Why Cars Don’t Deserve the Right of Way

The simplest way to make roads safer and reduce police violence at the same time

Darrell Owens in Berkeley, California, last year
Darrell Owens in Berkeley, California, last year (Lea Suzuki / The San Francisco Chronicle / Getty)

About the author: Brett Simpson is a writer and radio reporter based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on NPR and Public Radio International.

On a hot June evening in Berkeley, California, last year, while his groceries sweated on the couch, 24-year-old Darrell Owens sent a tweet that changed his city.

“Traffic enforcement needs to be totally removed from the police …” it began.

Just a few weeks earlier, Owens had watched George Floyd being murdered in an intersection and had joined in the protests. The Berkeley city council had since promised police reform. But Owens, who, at 6 foot 6, is known by one city-council member as the “youngest, tallest, and only Black” regular attendee of transportation-commission meetings, had been stewing on a more specific idea. His Twitter thread laid out his argument for transforming law enforcement by transforming city streets: “I prefer license plate cameras … and mailed tickets over: ‘ok make sure nobody does anything that justifies this cop pumping 4 rounds of lead into me.’”

To his surprise, the city responded. A council member retweeted his thread. A month later, the city council passed “BerkDOT,” a first-in-the-nation measure to shift traffic enforcement to unarmed Department of Transportation workers.

In the summer of 2020, cities across America made similar commitments: to curtail the use of force, shrink police budgets, and fund fleets of civilian officers. But Berkeley was the first to target the traffic cop. By doing so, it is rethinking police power at its root.

Traffic stops are by far the most common reason that police officers initiate contact with members of the public; they account for 84 percent of encounters, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In fact, before cars, ordinary citizens rarely came in contact with law enforcement. As we rebuilt cities around the automobile, historians contend, drivers came to expect to be policed. And communities of color have paid the highest price.

In Berkeley, Black drivers are six times as likely to be stopped as white drivers, and four times as likely to be searched. Stops for minor infractions––a broken taillight, speeding––are also more likely to turn deadly for Black and brown drivers, as the deaths of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and Daunte Wright illustrated.

All this enforcement isn’t making our streets safe: Despite growing police budgets, the United States has the highest number of traffic deaths per capita of all developed nations.

Owens––along with a coalition of racial-justice advocates, anti-car activists, and traffic-court public defenders––wants to change that. Designing better streets, they say, won’t just prevent traffic accidents. It will reduce the need for police enforcement, and its potential for violence, altogether.

In the first half of the 20th century, traffic fatalities in Europe, Australia, and North America accelerated at similar rates. But in the 1960s and ’70s, many other countries reduced speed limits and ramped up public-transportation infrastructure while the U.S. continued to prize vehicle speed over safety. Today, an American dies in traffic every 14 minutes. And it’s never been a worse time to be a walker: From 2008 to 2018, the number of pedestrian deaths rose by more than 30 percent.

In the past six years, however, a movement called Vision Zero has taken hold. Introduced in Sweden in 1997 and common throughout Europe, it has a simple goal: zero traffic deaths. New York City adopted that goal in 2014, followed by San Francisco. Today, more than 40 American cities have embraced it, promoting their efforts with the “three Es” of street safety: engineering, education, and enforcement.

Police enforce the law. But they can’t fix the street-level issues that cause people to break it. In 2020, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency examined the effects of speeding enforcement on driver behavior and found that once a visible officer leaves the scene, speeding violations recommence.

Offer Grembek, a co-director at the UC Berkeley Safe Traffic Research and Education Center, says that makes sense. Basic choices in American road design––speed limits, traffic-light timing, road width––treat “throughput” as the goal. For early city planners, the problem was congestion, not collision, to be solved by helping cars move faster.

“We are punishing drivers for doing what the roads are asking them to do,” Grembek told me in a recent phone interview. Narrow the road, protect bike lanes, and add medians, and drivers will slow down.

August Vollmer––known as the father of modern American policing––never wanted his officers involved in traffic regulation. In the early 1900s, when Vollmer was appointed the first chief of Berkeley’s police department, it resembled most municipal forces of the era: small, disorganized, and corrupt. Most criminal matters were settled by insurance companies or, for wealthier citizens, by a private eye. But Vollmer had a vision of a new professional discipline: an elite class of men who solved serious crimes. Berkeley police officers were the first to communicate by radio and the first to patrol their beats on bikes (then cars). J. Edgar Hoover cited Vollmer as inspiration for his “professionalization” of the FBI.

