Photo by Janelle Nivens of the intersection of Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street.

We want to reiterate our position and concerns on traffic cameras and automated enforcement as the City of Minneapolis advocates for their legalization.

The City of Minneapolis is advocating for a bill to legalize automated traffic enforcement in Minnesota, and seeks to implement a pilot program as soon as “traffic safety cameras” are legalized. To inform a potential pilot and future program, the City is hosting open house information sessions to share information and collect resident feedback.

In-person open house: Monday, January 29 from 5:00-7:00pm

  • Minneapolis Public Service Building, 505 4th Avenue South, Room 100 (map)
  • There will be two duplicate presentations at 5:15pm and 6:15pm with information boards, feedback activities, and opportunity to ask questions.

Our Streets Minneapolis has long opposed traffic enforcement. (For context, read this blog post from 2019.) Our organization’s position is that in order to permanently and equitably create safe streets, fixing unsafe street design must be prioritized over enforcement, including automated enforcement.

The type of traffic camera matters.

The City of Minneapolis is advocating for legislation that would allow Minnesota cities to install both red light cameras, cameras that issue citations for running red lights, and speed cameras, cameras that issue tickets for driving a certain level above the speed limit. While both red light cameras and speed cameras operate similarly, there are significant differences in the broader implications of their use that must be considered.

Red light cameras

Running a red light is often a reckless act that puts others at risk. Red light cameras have been shown to be an effective tool for reducing this harmful behavior in places like Texas and Los Angeles, though some studies have questioned their effectiveness.

While red light cameras can be an effective deterrent against dangerous driving behavior, efforts to improve safety at intersections must extend beyond automated enforcement. Many have argued that American cities have too many signalized intersections, the primary purpose of which is to regulate traffic flow. Traffic signals are expensive, incentivize vehicles to speed through them, and force people walking and rolling to wait to cross the street. Stop signs and roundabouts are alternatives to traffic signals that are safer and better accommodate people walking and biking. Before spending time and resources installing a red light camera, the City of Minneapolis should evaluate whether the traffic signal is needed in the first place.

Speed cameras

Speeding is one of the leading causes of severe and fatal traffic crashes, including in Minneapolis. Speed cameras have been shown to be one effective strategy to reduce speeding. A literature review on speed cameras showed they slowed vehicles by up to 15 percent and reduced fatal and severe injury crashes by up to 44 percent. 

However, speed cameras treat the symptom while ignoring the root cause of speeding and reckless driving, which is unsafe, auto-centric street design. People tend to drive the speed that a street’s design tells them to. Wide streets with multiple lanes, minimal curves, and unpainted crosswalks are designed to make drivers feel comfortable traveling at higher speeds. Installing speed cameras without first addressing the street’s design sets up a system that punishes people for doing exactly what the street was designed to facilitate. 

Automated enforcement will almost certainly disproportionately impact low-income residents and residents of color.

A common argument used to justify traffic cameras is that they eliminate the risk of racial profiling and police violence. However there is abundant data that shows that traffic cameras are not immune from systemic racism.

As is the case in cities across the country, the Minneapolis streets with the most dangerous designs and highest severe crash rates are primarily located in neighborhoods with higher populations of low-income residents and residents of color. These communities are also more likely to be located near urban highways and busy arterial streets that foster dangerous driving behavior. This is a core reason why Minneapolis has steep racial disparities in who is impacted by severe traffic crashes. 

If automated enforcement is deployed along streets with the highest crash rates, it would exacerbate financial hardship in communities of color that have marginalized and over-policed for decades without addressing deadly street design.

This has been well documented in other cities. A ProPublica analysis of millions of traffic cameras citations in Chicago found that households in majority Black and Hispanic ZIP codes received tickets at around twice the rate of those in white areas between 2015 and 2019. These citations have contributed to thousands of vehicle impoundments, driver’s license suspensions and bankruptcies. Traffic cameras also create the risk of creating City budgets that are reliant on revenue from fines. In the months following the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lowered the threshold that triggered speed cameras, which many criticized as a thinly veiled cash grab to recoup lost revenue from other sources.

If Minneapolis is serious about addressing some of the nation’s steepest racial disparities, this cannot be ignored.

Automated enforcement would expand a surveillance state that can be exploited by law enforcement.

