocate for better bikeways, but it’s not enough. Infrastructure, not policing, is the recipe for safer streets, but California’s budget and policy priorities put too much emphasis on enforcement and not enough on infrastructure. And to build just, prosperous, and equitable communities where everyone has access to mobility options, we need to refocus police efforts away from traffic stops and biased searches and toward community policing initiatives that will truly make our neighborhoods safer.
Why does CalBike care about over-policing and criminalization?
Most traffic stops involve someone stopped while driving a car. But people walking and biking are often more susceptible to police interactions than people in cars.
Often folks in marginalized communities have no other way to get around other than by walking, biking, and taking transit. And people stopped for bicycle-related violations, pedestrian roadway violations, or standing on a sidewalk are often easy targets for police harassment. Policing has become a primary non-solution to the problems of poverty and crime that has damaging effects on those over-policed.
Pretextual stops and searches by police are common during stops of people on bikes, particularly people of color. A pretext stop occurs when an officer stops someone for a lawful traffic violation or minor infraction with the intention of using the stop to investigate a hunch regarding a different crime. By itself, police wouldn’t have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop the person for the suspected crime, but they use the traffic violation as a pretext to perform a search.
This policing tactic is as ineffective as it is common. Research shows that pretextual stops rarely result in the recovery of contraband or weapons. In addition, pretextual stops are costly and degrade public trust in law enforcement.
Efforts to eliminate or reduce pretextual stops and searches have gained national momentum in recent years, particularly after several high-profile killings of Black and Brown men in California for safely walking and biking. For example, the City of Berkeley and other communities have taken steps to remove armed officers from traffic enforcement, to reduce the risk of potentially lethal police encounters. CalBike’s Biking Is Not a Crime slate is part of this statewide movement toward smarter and more cost-effective policing and traffic safety.
Decriminalizing mobility is an important and concrete step we can take in ensuring street safety for all. We had an important victory last year with the passage of the Freedom to Walk Act, but there is much more work to be done.
To create Complete Streets in California where people using all transportation modes can move freely, we need to free our streets from both traffic violence AND pretextual policing. CalBike is working hard on both fronts.