Images like the one below used to be common not just in Auckland but in many cities all around the world.
Of course the laws of physics still applied so pedestrians needed to watch our for cars and trams or even horses however there was nothing really to stop them from crossing the road or using it when they wanted. These days things are different, people are far more likely only to cross at a crossing instead of Jaywalking. In New Zealand the law states that the offence of jaywalking applies if you cross the road within 20 metres of a fixed crossing and if, as a pedestrian, you cross at a red light. The fine is a relatively modest $35 for adults and $10 for children.
In America though Jaywalking is banned in most cities, but why? An article in BBC News magazine earlier this month delved into the history of the concept of Jaywalking – which is actually more interesting than you might think.
The California Vehicle Code states: “No pedestrian shall start crossing in direction of a flashing or steady “DON’T WALK” or upraised hand symbol.” It also forbids crossing between controlled intersections, or “jaywalking”.
Late last year, police began a concerted effort to enforce the rules in central Los Angeles. Pedestrians had been “impeding traffic and causing too many accidents and deaths”, one traffic police official said. Fines range from $190-$250 (£115-£152).
Then in New York officials responded to several pedestrian deaths last month by issuing a flurry of tickets for jaywalking. The campaign quickly ran into controversy when an 84-year-old Chinese immigrant who had been stopped for jaywalking suffered a gash to his head during an altercation with the police.
Enforcement of anti-jaywalking laws in the US is sporadic, often only triggered by repeated complaints from drivers about pedestrian behaviour in a particular place. But jaywalking remains illegal across the country, and has been for many decades.
As mentioned though, at some point in the past, pedestrians could cross the road wherever they wanted – plus in many cases they had the right of way in the street environment, which has also changed over time. So how did this change happen? How did the concept of “jaywalking” come into being?
The BBC article continues:
“I don’t know how this got to Syracuse, but in mid-western slang a jay was a person from the country who was an empty-headed chatterbox, like a bluejay,” he says.
The word was first used to describe “someone from the countryside who goes to the city and is so dazzled by the lights and the show windows that they keep stopping and getting in the way of other pedestrians”.
The use of jaywalking as a term of ridicule against pedestrians crossing roads took off in the 1920s.
A key moment, says Norton, was a petition signed by 42,000 people in Cincinnati in 1923 to limit the speed of cars mechanically to 25mph (40kph). Though the petition failed, an alarmed auto industry scrambled to shift the blame for pedestrian casualties from drivers to walkers.
Local car firms got boy scouts to hand out cards to pedestrians explaining jaywalking. “These kids would be posted on sidewalks and when they saw someone starting to jaywalk they’d hand them one of these cards,” says Norton. “It would tell them that it was dangerous and old fashioned and that it’s a new era and we can’t cross streets that way.”
The invention of the concept of ‘jaywalking’ seemed to be intricately connected to a shifting of the blame for vehicle/pedestrian accidents away from drivers and towards pedestrians. The auto industry seems to have played a key role in this shift:
Clowns were commonly used in parades or pageants to portray jaywalkers as a throwback to rural, ignorant, pre-motor age ways.
Another ruse was to provide local newspapers with a free service. Reporters would submit a few facts about local traffic accidents to Detroit, and the auto industry’s safety committee would send back a full report on the situation in their city.
“The newspaper coverage quite suddenly changes, so that in 1923 they’re all blaming the drivers, and by late 1924 they’re all blaming jaywalking,” Norton says.
Soon, he adds, car lobby groups also started taking over school safety education, stressing that “streets are for cars and children need to stay out of them”. Anti-jaywalking laws were adopted in many cities in the late 1920s, and became the norm by the 1930s.
In a way the rest is history – streets became more and more designed around the need to shift as many cars as possible through them. Pedestrians were either ignored completely by traffic engineers and the models they worship, or later included (and I quote from the article): largely for their role as ‘impedance’ – blocking vehicle traffic.
I also found some old newspaper clippings from NZ papers, like this one from the Auckland Star, about methods used in the 1920’s to enforce jaywalking laws which involved police driving around in cars and using loud speakers to publicly humiliate anyone breaking the law.
Perhaps most interestingly, jaywalking seems to have had absolutely no impact on improving pedestrian safety:
The UK is among those countries where jaywalking is not an offence. But the rate of pedestrian deaths is half that of the US, at 0.736 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 compared to 1.422 per 100,000 in America.
I wonder how many tickets are issued in NZ for jaywalking?