About that National Media Hit-Piece on a Petworth Traffic Camera

Welcome to Gordon's 1st Everything Except Cars blog post...

This got really long. So as a pre-script — if you really do care about safer streets and more transparent, fair enforcement of traffic laws, below are groups and ways to actually do that. Please stop arguing on the internet about greedy politicians and traffic cam revenue. Decisions are made by those who show up:

A motorist drives twice the speed limit on Beauclerc Road in Pickwick Park, Jacksonville, FL. There is only a narrow sidewalk here with no physical separation from motorists who frequently travel 35-45 on this “residential” street with many bus stops. (Video by Gordon Chaffin)

Long-time DC resident and fellow journalist Dave McKenna wrote an unhelpful article at Defector Media on Friday excoriating the stop-sign enforcement camera on Kansas Avenue NW at Buchannan Street NW. It’s a block from Grant Circle, sits at the border between ANCs 4D and 4C, and is an intersection motorists frequently roll through. The desire to not fully stop is understandable. Heading northbound toward the camera, motorists see a second stop sign at the Circle itself. Heading southbound, having just accelerated out of the Circle, the camera is at a stop sign only 250 feet later.

Dave’s screed passes itself off as consumer protection journalism, featuring the plight of nearby residents who’ve racked up hundreds of dollars in repeat fines from that stop sign camera. However, the article casts aspersions on DC’s traffic safety decision-makers; it cites traffic safety violation revenue as ipso facto evidence that DC government places enforcement cameras to maximize revenue and terrorize residents. Dave uses raw violation numbers from that camera to shock readers, without giving proper context (e.g., violations per unit time or per traffic volume rate).

I wanted to write about this because it’s my wheelhouse. I haven’t been able to make a living covering street safety in the DC area. But, I know more about this subject than the depressingly cynical Defector commentators. The article cites Petworth listserv threads, which is usually the venue for spurious accusations unworthy of anyone’s time. I wasted 90 minutes arguing about this on Twitter and finally thought blogging would be more constructive — certainly better for my mental health. Here’s the messy truth from someone prepared better than most to give it.

The District Department of Transportation — the entity that manages the placement and management of automated traffic enforcement (ATE) cameras in DC — does not place those cameras to maximize revenue. If there was a conspiracy to juice tax revenue taking advantage of 3 mph rolling stops in the DMV, there’d be no need to cut any government program anywhere. DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson would probably find $5-$10 million extra for next fiscal year if Mayor Bowser would wire up the 14th Street NW corridor with cameras catching bike lane violations.

Despite the nationally infamous network of traffic cameras frequently cited in that article, the District has for many years severely limited camera-based enforcement. Many safe streets advocates have tried to ballpark it, I could never double-confirm an amount, but it was 140-ish operating cameras. Even DC Councilmembers could never get DDOT or DC Police (MPD) on record to say why they don’t deploy more cameras.

At every community meeting I attended where residents asked for better safety enforcement (hundreds of meetings across the region the last three years), officials would say they would have to take a camera from somewhere else to deploy it at the location in question. There are probably 1,000-1,500 locations in DC where safety dangers are to a point where ATE cameras would be net-positive financial assets. But, no. Despite a 5-year-old Vision Zero program failing to reduce traffic deaths, DC wouldn’t add cameras.

Dave McKenna’s article alleges an odious change to the traffic camera in question in June 2020 that results in a large jump of violations there month-over-month. The implication, reading from a FOIA’d maintenance report citing the change, is that DC needed more revenue and someone made the camera more sensitive. Here’s what actually happened…

DC’s many safer streets stakeholders — government agencies and the official bike, pedestrian, and multimodal accessibility advisory councils — were getting dire data in the spring of 2020. Traffic deaths were up significantly from 2019, despite record-low traffic once COVID lockdowns began. That trend was matched in greater crashes with bad injuries in DC, around the region, and across America.

In many public meetings I attended or listen to from that time, advocates and officials were stressed out and said they were trying to do what they could. Police officers testified that they were seeing lots of speeding, much more stop sign non-compliance. My guess is that DDOT adjusted many ATE cameras at that time and MPD began more aggressive human enforcement. The increased camera sensitivity is to incentivize the full, legal, safe stop motion.

This brings us to the technical limitations. These cameras have error rates and variables to adjust for sensitivity. Speed cameras have 7-9 mph buffers mostly because they’re not very precise. Frequently, traffic agencies or their contractors adjust ATE implements. It’s normal. Your iPhone has better optics than these things (or at least better computer vision software). During COVID’s surge of traffic deaths, it’s entirely possible the camera in question was adjusted to be more sensitive.

As the Defector article alludes to, ATE cameras are rarely spec-d to be used for stop sign enforcement. However, cameras are getting a little cheaper and a little better. The Vision Zero movement — pledges to eliminate traffic deaths adopted recently by most DC-area governments — strongly promotes a tactical focus on neighborhood-level changes. So, rolling through stop signs on residential streets is a much bigger deal these days. Rightfully so! Roads like Kansas are really freaking scary to cross if you are not able-bodied, you’re just a schoolchild, or with your whole family — toddler and dog with the zoomies running back and forth. Roads like Florida Avenue NW in Bloomingdale or Rhode Island Avenue in Woodridge should be getting major safety upgrades to rectify the pro-car commuter, anti-local pedestrian designs of the past.

