Follow us on Twitter

The history of “Jaywalking”

Images like the one below used to be common not just in Auckland but in many cities all around the world.

Queen Street, Auckland. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972 : Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/2-046201-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23203589

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?

47 comments to The history of “Jaywalking”

  • Ari

    Police can’t be bothered. They are too busy issuing more lucrative speeding fines. I don’t really think it is an issue. If people want to die by being run over, that’s their choice. I think 30 pedestrians were killed last year, but I don’t know how many were run down on the foot path and how many were walking on the motorway. However, you should mention that pedestrians have stronger protection in the US than here.

    • Waspman

      Police have had their budget slashed massively by this current government albeit its been well hidden in terms like “voluntary savings”. They barely have enough money to deal with the worst of what we expect so I can hardly blame them for paying no attention to this area. As you say ff people want to dodge cars let them.

    • Rhys

      It’s not true to apply that to the whole of the USA. I know that when I was in Boston, you barely needed to look at the road mid-block to have cars stop for you and let you cross, especially at night. Quite a contrast from the Auckland mentality. There, the fine for jaywalking is $1 up to the third offense, which makes it pretty much unenforceable.

      • bbc

        Where were you in Boston that cars behaved so well towards you? I lived there for 2 years and have to say that outside of places like Atlanta I found car drivers there to be awful. No one stopped for me when crossing, even when I was already halfway across.

    • Steve D

      @Ari:

      There’s another (similar) article/book review in the Atlantic about “the invention of jaywalking“. Select quotes:

      “If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars,” says Norton. “That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”

      Streets back then were vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses. When the automobile first showed up, Norton says, it was seen as an intruder and a menace. Editorial cartoons regularly depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel. That image persisted well into the 1920s.

      “We’re talking less about laws than we are about norms,” says Norton. He cites a 1923 editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – a solidly mainstream institution, as he points out. The paper opined that even in the case of a child darting out into traffic, a driver who disclaimed responsibility was committing “the perjury of a murderer.”

      Norton explains that in the automobile’s earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver.

      The question wasn’t “should pedestrians be allowed to risk their own lives”. The question was “who is to blame when a car hits a pedestrian in the middle of the street”. It’s almost impossible for us to imagine these days. It’s very ingrained in us that the roadway is for cars, and pedestrians should keep to the footpath, except for rare opportunities to cross, as quickly as they can. But until the early 1920s, people thought almost the exact opposite way: people were entitled to be in the street, and it was cars that had to take the burden of care.

      The point of jaywalking laws wasn’t to keep pedestrians safe: it was to keep the streets clear so that cars could go faster than walking pace. It was the first step in the vast rebuilding of cities, laws, and social norms that actually made the car an effective tool for getting around.

      Of course, as you say, these days it hardly matters whether you have a jaywalking law or not. A tiny chance of a fine is no real deterrent compared to being hit by a car. Since the social norm has changed, as the streets are now seen as being for cars. If you do get hit crossing the street, you’d be blamed, and the driver would not only not be charged, but receive sympathy from everyone they know. Thus drivers feel free to accelerate towards pedestrians, risking killing them, and generally driving in an intimidating and dangerous way.

  • obi

    This is topical then…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-echochambers-26332319

    A hapless US police chief delivers possibly the worst sound bite in human history.

  • Luke E

    So, does that mean it’s technically illegal to cross mid-block on a suburban street in the US, to see your neighbours across the raid for example?

    • Steve D

      The exact rule varies from state to state. I do know that some stares apply it even if intersections are more than a mile apart.

    • But yes for the most part it is illegal to cross the road except at an intersection or crosswalk. On the flip side drivers do need to give way to pedestrians at intersections as per basic intersection rules.

      • Steve D

        In theory. In America “crosswalk” includes any leg of any intersection, but in practice cars don’t reliably stop unless the crosswalk is actually marked.

        That said, at marked crosswalks I’ve found Americans are better at stopping for peds than New Zealand drivers are for giving way to peds when turning on a green light.

        • Walkablecity

          Well since I’m from Syracuse I’ll weigh in on this. I would rather jaywalk there, or Washington, DC, or NYC, or almost any U.S. city than Auckland any day.

