The secret history of jaywalking: The disturbing reason it was outlawed — and why we should lift the ban

Tensions between cars & pedestrians aren't new, but pedestrians are working to make jaywalking the rule of the road

Published August 20, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Andrey Bayda</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Andrey Bayda via Shutterstock)

"Jaywalk." The word seems better suited to a dance craze than criminal infraction. The jitterbug, the lindy hop, the jaywalk. Some trace the origins of the term to Syracuse, New York; others to Kansas City (home briefly to a bar called Jaywalkers). One of the earliest references to the practice is in an article in the Chicago Tribune: “chauffeurs assert with some bitterness that their 'joy riding' would harm nobody if there were not so much jay walking" (April 7, 1909). The quote reflects a mind-set of entitlement among the motorist class, a readiness to allocate blame to the lowest tier of traveler. In early America “jay” was a pejorative used to denote a rube or rustic, someone unacquainted with the niceties of urban refinement. To be called a jay was to have called into question your very sense of belonging, your right to exist within the city proper.

* * *

Before the proliferation of automobiles streets were shared by all manner of traveler. Crosswalks had not yet been established (the first one wouldn’t appear until 1911) and pedestrians had just as much right to the road as streetcars and carriages. Cars, in their earliest incarnation, were seen as interlopers, an unwelcome addition to the urban milieu. Traffic fatalities were not looked upon kindly by the general public. Angry mobs were wont to drag offending drivers (kicking and screaming, one would presume) from the comfort of their cars. According to the Detroit News, upwards of 60 percent of automobile-related fatalities in the 1920s were children under the age of 9. “One gruesome Detroit article described an Italian family whose 18-month-old son was hit and wedged in the wheel well of a car. As the hysterical father and police pried out the child's dead body, the mother went into the house and committed suicide.”

By the close of the 1920s, automobiles had claimed the lives of more than 250,000 children and adults in the United States. In New York City, temporary memorials were erected in Central Park to commemorate the dead, as if casualties of combat. Automobile drivers were uniformly painted as villains in newspaper editorials, a menace to civic well-being. Cartoons depicted them in full reaper regalia, armed with sharpened scythes. The phrase “jay driver” prefigures its more common counterpart, appearing in print as early as 1905. (A 1907 headline in the Albuquerque Evening Citizen reads “Jay Drivers Imperil Life Each Hour in Albuquerque.”) The growing tension between motorists and pedestrians had larger class implications. While motorists tended to be men of means, the pedestrians they sought to displace were largely working-class. Andrew Mellon, during his tenure as secretary of the treasury, instituted a landmark tax reduction strategy, lowering the top marginal rate from 77 percent to 24 percent. The combination of lower taxes, flourishing markets and weakened unions led to prodigious levels of inequality. The chasm between rich and poor reached its pinnacle in 1928, with 23.9 percent of all pretax income channeled to the top 1 percent of families. Even with improved methods of production, automobiles were still out of reach for millions of Americans. As James J. Flink writes in "The Automobile Age," “The automobile trade journals were agreed in 1923 that ‘illiterate, immigrant, Negro and other families’ were ‘obviously outside’ the market for motorcars.”

In 1923, Cincinnati residents pursued an ordinance that would require motorists to outfit their cars with mechanical devices called governors. The governors would switch off car engines if vehicles exceeded speeds of 25 miles per hour. Local automobile dealers mobilized to strike down the measure. Over the next decade the auto industry pursued aggressive action to take sole possession of public roads and, in turn, reshape the conversation around cars. The American Automobile Association, or AAA, sponsored safety campaigns in schools, educating students on the dangers of crossing the street in unmarked zones. Boy Scouts handed out cards to pedestrians, warning them against the practice of jaywalking. Mock trials were conducted in public settings to shame or ridicule offenders. The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce persuaded politicians and journalists to shill for their cause. The Packard Motor Car Co. went so far as to construct tombstones engraved with the name Mr. J. Walker. In Buffalo, beachgoers were treated to a public performance by the National Safety Council, in which a jaywalker was arrested, handcuffed and fitted with a sandwich board that read “I am a jaywalker,” and then ushered into a police wagon plastered with anti-pedestrian slogans. (“Hell is paved with good intentions, but why crowd the place? Don’t jaywalk.”) By the 1930s, jaywalking had been adopted as common law in most major municipalities. The term was near ubiquitous, and opposition to the automobile had softened to scarcely a whisper.

* * *

In Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, a young woman named Raquel Nelson was stepping off the bus with her two children. They had been shopping at the grocery store and it was late in the evening. The nearest crosswalk was three-tenths of a mile from the bus stop, so she—like many of the regular passengers—attempted to cross the busy road. She and her children were struck by an onrushing van, and her 4-year-old son was killed. The driver, it was later discovered, had alcohol and painkillers in his system. He had two previous hit-and-runs on his record and was visually impaired in his left eye. The driver pleaded guilty to fleeing the scene of the accident and served six months in prison. Nelson, soon after the funeral was held for her son, was charged with second-degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct, and crossing a roadway in an inappropriate manner—in other words, jaywalking. These charges, in collaboration, carried a penalty of up to three years in prison. In the end, Nelson was sentenced to 12 months of probation, for doing nothing more than trying to get her children home.