Imperfect adjustments for greater street safety is a much more likely and innocuous explanation to the Saga of the Predatory Petworth Traffic Sign than DC coordinating across agencies to raise more revenue when tax receipts went down due to COVID. Today, the national consensus from transportation agencies, police departments, and safer streets advocates was that clearer roads in 2020 caused more dangerous driving. Without connecting to signals and pressure pads that can be used by red-light cameras, stop sign cameras are probably less precise.

I want people with microphones and column inches to stop perpetuating this bullshit about traffic safety cameras being about revenue. Arlington County is, at once, expanding its red-light camera network and changing the fine accounting to rid themselves even the appearance of impropriety. DC hasn’t funded the new Vision Zero traffic safety bill authorizing more cameras, in part because the legislative scoring doesn’t count future ATE revenue as a pay-for. The new law has good policies, but they’re unfunded mandates as yet.

I would be surprised, but there’s nothing surprising about cynicism or hypocrisy from Americans about traffic safety. Over the last three years, dozens of public meetings all over the DMV have featured communities asking for cameras. It’s usually the last resort because these residents have all but lost hope on DC Police or DC’s Public Works department doing human enforcement at any scale or equity. Safe streets advocates including myself will tell you that we watch human police officers do nothing as safety violations occur constantly all around them, even if they seem to only be sitting in their squad on their phone. This is the for stop sign compliance, speeding, bike lane and bus pad standing violations, illegal parking, and even red-light running.

I’ve heard the desire for more cameras including and especially in Ward 4, where there’s suspicion that West of Rock Creek Park neighborhoods get more cameras. Ditto even more for Wards 7 and 8, where there’s generations’ worth of valid concern regarding more public investment in the richer, whiter areas. I agree that DDOT should be much more transparent about where, why, and how they manage ATE assets. I want MPD to have better community relations and DC DPW to unleash an armada of enforcement officers on e-bikes with more common sense than a camera lens. That's why I've literally spent three years of my life working as a neighborhood-level transportation reporter.

It is understandable to be frustrated with biases in the enforcement of safety laws. However, human traffic enforcement is much more biased than ATE. Enforcement officers display almost a 50% racial bias regarding traffic safety enforcement. Cameras work, but they’re managed by imperfect programs. It is true that many ATE networks ticket people of color disproportionately, including in DC. However, that is a symptom of structural problems worthy of major change: more dangerous roads were placed by yesteryear’s planners in lower-income and BIPOC communities since the beginnings of paved roadways for automobiles. Even today, most state DOTs are filled with traffic engineers expanding roads into BIPOC communities and driving new roads through wetlands (see: Route 28 bypass in Prince William County). Wards 5, 7, and 8 in DC have lots of wide major arterials and at-grade highways where speed cameras are more likely to be placed because more people die in those roads. Most years in DC, a plurality or even majority of traffic deaths are in those same historically Black neighborhoods.

Now, you want to reply back that we shouldn’t be fixing the traffic safety problem by fining people — punishing them with oftentimes crippling restrictions on the car they need. I agree! We do that by changing the design of streets. The most powerful force in safety is design intervention. Engineering is the only E that matters long-term in surface transportation safety. So, everyone who hates those tickets can please testify at every public meeting they can attend that they want tax dollars spent on safer road designs: complete streets, traffic calming, road diets, narrower lanes, signalized crosswalks, beginner-friendly bike lanes, safer walking routes to school.

Tell everyone in power you’d prefer to wait an extra 60 seconds over a second light cycle instead of seeing a person killed in a crosswalk once every three years there. (That’s key because the regulations usually prioritize motorist delay over safety.) You can tell every decision-maker who listens to you that you want safer roads, rather than quicker pothole filling — that you want 200 more sidewalk widening capital projects instead of one new $200 million highway exchange. Tell everyone you want “raised stop bars” at every intersection in your community!

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis-George called the stop sign camera in question “predatory.” Maybe. That’s subjective. Here’s what I can tell you for sure, as an expert who listens to a thousand hours of public meetings about transportation every year: people strongly desire safety changes in abstract, but oppose it when it requires even small changes to their own habits. Residents desire hefty fines for visitors that stay 15 minutes over the two-hour resident parking limit, but they want their stop sign violations waived. Because street parking availability is a leading reason Dave moved up to Petworth, I’ll say this: residents have demanded waived registration and license punishments during COVID, but there’s a louder-than-ever chorus to tow every out-of-state tag that seems suspiciously stagnant — even though new resident temporary tags are tough-to-impossible to get right now.

In DC, all over America, we celebrate the “beating” of traffic tickets and “unfair” cameras. As if Officer Friendly with a radar gun in his squad is any less likely to discriminate than imperfect-but-much-more-just cameras managed by the career civil servants. In the United States, at least much more than other places, we excuse speeding — even up to 30% over the limit even though speed is the biggest single variable in damage from a crash.

Forgive me, but I place my life on the line every day I bike commute. And I’m able-bodied, an expert bike handler, white, and male. I’m not a novice, a disabled person, a child who doesn’t vigilantly scan the area for someone not yielding despite their crosswalk procession. I understand personally the need to fix our fundamentally evil transportation system and I’m right there with you if you really want to do the work. But, that starts with you, me, all of us.

Don’t drive over the speed limit; it’s there for a reason and often already too fast because of historical irresponsibility. Don’t fight a traffic safety ticket. Pay it. Start a campaign that the camera — or human-manned “speed trap” — is unfair AND ASK FOR SOMETHING MORE DRASTIC! Tell your city, your NextDoor group you want a new street design: more places to walk more safely and you’ll trade away less street parking for that safety.