  • The Dominion Post cites one rare instance of a prosecution for jaywalking in February this year – when a pedestrian walked out into a Wellington street without giving a cyclist enough time to give way (the cyclist was hospitalised). He got fined the standard $35. (http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/9698716/Jaywalk-and-you-could-be-in-court)

    From the same story, 23 pedestrian offences were recorded nationwide 2006-2011, so that’s about four offences or just under $140 in fines issued per year…

  • My younger brother (about 21 at the time?) was ticketed for jaywalking once.

    Having had a bit to drink, he did the responsible thing and walked home from town to home which happens to be near the Valley Rd Shops. It was 3am.

    In-between him and home is the notorious Ian McKinnon Drive (ironic, really), which he had to cross. He did so at a bit of an angle to the “pedestrian refuge” type crossing. He swears that the only vehicle he saw during this crossing was the police car, which subsequently lit up, stopped him and ticketed him for jaywalking.

  • Jacques

    France recently legalised jaywalking everywhere except within 50m of a pedestrian crossing. If a pedestrian shows an intent to cross the street or is already engaged in crossing it, cars have to stop for them. That was passed at the same time as legalising right turn at red lights for cyclists, and cycling against the traffic in one-way streets.

  • Steve D

    There’s other ways you can jaywalk in New Zealand: you must cross the road at right angles to the kerb, and you must cross with “reasonable dispatch”. Which rules out hanging around talking in the street like the guys in the left of that photo.

    One thing that’s interesting is that technically it’s not illegal to cross against the lights unless the pedestrian man is glowing red (or there’s a red light in your direction). Luke C tweeted a while back about the traffic lights at Victoria/Franklin, which stay lit red – fooling you into thinking someone’s already pushed the beg button when in reality you’d just stand there waiting forever.

    Well, there’s a reason for that. Auckland Transport had this to say:

    Under the Traffic Control Devices Rule and the Road User Rule, the Road Controlling Authority (Auckland Transport) is empowered to control and manage all road users, through the use of Traffic Control Devices. It was interpreted that technically our signalised intersections did not officially control the pedestrian movement by having the Redman in the off state. We believe we are the only country in the world that has this set up at signalised intersections. Originally the decision to permit the off state of the Redman was to provide the pedestrian some indication when they pushed the pedestrian button; they received confirmation that the demand had been recorded in the controller by lighting up the Redman.

    With the use of LED lamps, our signal contractors and suppliers have produced new pedestrian push buttons that have a small LED lamp which comes on once the button is pushed, informing pedestrians that their demand has been received. We brought a few in to trial their use and address the issue of ensuring the pedestrians were correctly controlled at the intersection. We initially had some installation issues at existing intersections, however these have been addressed. Albeit the new push buttons work well, we have received some complaints regarding the confusion that this has caused. Pedestrians assumed that the phase had been called because the Redman was lit.

    Due to the confusion this has caused, we have ceased installing the new style push button at this stage. Auckland Transport will consider future installations of these new push buttons to coincide with a publicity campaign.

    Which is pretty shocking design. Everyone is used to the red man not lighting up until the button is pushed, so how’s anyone supposed to know that they still need to push the button unless some tiny LED is lit? This system is another huge “screw you” to pedestrians. I’ve taken to mashing the button repeatedly whenever I want to cross until the light goes green: hopefully this will handle whatever fresh hell AT comes up with next.

    Ben Ross even pointed out some crossings that have pressure pads you have to stand on – continually – to keep the lights activated. It takes a bloody twisted mind to even think that up.

    • conan

      I have noticed an increase in the number of intersections where pedestrians are ‘protected’ by a red arrow on left turn (also that there seems to be quite a bit of confusion as to what a green light combined with red arrow means). Some of them that have it turn into a green arrow before the crossing is clear which is hardly a safe approach.

      • Steve D

        I didn’t think that was allowed? The Road Code, at least, says that green arrows will only happen when pedestrians have been stopped.

        • conan

          The one I notice all the time is outside the Gallery crossing Wellesley. The right turn from Mayoral drive gets an arrow once the red man stops flashing. However the cycle isn’t long enough and pedestrians crossing often haven’t completed crossing. There’s no cross traffic there so I don’t actually see the need for the green arrow here.

      • Mab

        The absolute worst for this is the Victoria/Albert St crossing, by the Mai Thai restaurant.