Modern attitudes toward jaywalking can be traced to "broken windows" policies implemented in larger cities like New York and Boston. In 1998, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instituted a citywide crackdown on the practice of jaywalking. The fine for walking outside of designated crosswalks was raised from a token $2 fine to a heftier $50 penalty. This past year, under the stewardship of Mayor Bill de Blasio, that fine was once again raised, this time to $250. However, just like stop-and-frisk before it, the clampdown on jaywalking has disproportionately targeted people of color. The Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department revealed that 95 percent of those cited for jaywalking are black. In Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, that figure is 89 percent, even with a populace that is primarily white. A female English professor at Arizona State University was forcefully pinned to the ground by campus police after crossing the street to avoid sidewalk construction. Instances like these fail at maintaining even the guise of upholding public safety. So the question becomes, who is being served and who exactly is being protected?

* * *

The criminalization of jaywalking may be in part justified if crosswalks were in fact safer, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Crosswalks that aren’t supported by traffic lights or stop signs are no safer than unmarked zones. One study published in Transportation Research Board of the National Academies found that the risk of injury inside the painted lines was the same as it was outside of them. On roadways with multiple lanes and high-volume traffic the crosswalk proved the more precarious option. A safety study conducted by NYU Langone Medical Center was even more decisive in its findings: Of those injured, 44 percent had used a crosswalk with the traffic signal on their side, while 23 percent had been struck crossing mid-block. In what can only be attributed to dreadful luck, 6 percent had been injured while on the sidewalk.

To compound the issue, most crosswalk buttons are nonoperational. Only 9 percent of buttons in New York City, the Department of Transportation estimates, are responsive to user commands. The remaining 91 percent, which are set to fixed timers, serve as placebos for Type A personalities or germ-laden playthings for restive children. In car-centric cities like Dallas, the number of functioning buttons is even lower. Many of these buttons worked at one point but have been deactivated to improve efficiency and flow. Explanations of this sort are par for the course. Efficiency has been the mantra of the urban planning profession for the better part of 60 years. However, by prioritizing efficiency above all other ideals, such as equity and livability, we strip pedestrians of their personal agency and demote non-drivers to the status of second-class citizens.

* * *

Recent years have seen an uptick in pedestrian advocacy. The global recession exposed sprawl for what it is: a blatant cash grab and misappropriation of resources. For the first time auto usage is down in the United States, and suburbanites are returning to the city in large numbers. Younger generations seem especially keen to escape the isolationism and uniformity of suburbia. With this migration is a renewed desire for walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. And while cities have been generally receptive to these entreaties, modern planning still begins and ends with the automobile. Until the scales of power and privilege are balanced, cars will continue to exercise their dominion over city roads.

20’s Plenty for Us, a not-for-profit organization founded in England, advocates for a 20 mph speed limit on urban and residential streets. Campaigners maintain that reduced speed limits would allow pedestrians and cyclists safer access to roadways and dramatically lower the number of traffic collisions. Moreover, pedestrians struck by a vehicle traveling less than 23 mph have a 90 percent chance of surviving the accident (compared to only 25 percent when met by a car traveling over 50 mph). The organization presently has 250 chapters operating across the United Kingdom. Pedestrian organizations with similar aims have blossomed around the United States, but few have the means and resources to expand their influence beyond the local level.

In New York City, the pedestrian plaza has experienced an unlikely renaissance, with Times Square serving as the highest-profile example. Despite the initial resistance from area businesses (and taxicab drivers), the pedestrianization of the iconic square is now viewed as an unqualified success. Foot traffic has increased, injuries and noise pollution have plummeted, and three-fourths of Manhattanites surveyed, many of whom stood in opposition to the project, now approve of the changes. Several more streets (including a pocket of 33rd Street, near Penn Station) plan to launch pilot programs over the coming year.

* * *

For the past four months, in my hometown of Rochester, New York, I have been lobbying to convert a popular side street into a shared space. The street in question—Gibbs (for the odd reader familiar with downtown Rochester)—is a one-way thoroughfare, anchored by a renowned music conservatory and century-old concert hall. The narrow street, easily accessible on foot (or via transit), links two larger and more lively roads, East and Main. At this point, I have met with school administrators, city planners, urban activists and architects, and have made disappointingly little headway.

Shared spaces are the democratic alternative to the autocracy of the pedestrian plaza. They seek to restore the natural order of the road by granting equal access to all modes of transportation. By eliminating traditional demarcations, shared spaces promote open communication and cooperation between drivers and pedestrians. Describe this concept in a meeting and watch the frown form on the face of your interlocutor. (You may as well be stomping on the table and chanting “anarchy.”) Despite clear evidence of its safety and efficacy (see: Europe), the approach struggles to gain traction on this side of the pond, especially in smaller and midsize cities where the car is king.

Rochester has taken tentative steps to retrofit its infrastructure, adding a network of dedicated bicycle lanes and sharrow markings. The Inner Loop, an underused freeway from our industrial past, which has acted as a garrote around the neck of the city’s poor, has been partially entombed beneath a layer of gravel (with plans to build a city street and cycling track on the burial site). While bulldozers continued their task of erasing the Loop, the city quietly greenlit a $157 million overhaul of a highway interchange in the Rochester suburb of Gates. For a little context, the highway redesign comes in at seven and a half times the cost of the long overdue Inner Loop revisal. The two projects may not be in direct opposition of one another, but they do send mixed signals about the priorities of local leadership. In a city hemorrhaging wealth, we can’t afford to hedge our bets.

Attempts to lure young talent to our snowy shores tend to focus exclusively on job creation (with corporate tax credits handed out like Sunday coupons). But as much as young people need jobs, they also yearn for livable neighborhoods with vibrant street life. The car-dependent cities of our past risk becoming fossils in the future. (How can street life be expected to unfold when everyone is just passing through?) The revival of cities like Rochester will depend less on the breadth of their highways than the state of their streets. And the first step involves returning to pedestrians what was wrongfully taken from them, so that jaywalking is no longer a provocation but the rule of the road.

By Ravi Mangla

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