Episode 104: Arrested Mobility with Charles Brown 

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Charles Brown: There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my choice of clothing, my haircut, my jewelry, how I may be perceived by law enforcement. Because when I’m deciding whether or not I’m gonna go for a run late at night, oftentimes I want to choose my black hoodie, but the moment I grab that black hoodie, I think about Trayvon Martin, I think about Ahmaud Arbery, and I think about my own family members who have been victimized by law enforcement for looking and appearing out of place.

Aaron: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek. With me are my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear.

Doug Gordon: What’s up, Aaron?

Sarah: Hello.

Aaron: We have Sarah beaming in from a secret, undisclosed exotic locale. Are we—are we allowed to disclose?

Sarah: I think we can disclose. I’m in Europe. I’m in Barcelona.

Doug: Amazing. Great city.

Aaron: Are you getting us some good Barcelona content?

Sarah: I’m getting very good Barcelona content, and you all will hear all about it in an upcoming episode—the rides I’ve taken, the things I’ve learned, the things I’ve seen. And I can’t wait to share it all. But not today. Not yet.

Aaron: All right. Okay.

Doug: The real question is if you’re ever coming back.

Aaron: Seriously.

Sarah: I’m coming back. I am—I actually kind of miss the United States right now a little bit. [laughs] a tiny little bit.

Doug: [laughs]

Sarah: No, I’m looking forward to coming back. And I will say that one thing that’s really cool about being here is just feeling that we are part of an international community of people who are trying to make their cities better. And we’re learning from each other, and it feels like a real exchange. It feels—it feels really alive and important and like it’s really happening. And that is just such an amazing feeling.

Doug: Have you read Walkable City by Jeff Speck? It’s a fantastic book, and it deserves a place in every War on Cars listener’s collection. Now you can join Jeff in person for a two-day course on the most effective arguments, tools and techniques for improving walking, biking and transit. The course takes place June 15 and 16 on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You’ll learn powerful strategies for building stronger, healthier, more equitable places by focusing on walkability. And you’ll get hands-on experience working on a real world planning project in the city of Watertown. Whether you’re already an urban design professional, you aspire to become one, or you just want to learn more about how to make your own community more walkable, this course is meant for you. To sign up, search for “Harvard Walkable City” and click the first result. We’ll also include a link in our show notes. Again, that’s the walkable city with author Jeff Speck, June 15 and 16 at Harvard University Graduate School of Design Executive Education.

Aaron: Well, let’s just get right into it. We have a special guest today. His name is Charles Brown. Charles is the founder and CEO of Equitable Cities, an urban planning public policy and research firm working at the intersection of transportation, health and equity. Charles is an adjunct professor at the Edward Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and he is also the lead author of a groundbreaking new report examining the barriers to walking, biking and micromobility in Black communities in the United States. The report is called Arrested Mobility. That is also the name of Charles’s podcast, which is really good. You should probably pause right now and go subscribe to it and then come back to The War on Cars. Charles Brown, welcome to The War on Cars.

Charles Brown: Hey, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much. I follow your podcast, and thus I’m a huge fan of your work individually and collectively.

Aaron: That’s really nice.

Doug: That means a lot to me. Thank you.

Sarah: Thank you.

Aaron: So there have been many high-profile cases over the last few years, over the last decades, in which Black people, minding their own business, simply walking, going for a run, driving, bicycling down the street, whatever, have been stopped by the police for one reason or another, and then that police stop leads to a terrible outcome, up to and including the murder of the person stopped by the police. In his report, Arrested Mobility Charles Brown scours through state, county and municipal laws in all 50 states. The report identifies with a kind of really detailed specificity the policies, the regulations, the laws that are deployed to limit the mobility of Black Americans, the laws that sort of allow these kinds of police stops to happen. So Charles, what is arrested mobility?

Charles Brown: Arrested mobility is the assertion that Black people and other minorities have been historically and presently denied by legal and illegal authority their inalienable right to move, to be moved or to simply exist in public space. And because of this, unfortunately, this has resulted in ongoing social, political, economic and environmental health effects that are widespread and intergenerational.

Charles Brown: But they are preventable, which is why we’re here today. Now what differs about arrested mobility is how I’ve taken it upon myself to radically redefine or reconceptualize what we mean by “policing.” For instance, most people look at policing simply through that of law enforcement, whether the federal or state or local level. In the arrested mobility framework, I expand this notion of policing to include policy. And one example of that might be discriminatory policy around who wears a bicycle helmet or not.