But just as Vollmer’s vision gained traction, a new threat was emerging on American streets. America’s first drivers––overwhelmingly well-to-do white men––were wreaking havoc, refusing to slow down for horses or pedestrians. Ordinary citizens were endangering one another’s lives, and police time was more and more pulled to the roadside.

“Cars profoundly altered the relationship between citizens and the police,” the legal historian Sarah Seo wrote in her 2019 book, Policing the Open Road. “Because so many people drove, a vast and mostly ‘law-abiding’ population suddenly became subject to policing.”

City governments, once reluctant to invest in law enforcement, changed course as cars were widely adopted in the 1910s. Suddenly, Vollmer’s dream of an entirely “motor-mounted” force no longer felt far-fetched. In 1925, traffic violations entered the criminal code. Fines and citations soon buttressed department budgets––funding more police on the ground, with more guns, and more cars to police other cars.

In 1925’s Carroll v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the police could search automobiles—unlike homes and offices––without a warrant. This Prohibition-era “vehicle exception,” passed to counter an uptick in alcohol smuggling, gouged a hole in citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. Suddenly, law enforcement had unprecedented entry into our private lives––all an officer needed was a missing license plate or a broken taillight.

Thus was born the pretextual stop.

A century after Vollmer dispatched his officers down Berkeley’s streets, 17-year-old Darrell Owens was biking on the sidewalk, on his way to a karate class. He knew that he technically should’ve been on the road. But it was a busy day, and cars were whipping by at more than 40 miles an hour. This was years before Owens became a transportation advocate. He wasn’t trying to make a point. He was just a Berkeley High School student who didn’t want to get run over.

Bip-bip-bip! Owens’s heart sank. He glanced around his shoulder, saw the patrol car, and dropped one foot to the pavement.

The first time Owens saw his dad get stopped by the police, he was just a kid, sitting in the passenger seat. His dad pulled to the shoulder, turned off the engine, and told Owens to pay close attention. He pulled his keys out of the ignition. He put his hands on the dashboard. When the officer approached the window, he moved slowly, and announced every action before he took it. That, he told Owens afterward, is how you avoid getting shot.

An officer writing a ticket.
(Courtesy of Walk Bike Berkeley)

Standing on the sidewalk in 2013, watching the white officer step out of his vehicle, Owens couldn’t help but feel frustrated. He didn’t even have a driver’s license.

“You were riding your bike on the sidewalk,” the officer said. “Yes, sir,” Owens responded. The officer squinted at Owens. A number of bikes had been stolen recently, the officer told him, and Owens resembled a description of the thief. The officer would need to run a background check.

Owens sat on the curb outside a hair salon and waited. He could feel the glances of white families driving by. Fifteen minutes passed. Then the officer reemerged from his patrol car and cheerfully sent him on his way.

“It was humiliating,” Owens told me. “But at the same time, the whole situation was just goofy. Why would I have to worry about this cop? Why would he have to worry about me?”

Owens never got a driver’s license. He started using the region’s public-transportation system and stopped seeing much of the police. But he kept hearing about them. Every year, it seemed, another innocent Black American was killed in or around their car.

He was interested in computer programming––which he now studies at UC Santa Cruz. So he started digging for data on traffic and violence, and emailing criminology professors his questions about the traffic code. By the time he graduated from high school in 2014, investigating traffic data had become “a kind of obsession.”

He gained a local following tweeting about city issues under the avatar Dragonfly. The Berkeley council member Lori Droste says she has followed him on Twitter since 2014 but had no idea he was so young until he showed up to a city-council meeting two years later.

“I knew the moment this 6’6” young guy came to the mic to speak so intelligently about land use issues, it was him,” she wrote to me recently. “Most 19-year-olds don’t attend local neighborhood forums in senior centers.”

When Owens tweeted last year that traffic enforcement should be removed from the police, he didn’t expect much. His several thousand followers had come to rely on his account, @IDoTheThinking, to regularly lob radical urbanist proposals at the city, but the city had never replied. This time, though, the council member Rigel Robinson responded: “Create a new department, BerkDOT, pulling the Transportation Division from Public Works and pulling all traffic & parking enforcement from PD.”

