November 6th, 2006

Why You Should Jaywalk

Posted in Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

Pedestrians crossing against the light

When Montreal’s police department announced last winter that it had hired 133 officers to whip the city’s unruly pedestrians, drivers and cyclists into shape, Montrealers responded with a collective roll of the eyes. We’ve seen this before—les flics hand out a few tickets here and there, wag their finger at people crossing against the light and then go home. It’s all a distant memory within a week.

This time, though, the police seem serious—or at least as serious as Montreal police can be about these sorts of things. They have a mountain of a challenge ahead of them: Montreal’s drivers are notoriously aggressive and so are its pedestrians. When it comes to jaywalking, Montreal strides in solidarity with the best of the world’s jaywalking capitals. This much is obvious at the busy corner of Saint Catherine and Stanley, where I found myself on a frigid Saturday afternoon not too long ago. Stopping to observe the Montreal jaywalker in his or her natural habitat, I conducted an informal head count—one, two, three, four… a dozen. In less than five minutes, I witnessed close to a hundred people crossing the street illegally.

It’s no wonder that a high-publicity crackdown on jaywalking does little to change Montrealers’ walking habits. It’s hard to fault police officers for simply upholding the law, but should jaywalking even be illegal in the first place? Maybe it’s time to rethink the entire notion of jaywalking. Maybe, just maybe, jaywalking is actually good for cities.

Hear me out. Of course jaywalking can be dangerous—by dashing out into six lanes of traffic, you’re putting your life at risk. But most people don’t do that. Around 1,700 pedestrians are injured by cars each year in Montreal, a miniscule fraction of the number of the people who actually jaywalk. (In fact, less than half of the pedestrians killed each year in Quebec are in Montreal — the rest are in the suburbs, small towns or in the countryside, where being a pedestrian is both lonelier and riskier than it is in the city.)

Traffic engineers want streets to act as traffic funnels; to them, pedestrians are mere nuisances. Regulating pedestrian crossings is a way to keep cars flowing, but the failure of lawmakers to control pedestrian behaviour shows that this approach simply does not work. Instead of trying to force pedestrians to conform to streets designed primarily for cars, why not adapt them to the behaviour of pedestrians?

The first step is to accept walking as a legitimate form of transportation, one that is equal—or even superior—to vehicle transport. What we need to do is to shift our mentality and conceive of pedestrians as part of traffic,” says Dylan Reid, member of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee, a pedestrian watchdog group created by the City of Toronto. “Being a pedestrian is the most efficient form of transport. The more people you have walking, the safer [the streets are] and the less pollution there is.” On streets that already bustle with pedestrians, Reid suggests that narrowing lanes and widening sidewalks is a good way to encourage walking and slow down traffic. “The speed of traffic is not related to efficiency,” he explains. Consistently slow traffic makes for streets that are less dangerous, less noisy and a lot more pleasant—while still moving cars along at a steady pace.

Amy Pfeiffer, a program director at the New York advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, chimes in with even more ways to make streets pedestrian-friendly. Corner bulb-outs give pedestrians greater visibility at intersections; mid-block crossings, especially signalized ones, allow for more opportunities to safely cross the street and advance signal timing gives people crossing the street a head start over vehicles. Similarly, pedestrian-exclusive signals are ideal for busy corners, letting people cross the intersection in every direction at once. “It’s made a big difference in rationalizing what people do,” explains Pfeiffer. “It’s really hard to control pedestrian behaviour.” Pedestrians aren’t sheep. They will go where they want, when they want, as long as it’s safe—and in many cases, that involves taking a calculated risk by crossing the street mid-block or against the light. “If it’s safe to cross, they will,” says Pfeiffer. “It’s also about safety in numbers: you’ll get a huge platoon of people crossing [against the light] at the same time and they just assume that a car won’t run down twenty people.”

It isn’t a coincidence that the cities with the most robust jaywalking culture are those in which walking rules: Montreal, Boston, New York, Philadelphia—to mention just a handful. Jaywalking is the pedestrian’s way of reclaiming the street. Drivers and their footloose counterparts might not get along in these cities, but they’re keenly aware of each others’ presence. “There should be some sort of interaction between cars and pedestrians,” says Reid. Pedestrians already know that cars are around; cars should learn to accept that pedestrians will be around. Or, as Pfeiffer puts it quite plainly, “If you make pedestrians more visible, drivers will be aware of them.” Surely it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the deadliest cities for pedestrians are also the most auto-oriented.