Charles Brown: Secondly, planning. In terms of it as a policing mechanism, it might be the segregation, the intentional segregation of communities through racial residential segregation or even through disinvestment. Then there is policing at the federal, state and local level. And then lastly, polity—P-O-L-I-T-Y—which is the self-deputization of non-Black citizens. And we’ve seen recent cases of that through the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and others. That is arrested mobility.

Doug: So Charles, what I really liked about this report, and what I think sets it apart from others that we’ve seen are, you know, we know that Black people are disproportionately arrested or ticketed for things like jaywalking, but your report goes really deep into those laws. And it doesn’t just say “Jaywalking is crossing against the light” or that sort of thing. It really goes into the arbitrary nature of so many of these laws, like suddenly entering the roadway. Someone takes one step off the curb, and they can be arrested. Crossing not on the right side of a crosswalk, which was one of those laws that I read in your report that kind of blew my mind. Or crossing the road diagonally, all of these things that no ordinary person could possibly know are against the law, but the cops use as a cudgel against Black people to sort of wait for them to break this law and then use that as a pretext for arresting them. I wonder if you could talk about some of those very specific examples and just how arbitrary they get.

Charles Brown: So we looked at the code for all 50 states, as well as the two most populous cities in each state. And while many of the laws are intended to serve a legitimate safety purpose, they also serve as a legal mechanism for racist, discriminatory and predatory police enforcement. For instance, jaywalking, as you just noted, was one of those such policies. We looked at highly subjective and confusing laws. You don’t want subjectivity when it comes to the enforcement of policies, you want both law enforcement as well as everyday persons to clearly understand what the law and the policy mean. Highly subjective and confusing laws are almost impossible to enforce equitably.

Charles Brown: And then lastly, I think the most important piece here, because oftentimes people who argue for these laws in a fair and just way, they argue because they feel that they’re going to improve safety outcomes. Well, we did not see overwhelming evidence that these policies actually improve safety outcomes. So if they don’t improve safety outcomes, they’re almost impossible to enforce equitably. They’re highly subjective and confusing for both pedestrians, cyclists and others as well as law enforcement. You see a mount of evidence and advocacy speaking against these policies. And then there is research to actually prove that they’ve been used in a discriminatory way.

Charles Brown: We feel these policies need to be repealed or decriminalized. The one policy that stood out to me most that was really shocking was the one around playing ball. In the city of Huntsville, Alabama, it is unlawful for any person to engage in any kind of ball playing on the streets, the alleys or the sidewalks of the city. So why is it important to highlight how insane—and I mean that—this policy is? This law can be seen as an extension of the policing of Black bodies in public space, as it criminalizes common activity that is often associated with Black youth—and all youth—for that reason.

Charles Brown: Furthermore, this law can be seen as an example in which certain urban design and planning decisions can create barriers to mobility and access for Black residents. So when you think about the fact that many Black neighborhoods lack parks and other safe outdoor spaces, leading these children to play on sidewalks and streets, and the fact that they can be criminalized for doing so, I think that’s very unfair. Just think about how it restricts access to outdoor recreation for Black children, and perpetuates the stereotype that Black youth are a threat to public safety. Because that’s what you’re saying when you arrest or when you fine a child for bouncing a basketball on a sidewalk. I mean, think about how many children do that, and the joy that we rob from them when doing so.

Charles Brown: I want people to understand the recommendation that you do not see, but hopefully you now understand when I say it, is the importance of seeing Black people, and seeing Black people in multiple forms and fashion. I wanted this document to be unapologetically Black. I wanted people to see it, see them, and to feel them, to feel their emotions. That’s not listed as a recommendation, but that’s a takeaway that I think is critically important when doing this work, because too often in this work around addressing barriers, we remain invisible other than the stat that says we are disproportionately this or disproportionately that.

Aaron: There’s this interesting conflict that emerges between laws that are seemingly trying to make people safer. Like, you have to have a bell on your bicycle, you have to have a light on your bicycle, You need to wear a helmet. And yet, these laws are used often as pretexts to pull people over, stop people. With something like the bicycle light/bicycle bell issue, what should we do? Is it just those laws shouldn’t exist on the books? They should be enforced or policed differently? What is the recommendation for something like that?

Charles Brown: Let’s start with the law on front and rear lights for bicycles. Now on the surface, most people will say, “What’s wrong with that law?” It is meant to protect cyclists at night when they are traveling about. It allows for other cyclists, pedestrians and motor vehicles to see them. And I agree. On the surface, nothing appears wrong with that law. However, when you consider the fact that minor infractions such as not having a front or rear light on your bicycle can lead and have led to the loss of life, the loss of income, and the loss of Black and brown people’s ability to be free in public space, there’s a lot wrong with it. One of the things that we can do to quickly fix that is to simply work with the bicycle industry to sell bicycles that already come fully equipped with the necessary front and rear lights on bicycles. I mean, think about it: there isn’t a car sold in America that doesn’t come fully equipped in adherence to the laws that are on the books.