Ben Gerhardstein, an advocate of safe streets at a group called Walk Bike Berkeley, saw the tweets too. Since it formed in 2018, Walk Bike Berkeley had been pushing the city council to create a separate Department of Transportation. The city clearly had a car problem: Nearly 60 percent of its carbon emissions came from transportation, and it had some of the worst pedestrian-injury rates in the state. Overwhelmingly, Gerhardstein knew, traffic violence hurts communities of color worst: In Berkeley, as in many cities, the highest-injury corridors cluster around Black and brown neighborhoods with underfunded infrastructure. These areas, in part because of dangerous traffic, also tend to be the most policed.

Gerhardstein, a middle-aged white man, knew he embodied a stereotype of the privileged cyclist. But he saw his anti-car advocacy in terms of mobility justice: the idea that all people, regardless of race, age, or ability, should be able to move freely through their city. Gerhardstein reached out to Owens and Robinson. Soon, the East Bay Community Law Center––which defends low-income residents in traffic court and unhoused citizens cited for sleeping in the streets––joined the conversation. Together, they began imagining how to fix Berkeley’s broken streets.

A Trip Down Market Street: Filmed days before the 1906 earthquake that turned San Francisco to rubble, the 12-minute, shaky black-and-white video has more than a million and a half YouTube views. It’s enthralling. From every direction, in every direction, people are moving: zigzagging by foot, wheel, and hoof. A man selling newspapers walks backward toward an approaching carriage. A trolley car nearly cuts off an automobile being pursued by a gaggle of taunting children. At one point, a man stands in the middle of the street, folding his handkerchief and gazing absently as figures weave around him. It’s an orchestrated series of near misses. But nobody gets hurt. An ancient law is at work: right of way.

From the Roman viae publicae to the king’s roads of medieval England, Western public roads operated around a common premise: that every person has the right to travel unimpeded, with equal priority. Horses, walkers, and carts––and later bikes and trolleys––moved in a constantly negotiated balance of power. But as cars multiplied, horsepower became the enemy of equity.

In 1923, U.S. highway fatalities reached 17,870––an 18 percent per capita increase over the previous year. From 1920 to 1929, three-quarters of the victims were pedestrians, many of them children playing in the streets. As the historian Peter Norton describes in his book, Fighting Traffic, pedestrian advocates fought back. They wrote passionate editorials and proposed regulations to make cars safer. One idea, floated by the Iowa State Highway Commission, would have outlawed cars that could travel faster than 30 miles an hour. Another posited that a pedestrian, wishing to cross the street, could have tossed up a universal hand signal that would have immediately halted all auto traffic around him.

If that sounds ludicrous to you, says Eva Vaillancourt, a Ph.D. candidate studying traffic history at UC Berkeley, you are exposing yourself as a modern traveler––one who has fully internalized the power structures of today’s roads.

“Looking back, you wonder, Wow, what would the world have been like if we had bought into that?” Vaillancourt told me recently. “You glimpse alternative histories.”

For a moment, in fact, the scales of history seemed to tip toward the pedestrian. From 1923 to 1924, car sales slumped dramatically. And in 1924, U.S. traffic fatalities increased by only 1 percent per capita.

But the pedestrian activists underestimated the power of motordom. Industry tycoons and automobile clubs were gathering strength. Firestone, Ford, and the Automobile Association of America realized that to survive this public-relations disaster, they needed to change the narrative. They needed to prepare Americans for a future in which the car came first.

“Pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights,” George Graham, the chair of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce safety committee, wrote in 1924.

The NACC launched an “accident news service,” slyly introducing the term accident to shield the vehicle from blame, and offering newspapers heavily doctored traffic-crash “statistics” that overwhelmingly put pedestrians at fault. The goal was to cure citizens of the intuitive—and factual—notion that high speeds increase danger. In Cincinnati, one newspaper published unsubstantiated data showing that “90 percent of accidents” occurred when cars traveled under the speed limit.

