Step by Step
In defense of jaywalking.
Stone and I weren’t actually talking about birds. We were talking about walking and walkability in America. About how our access to places on foot alters subtly from one generation to the next, almost imperceptibly. “What we witness and what we encounter becomes the new status quo, the new benchmark in how we make assessments,” Stone said. “If people would remember a time when they could walk freely, they could make a comparison. The problem is, that time is getting further away from us.”
At the outset of the auto age, cars navigated through cities hesitantly, alert for pedestrians, who maintained the right to cross where they wanted or to walk in the road if they so felt. (Read Peter Norton’s enlightening Fighting Traffic about the history of city streets.) Cars were cautious foreign interlopers making their way through a strange land. Around 1910, most cities had speed limits of 10 miles per hour or so, which was deemed a safe speed around walkers. If a car struck someone on foot, the driver was invariably arrested and prosecuted. When cars were pushy, people pushed back. In 1909 a reporter noted that the automobile had “not yet been adjusted to its proper place.”
Of course, the automobile didn’t ever fully adjust; it carved out a new world to suit itself. Autos flexed their horsepower, and those behind the automotive industry backed a politically savvy team (AAA clubs, city traffic engineers) to clear the roads of people then widen them. The whole idea of jaywalking was created of whole cloth. (For more on this, see “Step Backward, Step Forward.”) Laws were enacted exiling walkers from public rights of way, confining them to designated crosswalks. Outside downtown cores, sidewalks were increasingly neglected on the justification that few now walked, and then nobody walked because there were no sidewalks. When some accommodation had to be made for foot travel, dreary, droogy underpasses and inconvenient, chainlinked pedestrian overpasses were constructed. Those who wandered outside the lines were painted as rogues and criminals.
“Pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights,” said an auto manufacturer in 1924. In short, they needed to adjust to their proper place.
So jaywalkers were variously pilloried as feckless hayseeds, agents of chaos and more. “This is about preventing thefts and robberies,” a representative of the Los Angeles police once explained when asked why jaywalkers were being hit with fines. “Jaywalking is often done by thieves, purse snatchers and robbery suspects to target their victims.”
Actually, that last comment doesn’t date back to driving’s antediluvian era. It’s from 2010, in the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, a spate of recent headlines suggests that curbing jaywalking has again become a hot-button topic. On December 25, 2013 the New York Times looked west and reported, “In a Car-Culture Clash, It’s the Los Angeles Police vs. Pedestrians.” The focus was on a crackdown in which officers liberally issued tickets ($190 to $250) to people crossing downtown streets when and where they shouldn’t.
On February 2, the Los Angeles Times looked east, noting that, “New York cracks down on jaywalking after pedestrian deaths.” In part, it recounted the case of an 84-year-old man who ended up battered and bloodied in an arrest for alleged jaywalking on the Upper West Side. The New York Times followed up with another report, noting that the number of jaywalking citations issued in New York City through early February was up an eye-popping 800 percent over the same period the previous year.
Actually, I’m not convinced of any major jaywalking “crackdown.” Newspaper reporters may have been faced with a slow news cycle and perhaps afflicted with indigestion from an undigested bit of beef and a blot of mustard. That 800 percent spike in citations in New York City? That resulted in a total of 215 summonses over five weeks, or about six tickets a day. Los Angeles conducted a previous holiday crackdown two years earlier. It’s not the stuff of a tectonic realignment.
Yet, there is much to be alarmed about. It’s incremental, the constant erosion of the freedom to walk. Consider something as benign as the pedestrian countdown clock. You know, those digital timers that show how many seconds you have to make it across the street. These initially seemed like a boon for people on foot — if you’ve got six seconds, you can break into a trot and make it across with plenty of time to spare. You don’t inconvenience the drivers, and so you’re a model citizen. Right?
Not quite. Downtown News in Los Angeles reported that walkers are now being fined for merely stepping into the crosswalk when the countdown has begun. Under municipal code, that’s illegal — even if you can make it across with seconds to spare. Please pay the courts $250.
When laws trump common sense, it’s usually time to push back. (See: Prohibition.) I tend to view jaywalking through an historic lens — of regaining lost rights, of reversing the erosion of our territory. I’m all for it.
But there’s also the matter of logic. In a study of New York streets, researchers concluded that 44 percent of car-pedestrian accidents occurred in crosswalks when walkers had the walk signal. (Nine percent involved walking against the signal.) Crosswalks, created as refuges for walkers, aren’t anything of the sort. (Even more alarmingly, 6 percent of the time vehicles hit pedestrians on sidewalks.)
I recently met a talented computer programmer who told me he always strives to simplify his everyday life decisions, much as he writes code, thereby reducing chances of bugs. And where circumstances permit, he crosses streets in the middle of a block. His reasoning: by doing so he avoids the complexity of an intersection, where cars are coming from multiple directions — straight ahead and rounding corners. By jaywalking, he eliminates at least half the data he needs to process. Note that jaywalking is not illegal in the United Kingdom, yet their rates of pedestrian death is half that of the United States.
Logic also decrees that we pick sensible battles. Sure, it would be great if we could cut diagonally across any busy six-lane arterial and save the walking two sides whenever we want. But that’s a battle that can’t be won, at least not by my generation.
So I chose small steps. When I moved to New Orleans eight years ago, I was mildly appalled by the state of the sidewalks in my neighborhood — overrun by tropical vegetation, upthrust by the restless roots of live oaks. I was forced to walk out in the street a lot, and this initially irritated me. I wanted to agitate for better sidewalks.
Soon, I thought better of it. Walking in these streets (narrow, potholed) is probably how it should be. Our immediate neighborhood has short blocks and a lot of stop signs, so drivers don’t build up much speed. Walking in the streets seems normal and safe, and I’ve noticed the presence of walkers further slows drivers. It’s a positive feedback loop. To date, no one has laid on a horn, or gunned passed me aggressively. The streets are pretty well shared hereabouts. I avoid sidewalks. Most of the time, a stroll feels like a return to 1910, with bigger cars. Which is to say, a pleasant jaywalk into the future.
“We’ve been robbed of our freedom,” Jim Stone at Walk San Diego told me.
Bit by bit, we’re taking it back. • 26 February 2014
Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails. He's currently working on a book about the history of walking in America. Find him at his website or follow him @waynecurtis.
Photograph by freefotouk/CC BY-NC 2.0