Aaron: That’s so true.

Charles Brown: Yet we allow a bicycle to be manufactured and sold even though it’s not in alignment with the law. Sell bikes to come fully equipped with everything that people need and let’s stop forcing people to separately go and purchase a front and rear light as well as a helmet to be in alignment with the law and to be safe on our roadways, because not everyone can afford it.

Sarah: I mean, it almost feels to me like a trap, that you get this thing and you’re like, “Oh, now I’m gonna go out and use it,” and then you basically are put in a situation where you’re violating the law that you don’t even know that you’re violating. And one of your other recommendations is about repealing some of these ridiculous laws as well, right?

Charles Brown: Yes, we should repeal them or simply decriminalize them. I mean, it’s not just whether or not you have a front light or a rear one. It’s also in some places the mechanical condition of your bicycle. There are laws in places like Salt Lake City, Utah, around reasonable cause for inspection, where a peace officer may at any time require a person riding a bicycle to stop and submit the bicycle to an inspection if the officer has reasonable cause to believe that that bicycle is unsafe or not equipped as required by law.

Charles Brown: First of all, most police officers I know, in my family, outside of my family, do not want to spend their time determining if a bicycle is up to the standards as listed in the local laws. Most police officers I talked to got into law enforcement because they wanted to target true criminals, they wanted to protect the safety and welfare of people from real harm, not to be spending their time seeing whether or not a bicycle has been maintained in a safe mechanical condition. Many people politically would say that is a waste of time and resources, and I agree. So what we should do is have law enforcement focus on the things that are really going to impact the safety and welfare of the populace, instead of spending their time focusing on minor things such as this.

Sarah: What was so valuable to me about this report, these are things that we know intuitively that public space is not available, it’s not safe for Black and brown people in the same way that it is for white people. We all know that. But what you’ve done is you’ve quantified it. You know, you’ve done the research, you’ve shown how it’s constructed, you’ve got the evidence. But I want to ask you about the psychological effects on Black and brown people that this arrested mobility phenomenon has. You know, every time a person goes to take a trip of any kind—to school to work, to the store, the thought process that that Black person has to go through before they walk out the door, and the trips that are not taken because people feel their movements to be constrained in this way. It’s hard to measure, but it’s clearly incredibly damaging. I mean, I would just love to hear you talk about the psychological stress of living in an environment where that is just a constant part of your life.

Charles Brown: Wow. You’re gonna bring—you’ve brought tears to my eyes, Sarah, because this is really at the heart of why, above all other reasons, I decided to do this work. I fought for this country. I’m a veteran. Growing up, I wanted to be the head of the FBI. I still use every fiber in me to protect people who have been wronged in some form or fashion. There isn’t a day that goes by—and I consider myself a free man—that I don’t think about my choice of clothing, my haircut, my jewelry and the car that I’m gonna drive or the bicycle I’m gonna ride, or which transit trip I’m gonna take, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about how I may be perceived by law enforcement. Because when I’m deciding whether or not I’m gonna go for a run late at night, oftentimes I want to choose my black hoodie. But the moment I grab that black hoodie, I think about Trayvon Martin. I think about Ahmaud Arbery, and I think about my own family members who have been victimized by law enforcement for looking and appearing out of place.

Charles Brown: So there is a psychological toll that it takes on people. And I think to be honest, we pass that on to our children as well. And I’ll give you an example that really just shook me. I teach at Rutgers University at the graduate school, and one white colleague there has a son that’s the same age as my son. We decided one weekend that we were gonna go to a nearby town and visit an old video arcade game room. It’s very nostalgic for me and him, and we wanted to expose our young boys to the games that we enjoyed as children. He’s a white man, I’m a black man. His child is white. My son is Black.

Charles Brown: We were walking on the sidewalk, and his son took out running on the sidewalk. Very innocent, very free. So much joy in his face. Just a beautiful thing. What shook me, though, is my son looked back at me, looking for permission to join his friend in running on the sidewalk. I wonder who taught him that. I don’t have to wonder. I know who taught him that. I taught him that because my mother taught me that, and because her mother and father taught her that. There’s this fear that our children can’t be free like white children in public space because they will be treated differently.