        Hideous to cross during evening rush hour as the buses play chicken trying to get their turn into Albert St in the short phase they have, that coincides with the Pedestrian cross phase. Either you have a bus half turning into a crowd of people crossing, or a bus running a red because they’ve waited for all the pedestrians to clear (not a particularly frequent occurrence).

        • conan

          The left turn here has an arrow that coincides with the right turn from Albert St into Victoria that goes straight after the sequence you refer to. So no excuse for vehicles pushing into the pedestrians.

  • john smith

    Interesting film of how the street was shared in 1906 San Francisco at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uz4AmeSApBE

  • john smith

    “The UK is among those countries where jaywalking is not an offence. ”

    Greenman = you are entitled to cross. Redman = You may cross if it is safe to do so, and you take responsibility for the consequences. Sounds sensible to me.

    It appears that in California (California Vehicle Code s21955), in any stretch of road where the immediately adjacent intersections on each side are *both* signalised, it is illegal to cross anywhere between them *no matter how far apart they are’. This is clearly absurd. See http://www.legal-news-california.tozerlaw.com/jaywalking_california.html

  • Ari

    Steve, nothing new or shocking about it at all. Those have been the rules for DECADES. If you got to Australia they have the exact same rules. The ‘red man’ is always up. A few decades ago, we had boxes like this like this on the near side of the crossing to indicate that the pedestrian demand had be registered:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/baytram366/6402928987/
    Apparently some engineer wanted to save power costs so flaunted the rules and turned the red man off until someone pushed the button and demanded a crossing giving the pedestrian another visual indicator. Apparently it saved alot of money and there were hand-shakes and congratulations all around. As the AT letter suggests, we are one of the few countries that do this.

    • Steve D

      > Those have been the rules for DECADES.

      It’s not about what the rules are. It’s about the design of the thing. For decades, people have expected that having the red man lit, meant that the call had been recorded. (Or the “Don’t Walk” sign, or whatever it used to say back in the day). The new design means that people stand for ages at the crossing, blissfully unaware that the lights will never change. A few full cycles later, it dawns on them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either design, but you can’t just make changes like that piecemeal and without telling anyone.

  • DavidO

    We are in Calfornia these days (Berkeley in the Bay Area) and although the comments in this thread about the legalities are correct (i.e., not supposed to cross anywhere between controlled intersections) in practice, drivers are much more likely to stop when you do step on to the road in any marked cross walk. Drivers typically wait for you to cross at any kind of intersection where there is a ‘marked crosswalk’ (which includes jmarked white parallel lines across the street, not only the more obvious zebra crossings and light-controlled crossings).

    There are also a lot more crossings available than in Auckland. Case in point… on New North Rd between St Lukes Rd and Woodward Rd, there are only one two actual crossings. The crossing at Mt Albert Rd is all about the cars and does not give a stuff for pedestrians (the button is pretty much a placebo to give you something to do while you wait). In Berkeley there are way more places to cross on similarly busy stretches of road. In most cases pretty much every intersection is marked as a crosswalk.

    It’s certainly not northern Europe, but it’s a much easier place to be a pedestrian than Auckland.

    • Martin W.

      True, I experienced when i lived in the States (Illinois and California) that although both places were also totally car dependent, the attitude towards pedestrians was way better. Here in AKL it is almost hostile and you never feel save when walking.

      • Simon C

        You think it’s hostile in Auckland? I was absolutely afraid for my life trying to cross one of the main streets in Amritsar. Took me about 10 minutes!

    • Kent Lundberg

      Bummer that you left David O. I know you’ll miss waiting at the intersections for 2 minutes while every turning movement get its own special phase.

      • DavidO

        Kent – do get in touch if you are heading over this way. I certainly don’t miss those elaborate 10 phase intersections, where, as you say every single lane and turn got its minute in the sun at the lights! The thing is, it always seemed to me that it made the drivers even more aggressive — they have waited so long for their turn that running a red so they don’t have to wait again is practically obligatory!

        Keeping a close eye on developments in Auckland through this blog. Who knows, may be back some day.

        Once we are properly settled, and I’ve retrieved my bike from storage, I might find time to take some pictures of the ‘bicycle boulevards’ here and say something about them.

  • Matt, I don’t think you quite understand the meaning of the term jaywalking. You state jaywalking has been banned in the US, but on the contrary jaywalking isn’t banned at all over there.