Installing traffic cameras could also have more wide reaching consequences on privacy and police surveillance. Technology has already been developed to integrate facial recognition software in traffic cameras. Organizations like the ACLU have raised serious ethical concerns with facial recognition technology. For one, technology is prone to mistakes. Facial recognition technology is especially inaccurate for identifying people of color. Studies have found that facial recognition misidentified Black women 35% of the time. This is not hypothetical. A Minneapolis man, Kylese Perryman, is suing Hennepin County and the City of Bloomington for using facial recognition technology to falsely accuse him of car theft. Police ignored abundant evidence showing Perryman’s innocence, as he was clocked in at a warehouse job during the crime. Any use of facial recognition technology in Minnesota traffic cameras would be both reckless and racist.

Thankfully, the City of Minneapolis banned the use of facial recognition software by the Minneapolis Police Department in 2021, and the state legislature is considering legislation to restrict its use. In the meantime, the use of facial recognition technology in Minnesota continues to grow. Facial recognition was used in Minneapolis to track protesters during the uprising in response to the police murder of Goerge Floyd. There is also little stopping the police from ignoring city policy. Even after the City banned its use, records show that MPD requested a facial recognition search just 6 days after the ban went into effect.

ICE has also used data from traffic cameras and license plate readers to track the daily movements of undocumented immigrants. In 2019, the ACLU of Northern California revealed that ICE had established a $6.1 million contract with a private company to access their database with over 50 billion data points from over 80 local law enforcement agencies in over a dozen states.

The best way to improve safety is to redesign streets, and automated enforcement can take resources and energy away from the permanent solutions.

Supporters of traffic cameras often argue that it will take time to redesign streets, and cameras are a quick way to improve safety now. However the rollout of a traffic camera program is going to take years and cost millions of dollars. Traffic cameras are expensive. This FHWA fact sheet says that cameras can cost $60,000 – $150,000 per intersection. This cost is often justified by saying that the cameras “pay for themselves over time” via the revenue from tickets. However that response misses the point. We should not want the cameras to pay for themselves because we should not want any violations to occur. It would be better to spend those resources on quick-build design changes to permanently improve safety and accessibility, like adding raised crosswalks, chicanes, pedestrians medians, traffic circles, and protected bike lanes.

Even those who have championed traffic cameras realize that they don’t address the root cause of the traffic safety crisis in the United States. In the aforementioned ProPublica article from 2022, former Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot’s policy chief Dan Lurie acknowledged that “the best way to reduce traffic fatalities is to fix the underlying road infrastructure that contributes to unsafe driving.” That way, he said, “pedestrians are safer, you’re safer and no one’s getting a fine. That’s the ideal outcome here. We are dealing with, in many ways, after-the-fact consequences of streets that need to be rethought and redesigned.”

Traffic safety is ultimately a question of spending and policy priorities. Equitably eliminating severe and fatal traffic crashes will require a rapid shift away from status quo street design and toward car-free and car-light spaces. Fundamentally changing the city’s transportation system can be scary for city officials who don’t want to rock the boat. Traffic cameras can be a way for city officials to attempt to address traffic safety issues while avoiding the root cause that can be more messy politically.

Key Questions and Concerns

We encourage you to attend the city’s open house events and contact your legislators about this issue. Here are some questions that we believe are critical for the City of Minneapolis and State of Minnesota to address before traffic cameras are legalized.

  • What will the revenue from traffic cameras be used for and will there be restrictions on its use? Will the revenue be used for street improvements in neighborhoods with the most dangerous street designs? 
  • How will the fines be scaled? Will there be a grace period for first time offenders? 
  • How will the cameras be distributed? How will the City ensure that that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are not disproportionately impacted?
  • Who will monitor the cameras? How long will the data be stored for?
  • How will the City ensure that the data will not be shared with the police and ICE?
  • Will automated enforcement be used to ticket other minor offenses, like expired tabs?
  • Will the cameras support facial recognition software?
  • What is the total estimated cost of the traffic camera program? How will it be funded?

We have a moral obligation in Minneapolis to create a safe, fair and just transportation system that works for everyone. Automated enforcement can reduce unsafe driving behavior while simultaneously worsening racial disparities and perpetuating dangerous and inaccessible street design. Instead of fast-tracking a traffic camera program, the City of Minneapolis should commit to urgently addressing the root cause of the traffic safety crisis.

Join us in contacting decision-makers.

Take action by emailing key decision makers and standing up for reparative justice.