Colin Fiske, Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities
This is the second in a series of articles in the EcoNews about the history of how American communities were designed for cars. Last month’s article described the origins of traffic laws. We saw how those laws helped turn the street into a restricted area where only drivers are welcome, when it had previously been a public space where most activities—and all forms of transportation—were accepted. This month’s article focuses on one particular legal and cultural aspect of this transition: the rebranding that turned walking in the street, long the commonest of public activities, into a crime known as “jaywalking.”
Cars were not popular when they were introduced in the early twentieth century. They were not well suited to the small, crowded streets. They took up too much space, and they were dangerous. They killed a lot of people, especially children. (Playgrounds did not become a common feature of cities and towns until cars forced kids out of their traditional venue for play – the street.) Cars were driven mostly by wealthy hobbyists. Most people hated these monstrous new machines and viewed them as interlopers in public streets.1
Unsurprisingly, a lot of creative insults and epithets were hurled at careless drivers in those early days of the automobile. One of those insults was the term “jay-driver,” derived from the old derogatory slang term “jay,” meaning a country bumpkin. A jay-driver was someone who didn’t know to follow the only common rule of conduct for drivers at the time—to stay to the right. In the increasingly contested streets of that era, however, it didn’t take long for the epithet to be repurposed to apply to pedestrians, resulting in the now familiar term “jaywalker.” It’s indicative of the norms of the day that “jaywalker” was initially used to refer to pedestrians who caused friction with other pedestrians and had nothing to do with crossing the street.2
Well into the 1920s, more than a decade after the invention of the term “jaywalker,” most people considered the street the rightful domain of pedestrians and public opinion was firmly set against drivers. Nevertheless, cities and police departments began adopting traffic rules that regulated where and how someone walking could cross the street—laws that were heavily influenced by auto industry lobbyists and promoted by industry ally and then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover. But the laws did little to change the actual behavior of people on the street, who strongly resisted the notion that they shouldn’t walk a direct path from Point A to Point B as they had always done before.3
As the number of cars proliferated in cities, pedestrians resisted legal banishment from the street, traffic deaths soared, and the auto industry had what we would describe today as a serious image problem. Its response was a campaign to shift the blame for pedestrian deaths from cars and drivers to the victims themselves. They funded massive “safety campaigns” in cities across the country which conveniently advised that the way to stop the carnage in the streets was for pedestrians to be more careful. And they mercilessly shamed and ridiculed pedestrians as death-seeking fools if they didn’t take sole responsibility for their own safety. It was in this context that the term “jaywalker,” invented a couple of decades earlier with a different meaning, was first widely used and popularized.4
The auto-dominated “safety campaigns” of the 1920s were the cultural and political turning point for pedestrian-involved collisions. These campaigns achieved broad reach and resonance in part by recruiting newspapers who increasingly relied on car ad revenue, along with trusted civic organizations ranging from Kiwanis clubs to the Boy Scouts.5 Over the course of less than a decade, American public opinion swung from widespread outrage over the slaughter of innocent children on the street by careless drivers to ridiculing and blaming victims for their own deaths. It has remained there, more or less, ever since.
But there are now signs that public opinion—and laws—might be starting to shift again. Transportation advocates have long opposed jaywalking laws as unfair and unwarranted restrictions on pedestrian movement, and because of their continued use by police, media and the public to cast blame on pedestrian victims. And increasing attention is being paid to the fact that, as with many traffic rules, jaywalking laws are disproportionately enforced by police against people of color.6 This discrimination has even more insidious effects on mobility and daily life in neighborhoods with low car ownership levels and inadequate pedestrian infrastructure—a common situation in the United States.
But what about safety? Nearly a century after those first “safety campaigns,” most of us are still trained to think that jaywalking laws keep people safe. But they don’t. First of all, they don’t differentiate between safe and unsafe street crossings, and most instances of currently illegal “jaywalking” are actually perfectly safe. Also, the evidence shows that these laws do not deter people from walking in the street anyway. What the laws do is continue to fulfill the original purpose of those “safety campaigns”—providing a justification for blaming people walking when they are hit by drivers.
Last year, several cities and the state of Virginia decriminalized jaywalking. A decriminalization bill also passed through the California legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Newsom. This year, a similar bill is working its way through the legislature again. By the time you read this, jaywalking may no longer be a crime in the state of California. It’ll be well past time.
1Norton, Peter. 2008. Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.
2Merriam Webster. Undated. Why Jaywalking is Called Jaywalking. www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/why-is-it-called-jaywalking.
3See Norton 2008.
4Stromberg, Joseph. 2015. The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of “jaywalking.” Vox. www.vox.com/2015/1/15/7551873/jaywalking-history.
5Thompson, Clive. 2022. The Invention of “Jaywalking.” Medium. marker.medium.com/the-invention-of-jaywalking-afd48f994c05.
6Mahdawi, Arwa. 2020. The US’s jaywalking laws target people of colour. They should be abolished. The Guardian. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/17/us-jaywalking-laws-target-people-of-colour-they-should-be-abolished.