U.S. Cities Should Loosen Their Jaywalking Laws

Current laws against crossing the street are so rigid as to defy common sense.


There are two layers in the ongoing debate about whether cities should cater to cars or pedestrians. The first concerns the design of roads themselves—should they be one-way, as to ease traffic flow, or two-way, as to slow it? Should they dedicate space for alternative, presumably less dangerous modes like bikes and transit, or be used mainly for private autos? Should they be entirely asphalt, to maximize road capacity, or have “calmers” like medians and parklets?

The other layer of the debate concerns pedestrian conduct – namely jaywalking.

For decades, U.S. cities have taken a uniform approach to jaywalking. Most policies are rigid, allowing pedestrians to cross solely in designated crosswalks when given the walk sign. But because these laws contradict the way pedestrians actually move, they are routinely broken, with most people sneaking across when cars aren’t coming, and some taking this liberty anywhere along the street. In the worst cases, this has created tension between pedestrians and police, but mostly just ambiguity.

Some urbanists have thus called for “legalizing jaywalking.” They root their advocacy in several different arguments.

One is the historical argument. In 2015, Vox published an extensive history of jaywalking laws in the U.S. Author Joseph Stromberg explained that as recently as the 1920s, the notion of jaywalking scarcely existed, as urban streets were meant for pedestrians. But attitudes changed with the rise of the automobile, and so too eventually did the laws, urged on by the car industry. Now that attitudes are shifting back to favor walkability and pedestrians, some think that the laws should be reevaluated.

A second argument is that jaywalking is an organic form of traffic calming that doesn’t require the government expenditures used for other calming measures. Then there is the social justice argument, which posits that jaywalking fines are disproportionately expensive—and enforced more—against poor black people, often as an excuse to search them. This seems plausible, since jaywalking fines have been one part of the Broken Windows policing strategy.

Lastly there is the argument, made by Michael Lewyn in a 2-part series for Planetizen (here and here), that confining pedestrians to crosswalks isn’t even safer:

The basic assumption behind these policies is that pedestrians are safe if they don’t jaywalk, and unsafe if they do. But this claim is not necessarily correct.

Why not? Because traffic lights are not very accurate guides to safety. Suppose you are at an intersection, and the light across the street from you says “Walk.” That usually means that there is a red light above you, and that the traffic heading towards you cannot move…But that fact alone does not make me safe from cars, because a motorist turning left or right…might be governed by a green light which allows him or her to turn. So if I cross when the light says “Walk”, I can easily be crushed by a driver making a turn. In fact, turning motorists may be even more risky for pedestrians than a head-on attack, since they are harder to notice.

Lewyn continues that “crossing midblock may actually be safer when traffic is light, because a pedestrian need only look in two directions (or only one, where each side of the street is separated by a median) at a time to be sure that there are no cars coming.” It’s also likely that pedestrians are more visible to drivers when crossing mid-block, than when in a driver’s turn radius at intersections.

Another argument against jaywalking laws, not generally made, is the one on behalf of economic development. Nowadays, the stated goal of every city is to increase downtown livability. Improving the pedestrian experience is crucial to such revitalization efforts, and reforming jaywalking laws would advance this goal. Specifically, it would decrease the wait times required to get from place to place, thus increasing productivity. After all, many of the highly-skilled professionals who locate in downtown areas do so because they desire proximity to other industry professionals, a concept advanced by Richard Florida. For many, walking from function to function is imperative to daily business, and being able to do so quickly is a legitimate mobility concern, just like good roads and transit. Growing the residential population is also vital to downtown development, and the same concept applies–people who walk to get morning coffee, nightly dinners, or any array of services must be able to do so quickly, if living downtown is to become worthwhile.

It has thus been bizarre to read about the ongoing efforts to ticket jaywalkers, for example, in downtown Los Angeles. Before California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in October to loosen anti-jaywalking laws statewide, L.A. had been targeting minor infractions, charging as much as $250. Here was a city that has spent billions to repurpose its downtown into a 24/7 urban destination filled with bars, pro sports, entertainment, artists, and rich young professionals. Did officials not understand that targeting jaywalkers contradicts these goals, by making it difficult to walk in the very areas being sold as “walkable”? Still today, California’s jaywalking laws and enforcement are as rigid as anywhere else in America; they’re just not as bad as before.

In places like Los Angeles – which are either dense, or in the process of densifying – these laws should be loosened. How might this happen? I’m not in favor, like others, of abolishing jaywalking laws altogether, as that might create public safety problems, and yet more ambiguity in a nation so accustomed to automobile use. But I do favor using common sense – by allowing pedestrians to cross the street as long as they are not endangering themselves nor obstructing automobiles. This would mean crossing at any part of the road when cars aren’t coming, and walking in-between cars when they are backed up at lights. Many people already do this, and legalizing it would erase the grey area, while opening up the streets. Cities might even install more crosswalks halfway down certain blocks, as to create the safer experience described by Lewyn. I’ve already seen such crosswalks—often equipped with flashing lights–installed in many cities. Building more would further the path towards legalizing jaywalking.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]

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