Council Discusses Traffic: Potential Enforcement Unit and Areas

Speeding and congestion are huge topics of conversation across the city, so the City Council Committee on Public Safety and Criminal Justice held a hearing on March 12 to discuss the possibility of creating a traffic enforcement unit within the Boston Police Department, as well as talk about the pros and cons of traffic enforcement cameras.

Sponsor Andrea Campbell said that traffic and speeding concerns are “at the top of the list” for calls made to the councilors. “Residents feel we need to do a lot more along various parallel tracks,” Campbell said. She said that while it is important to lower the speed limits, “enforcement, structural changes to our streets, [and] willingness by people who live in the city to think about alternative modes of transportation,” are all important pieces of the solution.

Councilor Mark Ciommo said he “did some limited research” about cameras across the country, and found that municipalities are “pulling back the use of cameras as an enforcement mechanism,” as they may cause more crashes than they prevent. Ciommo said he thinks that cameras should be used to inform law enforcement. “We need to make our streets safer and the best way to do that is to make sure we enforce better,” he said. “I am concerned about using cameras as that enforcement.”

Councilor  Frank Baker added that he would rather see the city resources go into the police force, as it “sends a friendlier message” than cameras doing the traffic ticketing.

Councilor Ed Flynn believes that the number one issue in the city is pedestrian safety, and he said that “not a day goes by” where he does not hear from his constituents about this issue.

Boston Police Department (BPD) Superintendent Kevin McGoldrick said that a large part of the current issue is that the motorcycle unit “is not as robust and focused on traffic as it used to be.”         

Councilor Matt O’Malley asked if there were any statistics issued on texting, jaywalking, or “blocking the box.”           

“I’ve never seen a jaywalking ticket in my 29 years” in the police department, McGoldrick said. The official fine is $1, but “I think we would need to do significant public education and outreach” in order to actually enforce it, he said. “It would take people by surprise and culture shift for pedestrians in this city.”

“We do cite for texting,” he added, but did not have the statistics with him at the hearing.

Another large issue with enforcement is that there is no real analysis of the data collected by the police department, and this is something they would need to have in order to have better enforcement.

Councilor Ciommo asked if the cameras currently in place in some areas have the ability to monitor violations. Boston Transportation Department (BTD) Commissioner Gina Fiandaca said that “we don’t monitor violations or record license plates of vehicles that are not stopping at red lights.” She said that they do, however, have the ability to monitor traffic conditions and are able to alert BPD and ask them for support at certain intersections.

Councilor Lydia Edwards said that there is a “lot of blocking the box, a lot of congestion in my district,” particularly in Charlestown and East Boston. “We need police details, we need that kind of enforcement,” she said. She wanted to know if BPD was getting any sort of mitigation money to put more officers in places like that.

McGoldrick said that the “challenge is we’re still taking those officers from somewhere. Very rarely do we have extra officers working.” A quick solution to creating a more robust traffic unit, he said, is to expand the motorcycle unit, because when traffic is really bad, the motorcycles are able to get there much more easily than cars. He said this also does not require the hiring of more sergeants or other “supervisory responsibilities,” which would be required when creating an entire new unit. “If we were to do a standalone traffic unit, we’d probably be looking at six sergeants, lieutenants, I would assume, and a significant number of officers to fully staff that where we could otherwise just add a dozen people to the motorcycle unit and have a pretty similar effect…,” McGoldrick said.

Matt O’Malley spoke about the recent crash and fatality in West Roxbury. He said that since the incident in February, there has been a car stationed at the intersection where it happened, and “the number of citations for motorists not stopping in crosswalks has doubled.”

He said that other places have used cameras to help stop speeding “to make sure we have safer streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and others. Surely we can balance that with safer streets,” he said.

On the second panel was Brendan Kearney, Communications Director for WalkBoston. He said that over the last four years, there has been an average of 738 pedestrian crashes in the City of Boston. “I thought it was very interesting you were saying earlier today that you either hear that traffic’s not moving fast enough or traffic’s moving way too fast,” he said of a comment previously made by O’Malley. “And that’s a perfect summation of the issues that the transportation department is trying to deal with right now.” Kearney also provided several other statistics on accidents that have affected pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.

Becca Wolfson, Executive Director of the Boston Cyclists Union and representing the Vision Zero Coalition, said that the Cyclists Union’s goal “is to make it safe and comfortable for anyone to be able to bike safely within the City of Boston and the region.” She said that it would be a “much better use of the city’s resources” if streets were changed to be self-enforcing of lower speeds, and for the focus to be on the most dangerous streets and behaviors “with respect to enforcement.”

“We know that police officers can’t be on every corner,” she said, and “change can’t be done overnight,” but she believes that analyzing BPD data “in conjunction with BTD can inform where design needs the most change and enforcement can be utilized.”

Stacy Thompson, Director of Livable Streets Alliance and a member of the Vision Zero Coalition, spoke about automated enforcement. “Given the number of crashes in Boston, we cannot ask our police to be superheroes,” she said. “What we would say affirmatively is that when deployed properly, automated enforcement, specifically speed cameras and red light cameras, have been shown to effectively reduce unsafe driving behavior, the number of crashes, and the severity of crashes.”

Emiliano Falcon, Civil Liberties and Technology Policy Councilor at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said that the ACLU has concerns about the potential traffic enforcement unit and the use of automated enforcement, such as the legal authorization for the surveillance, the disparate impact on racial justice, and ongoing oversight of transparency and accountability.

Steve Jonas, a “daily pedestrian,” said that he is concerned about the life safety issues associated with traffic in Boston. He read an excerpt from an email that he sent to Mayor Walsh in November to which he said he received “zero response.”

“As a daily pedestrian in our fine city, I have witnessed the rampant increase in the incidence of vehicles running red lights and doing so at high speeds,” Jonas read. “My message is that enforcement of traffic violations has become almost nonexistent; there are no consequences to disregarding the traffic safety laws. As a result, more motorists are doing just that at the peril of pedestrians, bikers, and other motorists.” He said that he is a fan of traffic enforcement cameras to assist with these issues.

This conversation is going to be continued by the City Council as they discuss ways to mitigate issues of traffic across the city.

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