FL city tickets black population, misses on pedestrian safety

By Robbie Webber

Jacksonville, Florida, has consistently been named among the most dangerous cities in the U.S. for pedestrians, ranking fourth in the 2016 Dangerous By Design report by Smart Growth America. A new report by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union details how efforts to ostensibly improve pedestrian safety have actually resulted in inequitable ticketing of the city’s black population. The report points out that this is especially unfortunate because the same black and low-income neighborhoods where a majority of tickets were issued also lack safe pedestrian facilities: transit access is poor and many bus stops do not sidewalk connections.

Although census tracts where the population is mostly black had similar numbers of deadly crashes compared to other neighborhoods, residents there were ticketed anywhere from two to five times as much. As the reporting points out, this is especially problematic because many of these neighborhoods lack adequate accommodations for safe walking. Past analyses have shown that the low income neighborhoods often also suffer from poor walking conditions.

Because of the car-oriented development pattern that characterizes much of Jacksonville, large, high-speed arterials have divided many minority communities. Sidewalks are not continuous, and crosswalks on the arterials may be a half-mile apart or farther. Along one stretch of busy Beach Boulevard crosswalks are 1.3 miles apart. There are multiple low-income apartment complexes in between those crossings.

Poor transit service often exacerbates pedestrian problems. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority has 321 bus stops on roads without sidewalks and 993 bus stops not within 300 feet of a crosswalk, according to the most recently available data.

The ProPublica/Times-Union reporting found that majority-black neighborhoods are not only being targeted for “enhanced enforcement” while lacking safe walking accommodations, but tickets are often given for behaviors that are not in fact illegal. Many pedestrian tickets were for unfamiliar or minor infractions such as walking in the roadway where a sidewalk is provided, crossing an intersection diagonally, or “failing to cross the road at a right angle or shortest route.” The most common ticket was for crossing the street while not in a crosswalk, although many of those were issued in locations where that is not illegal. In all these categories, blacks were disproportionately represented.

Most of the unequal enforcement problems resulted from well-meaning efforts to resolve the stain of the city being consistently cited as being a dangerous place to walk. The Dangerous By Design report has documented Jacksonville’s problems since 2009 when the first version came out and ranked the city the fourth worst city in the country. In 2011 and 2014 the city was ranked third.

In 2014, the sheriff’s office began a campaign of targeted enforcement aimed at what they identified as “hot spots.” Although the hot spots are updated every year, they do not actually correlate with areas where pedestrian crashes have been high. However, they do correlate with majority-black neighborhoods. The ProPublica/Times-Union report states, “[W]hile 25 percent of all deadly crashes occurred in majority-black census tracts, 40 percent of pedestrian tickets were given there. Six of the top 10 ticketed census tracts are majority black.”

The city hired a consultant to develop a plan to improve pedestrian safety after receiving a 2015 federal grant aimed at cities with especially poor safety records. The consultant was clear that two strategies were key: slowing driving speeds and improving pedestrian infrastructure. They were also clear about what would not work: trying to get pedestrians to behave more safely, including through enforcement. No amount of education, encouragement, or enforcement will make a significant change in pedestrian behavior, they concluded. The lead report author said, “Trying to educate people to cross the road safely when there aren’t crosswalks or where there’s missing sidewalks, it just doesn’t work.”

The ProPublica/Times-Union reporting also details how enforcement of minor pedestrian violations is being used as an excuse to stop and search individuals the sheriff’s office deems suspicious, which they freely admit. These minor infractions can have a devastating financial impact on low-income families and individuals. But one thing the enforcement is not doing is improving safety for pedestrians.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.