Sunday, March 14, 2010

The rise of jaywalking

As an East Coaster in the Midwest, one thing I can't stand are people who refuse to jaywalk. In college, I'd look both ways, see no traffic and cross against the light, and my friends would stand stationary on the sidewalk. I had more than one conversation imploring them to cross—as I stood in the middle of the street. And the drivers? Well, they're oblivious—there's trouble crossing streets even in crosswalks.

So I'm all for jaywalking. I know the statute, and choose to ignore it at will. I was here first (i.e. pedestrians were here before cars. If there is no good reason I shouldn't cross a street (generally an oncoming vehicle), I'll cross the street.

And it turns out, jaywalking is good for cities. A Slate article and two blog posts discuss something interesting: streets before cars were relatively safe. Here's Market Street in San Francisco in 1906—utterly chaotic, but nothing moving fast enough to be dangerous (it's a cool video). Cars made them dangerous, and something had to be done.

In the early days, there were some who argued that cars should be limited or governed to low speeds. Sadly, these folks lost out to an all-out assault from auto and road interests. And the term "jaywalking"? It was foisted on to the unwitting American public. Instead of cars being a danger to pedestrians, pedestrians were now a danger to cars. And in may cases, pedestrians have gone danger, to nuisance, to, well, gone, or so marginalized on the side of eight lane arterials that they've all but disappeared.

Webster says jaywalking originated in 1915. Google news seems to agree. But what's interest is how it blossomed in usage in the early 1920s and has been used to stigmatize pedestrians ever since. Google News' archives can be very useful here, showing its use in news articles from the dawn of time. Or in this case, 1910:

Apparently, it all started in 1919. You can search each decade and various themes appear:
1920s: Debate over whether to have laws and whether laws work. Jaywalking is generally an evil. And, yes, boy scouts were deputized to warn of the dangers of evil jay walking.

1930s: Okay, we've decided that jaywalking is bad. Very bad. Jaywalkers will kill Main Street. And a study showed that jaywalkers actually lose time. (It was commissioned by the Elks.) New York plans to put up walk/wait signs (yeah that worked out real well, patient New Yorkers never jaywalk).
1940s: Laws get crazy. Judges get crazier. Pedestrians begin to fight back. And fines will work? Ha. (These articles are all gems.)
1950s: New York begins enforcing jaywalking rules (oh, and the paper of record says the term dates to 1917). New Yorkers don't care. Cops in Chicago don't care. And a few people fight back.
1960s: Laws continue. Public continues to ignore them. Or protest.
1970s: Jaywalking continues. Ordinances continue. As to people standing up to silly rules. Regionality begins. People in New York jaywalk, while those in Seattle and LA don't.
1980s: Tickets keep coming, and believe it or not, people keep jaywalking. New York seems to give up, issuing 25 jaywalking tickets in 1989. LA issued 132,000.
1990s: New Yorkers don't care. Bostonians really don't care (and the fine? $1). Rudy Giuliani tries to raise fines and enforcement. New Yorkers are not happy. Cops think it is silly. And the first ticket written is dismissed. Rudy is laughed off. By 1999, the whole charade is just that. New Yorkers call jaywalking "logical."
2000s: New Yorkers ridicule Seattle. New Yorkers use statistics, and Rudy has given up. (Jaywalking while flipping off and cussing out a cop may get you disorderly conduct, though.) Bostonians don't care. Saint Paul doesn't really care. Atlanta, apparently, does. Gadgets become the new menace to pedestrians. And the crusade moves to ticketing bicyclists who don't wait for lights to change.

The tide has turned. Jaywalk, my friends. Jaywalk proudly. If, you know, it gets you where you are going a little faster.


  1. I wrote on a related issue:

  2. Awesome article! I sometimes very sincerely feel that "jaywalking" is my civic duty. Other times, I'm just trying to get somewhere.

  3. In my mind, if there are no oncoming cars, and you're at a crosswalk/corner, you're not jaywalking. Jaywalkers are the idiots who dart out into oncoming traffic mid block or against the crosswalk light. Typically accompanied by sauntering across the street as s-l-o-w-l-y as possible, just daring you to honk at them so they have an excuse to go off.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Your article was great. I have a group presentation on the topic and we saw that jaywalking is actually better becasue it makes people more aware of their surroundings. On the other hand people who used crosswalks, not that they are bad or anything, were totally unaware of their surroundings and felt so secure by two white lines "protecting" them from getting hit. Funny thing is that when we observed all of this, we saw more people almost getting hit on the crosswalk than those that were jaywalking.