Signs paid for by automobile clubs went up chiding “reckless” children who played in the street. They popularized a new pejorative, jaywalker. Some newspaper editorials decried “the dumb pedestrian,” claiming that the walker was typically “intellectually inferior” to the driver. This argument––made at a time when most cars were owned by wealthy white people––had clear racist undertones.

The Automobile Club of Southern California lobbied to make jaywalking a crime. In 1925, Los Angeles launched an experiment in enforcement. Officers who spotted a jaywalker were encouraged to draw attention to the violator by whistling, pointing, and shouting. The president of the club, E. B. Lefferts, explained that humiliation was the best tool to “educate” the masses to defer to the vehicle.

By the ’40s, cars were everywhere. The victory of the vehicle was complete.

On a Zoom call in February 2021, eight months after adopting BerkDOT, the Berkeley city council voted to end police stops for all low-level traffic violations, such as expired license-plate tags or broken taillights. The reforms direct officers to focus on obvious safety violations––such as drunk driving or stolen vehicles—and each will undergo a traffic-stop-review process to assess and correct for any evidence of bias.

For the city, the vote represented meaningful progress. But to Owens and other reformers, it fell short. They were looking for a larger commitment: the design of a citywide “safe system” that doesn’t incentivize speed. That means adding medians and pedestrian spaces, slowing speed limits, and increasing options for public transit and bikes.

Safe systems work. In 2019, after years of slowing speed limits and replacing cars with transit lines and bike infrastructure, Oslo, Norway, became the world’s first major municipality since the dawn of motordom to go a year without a single traffic death.

Eventually, Owens hopes for “self-enforcing streets,” where networks of cameras will replace the need for human enforcement altogether. “No one’s ever been shot by a traffic camera,” he told me.

The problem is that both automated speed cameras and civilian traffic enforcement technically violate the California vehicle code. In May, the state legislature nixed a proposal to legalize speed cameras. Berkeley is still lobbying the state for a special exception to put transportation workers in charge of traffic oversight. Until that happens, the city could staff the new department with unarmed police officers, but it would need union buy-in for that plan.

The power of the car persists: Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill to decriminalize jaywalking, citing high pedestrian-fatality rates.

In the end, Berkeley may not be the first American city to civilianize traffic enforcement. Since last summer, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Portland, Oregon, have passed similar bills. Last October, the University of Arkansas researcher Jordan Blair Woods wrote “Traffic Without the Police,” a policy analysis of BerkDOT. In March, a Florida lawmaker adapted that paper for a statewide proposal for civilian traffic enforcers. The bill quickly failed in the Republican legislature, but to the BerkDOT coalition, the move was a sign that its ideas were catching.

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed the pace of reform. But it has also helped us imagine how our roads could be transformed.

On a recent clear, chilly morning, Darrell Owens stepped off a North Berkeley sidewalk and strolled down the center of the street. During the pandemic, Berkeley, like many cities, has embraced “Slow Streets,” erecting barriers to protect stretches of some roads from vehicles. In these spaces, pockets of community have cropped up: group workouts, children’s birthday parties, impromptu concerts. Without the pressure to be a conduit, a street can become a place.

Owens walked to the entrance of a restaurant. But he didn’t go inside. A masked waiter led him to a wooden shack erected on the curbside—a parking space converted into a parklet. Flower boxes bloomed red and yellow. As Owens ordered pancakes, he could hear the buzzing of bees.

Then the traffic light turned green. An 18-wheeler barreled by. Around him, the daisies bounced. “Man, if just one driver has a stroke or something, he’s gonna crash and murder us all,” he told me in a phone call.

Owens appreciates Slow Streets. But when he looks around, what he really sees are opportunities missed: to follow the model of international cities nearly free from traffic violence––such as Oslo––and ban cars from city centers.

Owens tries not to get frustrated with the city. His family goes back generations in Berkeley. His grandmother Gladys Glover didn’t drive either, but she was never more than three blocks from a trolley stop. Once, that trolley line stretched all the way to San Francisco. Over the decades, the line shrank, then disappeared.

People have a funny relationship with infrastructure, Owens has noticed. Once the cement dries, we struggle to imagine that things could be different. But even though we can’t see the old trolley line anymore, Berkeley never pulled it up—just paved over it. A few feet below the surface, embedded like the steel capillaries of the city, the line is still there.