    Jaywalking doesn’t mean “crossing the road”. It means “crossing the road in an illegal manner”.

    In New Zealand you can only jaywalk within 20 metres of a marked pedestrian crossing. Crossing the road everywhere else is not defined as jaywalking.

    • V Lee

      Did you read the post? It was clear that Matt is perfectly aware of this. The whole point of the post is talking how certain ways of crossing the road was turned into jaywalking by the creation of laws that stipulated how people can legally cross roads. Duh!

      • “people are far more likely only to cross at a crossing instead of Jaywalking” implies that crossing away from a crossing is jaywalking. It isn’t (other than within 20m).

        And as I said, jaywalking hasn’t been banned in America. Crossing the road where you like has been banned – that’s the opposite of jaywalking.

        • V Lee

          Taking one or two sentences out of context to prove a point is the sign of a very weak mind indeed. Read the whole post.

          In the sentence immediately following the one you quote, Matt states:
          “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.”

          So clearly he is aware of what jaywalking is in NZ and what it isn’t. That is completely clear if you read the post. Matt is perhaps guilty of a bit of slightly sloppy language perhaps nothing more.

          And what are you on about saying that jaywalking isn’t banned in America? As you say jaywalking is “crossing the road in an illegal manner” which by definition means that jaywalking is banned. Are you saying that you are allowed to cross the road in an illegal manner in America?

          • Jaywalking is a term describing the crossing of a road as an illegal activity. If you ban the crime of jaywalking, crossing the road ceases to be illegal, as it’s no longer a crime (because the crime has been banned).

            Jaywalking is effectively banned in New Zealand, so we can cross where we like. There’s no such thing as legal jaywalking.

          • Bryce P

            Geoff, the term was in use in the US before actual laws (as is described in the article). The laws just came along later at the behest of the motoring lobby.

          • V Lee

            Geoff, you are talking absolute nonsense. It is impossible to “ban” a crime and make it no longer illegal. Making something illegal is a means of banning it. So if something is illegal it is banned by definition. Jaywalking is banned in America because it is illegal. Is English your second language? You don’t seem to be able to use it properly.

          • Jaywalking is the name of the ban, so if you ban the ban, there is no ban :)

            Duh!

          • V Lee

            You ban something or you don’t. You can’t ban a ban. That is just nonsense. You think you are being clever but you are really being foolish.

            Murder is illegal. Is it not?

          • Correct, you can’t ban a ban. That was my point. Crossing the road is what is banned, not jaywalking (which IS the ban).

          • V Lee

            Jaywalking is the name for the illegal activity (not the “ban” as you seem to think). It is perfectly correct to say “jaywalking is banned” or “jaywalking is illegal” and when you say this it means is that the activity is illegal and you are not allowed to do it. Just like saying “murder is illegal” doesn’t mean you are saying that murder is allowed.

            Do you think it is a form of double negative like “I never did nothing, officer”? It is not. Saying jaywalking is banned or murder is illegal is a way of emphasising and talking about the fact that it is an illegal activity.

          • Bryce P

            Still doesn’t mean the law is right.

          • Why isn’t the law right? It allows you to cross where you like, which I think works well.

            People meandering across Queen Street in that 1920′s photo were doing so because there were no marked pedestrian crossings. Once you start putting marked crossings all over the place, you do two things – encourage pedestrians to cross on the crossings even though they are allowed to cross anywhere – and encourage drivers to drive faster along the road where there are no crossings.

            Perhaps fewer (or no) marked crossings, combined with a 20km/h speed limit is the answer for such streets?

          • “Perhaps fewer (or no) marked crossings, combined with a 20km/h speed limit is the answer for such streets?” – My god, it finally happened, an intelligent comment.

            Yes! That is exactly what we need – along with narrowing streets and taking away all markings (including the centre lines). Planting trees and putting in street furniture also creates further “traffic friction” and slows cars down. This can be seen in the shared spaces and also in places like Orewa and Hobsonville. Then you need a lower speed limit, 30km/h is great, 20km/h even better.

            These things should happen on all streets except major arterials (which should have separated cycle paths next to the footpath) – then we will start to have a real city that is made for people, not cars.

  • JohnP

    Those dudes in hats aren’t jaywalking. Looks like they are having a meeting.

Leave a Reply