The notion that safety comes from constant interaction between different modes of transport is not a new one. In the nineteen-seventies, in fact, the Dutch pioneered a form of street that makes this concept its guiding principle; the woonerf. Woonerfs—known as “living streets” in the UK—eliminate the division between pedestrians and drivers altogether. The resulting hive of activity—complimented by trees and various kinds of street furniture—ensures that drivers intuitively slow down to near-pedestrian speeds. When I mention woonerfs, Pfeiffer is enthusiastic: “They’re awesome!” she exclaims. “Any street could be a woonerf except for really big ones.” Reid is a bit more sceptical, but he agrees that most cities have at least some areas where woonerfs could work. Toronto’s Kensington Market is a good example—its narrow streets, constant flow of pedestrians and cyclists and virtual lack of sidewalks (they’re taken up by fruit stands and cafes) already ensure a relatively harmonious existence between different modes of transport.

But there are barriers. “We [North Americans] like to define our spaces. We don’t like ambiguity,” says Reid. Traffic engineers and transportation planners often see cities in profoundly different ways, so getting them to agree on pedestrian-oriented street design can be quite a feat. Improving the pedestrian environment requires the involvement of diverse government agencies, many of which are engaged in perpetual state of civil war.

But there’s hope. Pfeiffer tells me that Transportation Alternatives (TA) might have found a way to bypass the bureaucracy altogether. By convincing business associations of the benefits of pedestrian-friendly streets, TA found that it can indirectly prod city governments into taking action. “Walkers are shoppers—that’s something that gets the mayor’s ear,” quips Pfeiffer.

It will be a long time until city leaders realize the potential of pedestrian-oriented streets. In the meantime, make a statement by engaging in an everyday act of civil disobedience. Step into the street, look both ways and jaywalk.

Amusingly, this column, first published in Maisonneuve on February 22, 2006, was one of my most controversial. Read the original column here.

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  1. Chris says:

    I find that, in general, the more cultured the city, the more jaywalking exists. Montreal is a cultured place.

    November 6th, 2006 at 5:18 pm

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Incidentally, an anecdote from my summer travels:

    London is a jaywalker’s paradise. Jaywalking is perfectly legal in the UK — as long as there are no cars coming, you are allowed to cross the street — and people jaywalk there like mad. Nobody hesitates to cross against the light (even in Montreal, there are always a handful of people who insist on waiting for the green) and there are always many people crossing mid-block.

    November 6th, 2006 at 8:33 pm

  3. Evan Druce says:

    Your observation about a correlation between culturedness and jaywalking is an apt one, even in places where the cultures of consensus and orderliness are prevalent. The only difference in those cities is that cars invariably stop for pedestrians. I’m talking about Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Oslo, Stockholm–from my visits to Toronto, drivers there seem to be legendary for their courtesy.

    November 6th, 2006 at 11:41 pm

  4. warford says:

    what about vienna? plenty of culture, but hardly a jaywalker’s paradise.

    November 7th, 2006 at 6:10 pm

  5. Patrick Donovan says:

    Can’t say I agree with the jaywalking=civilization link. Some law-abiding peoples have a great deal of culture while some who disregard the law are downright barbaric, and vice versa.

    The worst place I’ve ever been for this is Copenhagen, where I was scolded by other pedestrians on several occasions for jaywalking. People will wait for the pedestrian light to change even if there is no car in sight. It’s infuriating. Despite this slight shortcoming, I consider the Danes to have an exemplary culture and civilization.

    In the same vein, I have difficulty understanding cars who will wait for the light to turn green when there are no vehicles or pedestrians in sight for miles. I also don’t understand why we subject cyclists to the same driving laws as cars when it is a more flexible form of transport that is not life-threatening to pedestrians–even in “civilized” Montreal, I met some right sticklers who refused to mind their own business as I cycled against traffic, on the sidewalk in a busy street, etc. I consider this to be the same kind of behaviour as those who are jaywalker-intolerant.

    Can’t we all be a little less Danish when it comes to these things (and a little more Danish when it comes to other things)?

