In defense of jaywalking


“Here, we’d just speed up and turn our wipers on.”
– Bill Hicks, on what would happen in Texas if a pedestrian tried to randomly cross the road

Portland and New York City are very different places. (Film at 11, I know.) One of the ways this manifests itself is the intersection (pun intended) between cars and pedestrians.

In Portland, people will generally wait for the Walk signal to turn on. In my experience, they will generally do this regardless of whether there are any cars on the road at all. I have personally witnessed people standing on a street corner in a desolate area at night, with no cars to be found anywhere, patiently waiting out a 90 second signal before attempting to cross.

In New York City, there appears to be only one rule, and that is “Cross now.” Crosswalks? Unnecessary. Signal priority? Don’t need it. Cars on a six lane arterial coming at speed? Hey, I’m walking here!

Having gone back and forth between the two cities, each drives the other crazy. Portlanders who travel to New York are exasperated with New Yorkers’ death wish and wanton disregard for traffic rules. New Yorkers who travel to Portland start twitching at having to stand still for any longer than a few seconds.

I admit that I find the Portland way a bit refreshing, but more specifically, it has historically felt more honorable and less selfish. It seems to say, “I adhere to the same rules and regulations as everyone else“, or, “I am no more or less important than anyone else.” Instead of naked self-interest, there is a sense of one’s place in the community.

Or maybe that’s just what the car lobby wants you to think.

What’s in an intersection?

We all know what we are supposed to do when we’re on foot and want to cross the street (wait for the light, don’t cross unless you’re at a crosswalk). But what do these rules imply? To me, it’s the following:

  • The system is designed to save pedestrians from cars.
  • Cars are more important than pedestrians.

Now, it’s no surprise that in a battle between a car and a person, the car would win. This graph that shows the likelihood of a fatal accident as a function of car speed is chilling when you consider the average speed that people drive.

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Pedestrian fatality risk
Pedestrian fatality risk

Don’t be a jay (“rube”)

That said, our current system of car priority isn’t inevitable. In the beginning of the era of car ownership, in the days when streets were filled with all sorts of public space activity, cars were seen as a dangerous nuisance.

Now, of course, the situation is exactly reversed. Streets exist to provide a method of conveyance of cars as well as their storage (in the form of parking). Pedestrians are allowed to use the space in very limited fashion, almost grudgingly, in that it stops the ability for cars to move freely.

I didn’t realize this, but this wasn’t unplanned. According to an excellent Vox article, the current system of denigrating the act of “jaywalking” (and even the term itself) was due to a campaign waged by the car lobby.

[If auto groups] weren’t proactive, the potential for automobile sales could be minimized. In response, automakers, dealers, and enthusiast groups worked to legally redefine the street — so that pedestrians, rather than cars, would be restricted.

A large and well-funded public service campaign was waged. This involved legislation (changing the laws to favor) as well as an actual public shaming campaign:

Auto campaigners lobbied police to publicly shame transgressors by whistling or shouting at them — and even carrying women back to the sidewalk — instead of quietly reprimanding or fining them. They staged safety campaigns in which actors dressed in 19th century garb, or as clowns, were hired to cross the street illegally, signifying that the practice was outdated and foolish. In a 1924 New York safety campaign, a clown was marched in front of a slow-moving Model T and rammed repeatedly.

Yes, a clown.

At some point, presumably as the techno-futurism of car ownership became the daily reality for most people, the war of hearts and minds was won. And that’s why today, all non-automotive activity is squeezed into the sidewalk (assuming sidewalks exist), while 90% of the street space is given over to cars. And why most streets, aside from rush hour, resemble freeways or are deserted.

Is jaywalking selfish or an act of civil disobedience?

I used to get so mad at the people who would brazenly walk across the street without regard for anything else. This is because, for all my talk about sticking it to The Man, the purpose is to build a more just and authentic world that allows you to thrive, not to just selfishly get away with whatever you can!

But then again, I also have some strong issues with the prioritization of cars over people. Because the intersection between them can be so deadly, the solution doesn’t seem like we should be restricting people from the streets. How different is that than restricting women from walking in certain neighborhoods because they may be more likely to be attacked? That seems crazy to me, akin to “blaming the victim”. (“You knew it was dangerous, so we’re going to keep you from going there, rather than working on eliminating the danger.“)

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I believe in prioritizing people over cars. But “pedestrian right-of-way laws” that exist in more progressive cities aren’t the answer, because they still put people at risk, as they shift the burden on to the car to selective enforcement. (“Oh, I see a person trying to cross, I guess I should either stop, swerve, or hit them.“)

Be a jay (maybe)

The street design needs to be changed, as much as the laws do. And in the meantime, I still feel like it’s most prudent to wait for the signal to cross the street, except maybe when there really is nothing around. There are better forms of civil disobedience that don’t involve putting yourself at risk.

Maybe we need to stage another safety parade. With the clown in the car this time.

But enough about me. How do you handle intersections when you’re on foot? (Also, tell me where you’re from for context.)


  1. saulofhearts

    One of the first times I was in Portland, I crossed a totally empty street (near the Amtrak station) without waiting for the signal, and a policeman on a horse pulled up and chastised me. I told him I wasn’t from around here and didn’t know jaywalking was illegal (which was true — Boston is the same way as New York.)

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