Charles Brown: I had not observed that I had passed down that fear to my son until that moment. But I vowed ever since to not raise them in a culture of fear, and let the cards fall where they may. Because I’d rather he be free than be worried about daily what being free may result in for him as a Black boy in public space. So thank you for bringing that up, because that’s why I did this report. I’m an urban planner, a policy guy and a researcher by trade. And so many of my friends want to talk about the benefits of biking, walking, taking public transit, using e-scooter devices. I’m with them. I know the benefits. But they do so while overlooking the fact that no matter how accessible these things are, if we as Black people can’t simply exist in public space, what’s the point?

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Doug: I wanted to jump in on one of those really sort of ridiculous subjective laws that we don’t really always talk about, but we do talk about the joy of cycling. That’s something that is often brought up as one of the benefits of any kind of riding, whether it’s for transportation or recreation, is joy. And you cite in the report a law in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, against trick riding or acrobatic riding that basically says no rider of a bicycle or e-bicycle shall remove both hands from the handlebar or feet from the pedals or practice any acrobatic or fancy riding on any street.

Aaron: [laughs] Fancy riding.

Doug: Right. And that fancy riding, right? Like that—it couldn’t be more subjective if you tried. And, you know, I was thinking about that in the context of joy as you described, you know, your son wondering if he could run down the sidewalk and what that might mean, and the permission he was sort of seeking from you. You know, we see those laws in New York enforced against Black teens doing ride outs, you know, taking over streets and doing wheelies and all kinds of stuff. And they’re just having fun. It’s an example of just how subjective and arbitrary these things are. And also, I mean, look, don’t do the police any favors, because they’re the determinants of what fancy means, and that just creates a complete mess.

Charles Brown: I do want to say there is some level of trick riding that I’ve seen that is dangerous. I just want to put that out there. Not all forms of trick riding is just about joy. Some of that I think is pushing it a bit too far. And we know the extreme cases, so I think it’s important to point that out. But for those that are out just trying to impress their friends, their family members, because my son, both of my sons want to show me they can ride the bike without holding the handlebar. I mean, it’s one of the most proudest moments when you feel you could do that and do that safely, of course. So why do we want to take that away? It’s almost like penalizing people for having an incredible jump shot like Steph Curry. Because he could shoot from half court, people want to say he’s changed the game of basketball and it’s no longer as pure as it was. Things evolve. People evolve over time.

Charles Brown: And so every time, you know, Black and brown people enter into a sport and add a little culture to it, it becomes criminalized. And that’s what’s happening here. But that doesn’t have to be the city’s response. See, this isn’t just new to New York or Philadelphia or even in South Dakota. What we know in Oakland, California, the same thing was happening. Youth there were trick riding down the middle of a very prominent street, I think it’s called Telegraph Avenue. The city, the city of Oakland, decided to build protected bike lanes down the middle of the street so that those cyclists can enjoy the roadway. There are other ways besides enforcing that behavior that you can make it safer. One of those ways is to give them the space to actually do it—and that’s what Oakland did. And I think that’s an example that other people from around the country can follow. Again, we don’t want it to be unsafe, but let’s try to make it as safe as possible. And you could do that by giving them protected lanes, separating them from cars.

Aaron: Let’s talk a little bit more about this enforcement question. You know, because even if we do throw out or rewrite a lot of these laws, police still have just incredible power and discretion on the street. You know, the existence or nonexistence of a law isn’t necessarily gonna prevent police from enforcing or not enforcing what they want. And I think at least this question of, like, how should we do bicycle and pedestrian enforcement, should we do it at all? You know, is there a role for law enforcement in ensuring the safety of bicyclists, pedestrians, of policing traffic, or should we be working to get police out of this business altogether?

Charles Brown: That’s a great question. And I think it really does depend on which behavior we’re referring to. In this report, we did not take a stance against policing. We took a stance against policing behavior we feel without just cause or reason or logic. We felt many of those laws and policies were confusing. Many were not grounded or backed by research to show that it leads to improved safety outcomes. It is those behaviors and those laws that we feel should be repealed or decriminalized. The others should remain. There’s a much broader discussion—and I’m part of that—where we look at what role law enforcement should play in our country, in particular as it relates to traffic safety. I believe they have a place, but it is a discussion that needs to continue before we determine optimally what that place is. And I think this arrested mobility report, along with all the other discussions that are happening around this country, is a nice place to start to determine what the role is for law enforcement in traffic safety, because there are some behaviors that should be deemed criminal and should be enforced by law enforcement.

Aaron: Well, like what? Like, where would you like to see law enforcement or police involved?