    November 7th, 2006 at 8:02 pm

  6. C. Szabla says:

    Jaywalking = Culture is an absurd concept for many reasons, most of which need not be recounted here. Counterexamples from Northern Europe suffice nicely. Needless to say Berlin is eeking out an existence almost solely on the basis of its artistic/creative life, but it remains a severe cultural taboo to even contemplate crossing against the light even with no traffic approaching. Similarly, pedestrians are NOT to cross into bike lanes in sidewalks there- and it will be the very artists who reside in squatter colonies covered in graffiti whose careening conveyances will enforce just this statute- with force.

    November 8th, 2006 at 6:00 pm

  7. Christopher DeWolf says:

    You know, Chris (Szabla), that raises an interesting question. Beyond the legal/safety arguments against jaywalking (which I believe are flawed for the reasons I outlined in my column), I’m really curious to know how jaywalking and culture are related. By culture I don’t mean culture in an artistic sense, of course, but culture in an anthropological one. That is to say, why do Londoners/Montrealers/Bostonians/Hong Kongers jaywalk so abundantly when Berliners/San Franciscans/Copenhageners/Tokyoites do not?

    November 9th, 2006 at 12:43 am

  8. Zvi says:

    I also don’t see much connection between jay-walking and “culture”. If anything, jay-walking might perhaps be indicative of a general attitude to “authority”, whether that authority is the government (ie laws) or the community. Perhaps lack of jay-walking reflects a particularly ‘cartesian’ and structured way of thinking, who knows?

    Personally, I think that a balance between cars and non-motorized modes of transport needs to be found. When this balance is disrupted, that is when one finds more aggressive behaviour. I would say that Montreal might be close to the ‘tipping point’ in that respect – as congestion increases, car drivers seem to be becoming much more aggressive over the last few years.

    On another note, most pedestrian accidents actually occur at intersections! And it is by no means obvious who was at fault in many cases. People who cross mid-block are much more aware of their surroundings and are far less likely to be caught off-guard. On the other hand, the severity of an injury increases exponentially with the speed of the contact! A car going 10 kph and hitting someone while making a turn is not likely to kill someone, whereas a direct blow from a car going 50-60 kph (ie a mid-block accident) could quite possibly be fatal.

    November 10th, 2006 at 11:36 pm

  9. UrbanGreeks » Archives » Jaywalking says:

    […] Right now there is a featured posting on jaywalking: […]

    June 15th, 2007 at 2:03 pm

  10. payton says:

    Here’s a fascinating bit of etymology, showing how auto interests (which ultimately led to the city’s ruin at the hands of their road-hogging rural contraptions) turned city dwellers’ cosmopolitanism against themselves with the term.

    “A ‘jay’ was a hayseed, out of place in the city; a jaywalker was someone who did not know how to walk in a city. Originally the term applied as much or more to pedestrians who obstructed the path of other pedestrians—by failing, for example, to keep to the right on the sidewalk. As autos grew common on city streets, jaywalkers were more often pedestrians oblivious to the danger of city motor traffic… ‘Jaywalker’ carried the sting of ridicule, and many objected to branding independent-minded pedestrians with the term. In 1915 New York’s police commissioner, Arthur Woods, attempted to use it to describe anyone who crossed the street at mid-block. The New York Times objected, calling the word ‘highly opprobrious’ and ‘a truly shocking name.’ Any attempt to arrest pedestrians would be ‘silly and intolerable.’ […] In 1921 a National Safety Council member from Baltimore confessed to his colleagues that, at least in pedestrian control… ‘You are affecting personal liberty when you keep people from crossing the streets at certain places.’ […] The cleverest anti-jaywalking publicity effort was in Detroit in 1922, where the Packard Motor Car Company exploited the new fashion for monuments to traffic fatalities. Packard built an oversized imitation tombstone that closely resembled the monument to the innocent child victims of accidents in Baltimore. But Packard’s tombstone redirected blame to the victims. It was marked ‘Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking.’ ” — Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic (MIT, 2008), pp. 72-77

    January 31st, 2009 at 10:08 pm

  11. Our “Robust Jaywalking Culture” « Idealist in NYC says:

    […] After moving to New York, I quickly learned the art of safe and efficient jaywalking. This post on URBANPHOTO (via Astoria Bike) captures the positive spirit of jaywalking that I’ve come to hold dear: […]

    March 11th, 2009 at 8:46 am

  12. bryce says:

    walking/biking = good
    driving = bad, dangerous, stinky

    March 12th, 2009 at 8:52 pm