Creating Streets Where We All Feel Safe and Respected

By Katharine Bierce, Sara Zimmerman, and Norma Tassy

 It is difficult to get people walking and bicycling as their default mode of transportation. When they feel threatened by violence or vulnerable to crime that choice becomes even harder. Although the perception of violence and crime is most acute in low income areas, this concern can arise in affluent communities as well. Fear of violence and crime can suppress the desire to use active transportation, even in statistically safe areas. Fear of encountering bullying or street harassment can also restrict travel choices for kids and adults, motivating them to stay at home and miss out on bicycling and walking around their neighborhoods.

 We discussed this key topic on April 15, 2015, in a small group at an event — What’s Next for Transportation? — hosted by MaestroConference/VoiceVoice, with support from Kaiser Permanente and sponsorship by many other active transportation organizations. (Kaiser Permanente sponsored this discussion as part of exploring how to encourage more physically active modes of transportation to improve health outcomes.) As our discussion group (comprised of funders and transportation nonprofits with experience in California, New Jersey, and nationally) dug into this topic, one important thread of our discussion was about the effects of racial and class privilege.

Data & Communications: What’s Real and What’s Not?

People often make decisions about personal activities based on anecdotal experience, such as seeing reports of violence on the news — not on the statistical likelihood of a problem occurring to them. Parents make decisions about transportation choices for their families based on fears of lack of safety that may or may not be based in data, while sometimes ignoring the very real risk of long term health problems from insufficient physical activity, things like obesity, stroke, and diabetes.

To address these obstacles to active transportation, we need more:

  • Data: How much of an obstacle are specific barriers to active transportation to different groups of people (men, women, different racial and economic groups, the LGBT community, rural vs urban, youth vs adults, and people with disabilities)?
    For example, how often does sexual harassment or violence occur for people in different neighborhoods when bicycling or walking versus taking the bus or driving? What works to overcome different hurdles for different groups?
  • Communications and messaging strategies: We need approaches for effectively getting the accurate story from the data to people. One campaign for risk-averse parents could be “It’s Safer than You Think.”

Working with Unconscious Motivations that Influence Transportation Choices

We also discussed how on our streets, the perception of danger often interacts in complex ways with stereotypes we’ve all absorbed from the media — i.e. unconscious racism. This can undermine the strength of our communities, while also affecting health and leading to less physically active transportation choices. Many white people take a primary cue about the safety of a neighborhood from the dominant color of the complexions they see, deeming black and Latino neighborhoods as inherently unsafe. When people discount neighborhoods as unsafe due to their racial composition — or suspect someone in their own neighborhood of criminal activity because of their race — they make it less safe and less hospitable for everyone to walk and bicycle. To compound matters, many white people see racism as an individual rather than social issue, where someone is a “bad white racist” or a “good white person,” rather than realizing that racism is present in society and we all absorb stereotypes in the media — despite our conscious desires about what we want to believe.

Ideas for Action to Support Vibrant, Active Communities

Everyone benefits from creating an environment where we all feel safe and respected. If we want to encourage active transportation choices, anti-racism work needs to be part of the conversation. A few ideas we discussed include:

  • Encouraging parents to learn more about issues like racial profiling and to develop strategies to distinguish between feelings of unsafety that may arise from racial discomfort versus the real cues of what indicates an unsafe situation.
  • Engaging in the hard work of creating a genuinely welcoming, supportive and non-imposing environment in the active transportation community, working with low income people and people of color.
  • Joining and supporting the initiatives of those we would like as allies, rather than simply inviting people of color to meetings and events hosted by mostly white organizations. Active transportation organizations can ask “How can we help YOU?” and can work with existing community groups, rather than coming in with pre-baked “solutions.” We can look to support other initiatives that intersect with active transportation, such as transit justice, economic justice, and affordable housing movements.
  • People fear what they don’t know or understand. Creating opportunities for people to interact in genuine ways across racial and class lines can break down stereotypes about people and neighborhoods. (Relatedly, being able to be with people of the same race most of the time is one hallmark of white privilege — see a list here, as well as this resource on how white privilege shows up in social movements). Some environments like churches or other houses of worship facilitate positive cross-racial interactions, but churches can’t address this entire issue.
  • Participating in a training or workshop on anti-racism, such as,, and For many white people, even hearing about those kinds of workshops can be intimidating, because of the prevailing attitude that racism is an individual rather than a social issue. But such workshops can help overcome those fears and help people see how to become part of the solution.
  • Encouraging people in the active transportation movement to gain awareness of personal and institutional unconscious racism and to identify ways to create real equity.

Our conversation was stimulating, and gave us a chance to share thoughts and experiences while focusing on solutions, not problems. This is just an overview of one discussion — future conversation series can explore more. For more interest on convening a Movement Accelerator event series, contact


Katharine Bierce is the Director of Marketing and Operations at MaestroConference / VoiceVoice ( and

Norma Tassy is the Executive Director of Bike & Walk Montclair (New Jersey),

Sara Zimmerman is the Technical Assistance Director at the Safe Routes Partnership,