Charles Brown: So I would like for law enforcement to continue to focus on speeding where speed cameras are not allowed, because speeding results in a higher likelihood of a person dying upon an impact. And I’d be in favor of speed cameras if they were placed equitably throughout a city. The issue with speed cameras currently is that they too are placed disproportionately in minority and low-income communities. So if we’re going to be pro-speed cameras, let’s put them up all over the city so everyone that is driving, there is a likelihood that they too are speeding, may be caught. That’s how you could do things in a more equitable fashion. So I would say speeding for me is the number one way to involve law enforcement. So I think that’s the biggest bang for our buck.

Sarah: When you were talking earlier about the importance of really seeing Black people, and how that’s one of the unwritten recommendations in this report, I thought also about the transportation advocacy community, and how white that community has traditionally been. How has the predominant whiteness of that transportation advocacy community affected the movement’s effectiveness, its ability to truly see the impacts on Black people of arrested mobility? And how can we address that, and how can white advocates be better allies than we’ve been in the past?

Charles Brown: When we look at the bicycling and pedestrian advocacy space around this country, what you’ll find is that they are overwhelmingly white, with some exceptions, but very few, few, few exceptions. What this has resulted in, unfortunately, prior to the murder of George Floyd, is that there are blind spots. For instance, I’d go to advocacy groups and saying that yes, it’s important to advocate for better infrastructure in Black and brown communities, but can we talk about the role that police play in ensuring the safety and welfare of Black and brown people in public space? And many of them would see that as not a defining issue, but a side issue.

Charles Brown: I’d also ask many of them prior to the murder of George Floyd to advocate for equity—and more specifically racial equity—in our work. But many of them stated that they didn’t feel as comfortable doing that. They were fearful of losing friends, family members and others who thought that they were taking a social justice approach that will lead to them losing their jobs or not being promoted at their jobs.

Charles Brown: Another thing, when it’s time to advocate for the importance of bicycle lanes in Black and brown communities or complete streets, if it’s done solely by white people and not by Black and brown folk, cycling then is viewed as a means to gentrification and displacement in the Black community, as opposed to a way to increase access to jobs and everyday destinations. So they’re hurting Black and brown communities by being the face of it. And one example of this, I’ve gone around this country conducting focus groups of Black and brown people. I have them close their eyes and I say, “Imagine a typical cyclist.” Once they open their eyes, I ask them who did they see? Nine out of ten say “Lance Armstrong.” If Black and brown people and white people are like, when they think of cyclists, if they only see white people, it’s gonna be very hard to convince Black people that cycling as a mode is meant for Black and brown people.

Charles Brown: And so advocates can help most often by leveraging the resources that they have to conduct research, such as this arrested mobility research, by letting that research be done by and for Black and brown people. Some of them need to remove themselves from seats of power to bring in diversity that would make their causes much more representative. In the report, we talk about other things they can do, which is help to expand this arrested mobility work. Now that it’s out there, they can’t ignore it. The question is what will they do about it? And unfortunately, I’ve seen—and I’m generalizing here—many well-meaning white people who become armed with the right information, yet still choose to do nothing with it. So I’m looking for free white people, because in the same way that I lived in fear, I think white people are living in fear, too. And so it may not be everyone, but I’m just looking for a few good men and women who are white, who are free, who want to risk it all in the same way that I’m risking it all, to be truth tellers, to be lovers of their neighbors in a way that will benefit all of us, not only here but globally as well, which is a whole other conversation.

Aaron: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Charles Brown, thank you so much for joining us.

Charles Brown: Thank you so much for having me. So much love and respect to each one of you.

Doug: You can download a copy of Charles Brown’s new report at ArrestedMobility.com. You’ll also find links to his podcast there. And you can listen to it, obviously, wherever you get your podcasts, and we’ll put links in the show notes.

Sarah: If you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist today. Starting at just $3 a month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and we’ll send you stickers.

Aaron: Thanks to everyone who signed up on Patreon, including our top supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund.

Doug: We also want to thank our sponsors for this episode: the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Cleverhood. For more information, you can just check out the show notes. We’ll put links to Harvard GSD and Cleverhood there.

Sarah: And if you’re interested in the future of light, clean, inexpensive personal transportation in cities, then you are just the kind of person who ought to be attending a Micromobility.IO conference. You can save 20 percent on tickets to Micromobility conferences in Amsterdam this June and San Francisco in October by using the link in our show notes.


Aaron: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer, and our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Aaron Naparstek.


Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.


Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear. And this is The War on Cars.