Seattle Council Member Asks Whether “Jaywalking” Laws Do More Harm Than Good

A Sacramento police officer used the city's jaywalking statute as a pretext to initiate this violent confrontation with Nandi Cain, Jr. in April.
A Sacramento police officer used the city's jaywalking statute as a pretext to initiate this violent confrontation with Nandi Cain, Jr. in April.

The concept of “jaywalking” has become deeply embedded in American culture, but if you go back just a few generations, the idea that your mere presence in the street could be illegal was a novel idea. Now one elected official in Seattle is suggesting that laws penalizing people outside of cars have gone too far.

As University of Virginia historian Peter Norton describes in his book Fighting Traffic, city dwellers a hundred years ago resisted ceding streets to motorized traffic. It took a concerted propaganda effort by vehicle manufacturers and other automotive interests in the 1930s to create the conditions where cars could dominate urban streets. The popularization of the term “jaywalker” (“jay” was a slur that essentially meant “hillbilly”) was a pivotal development in the effort to transform how people viewed their right to the street, and to deflect blame for traffic carnage away from motorists.

Today jaywalking statutes not only limit the legal right of way for people on foot, they’re also a pretext for aggressive police stops, and the laws are not applied equally. In Seattle, reports Dyer Oxley at MyNorthwest, people of color receive a disproportionate share of jaywalking tickets.

Now one council member is taking a hard look at the city’s jaywalking ordinance and whether it does more harm than good:

At the council’s Monday briefing, Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez said she is looking into the city’s jaywalking laws and would like to have a “better understanding of whether these jaywalking ordinances actually accomplish a public safety purpose.”

“In my view, I don’t think having jaywalking ordinances actually deter people from jaywalking,” said Gonzalez. “I think that my theory … is probably supported by literature and scientific evidence and I’m going to endeavor to find that information.

“I do have questions about whether we should be criminalizing jaywalking at all,” she added.

It is unclear exactly what Gonzalez aims to do about Seattle jaywalking laws, whether it’s abolishing or decriminalizing them. But it is clear that she wants to get the conversation started.

Oxley reports that Council President Bruce Harrell said he would “push back” against changes, but at least one other council member wants to join Gonzalez in reforming the law.

More recommended reading today: Pricetags explains how Boston’s new pedestrian-friendly signal timing makes “beg buttons” obsolete. And the Indianapolis Star reports that the Mayor of Carmel, Indiana, wants to convert suburban office parking lots into “little villages.”

26 thoughts on Seattle Council Member Asks Whether “Jaywalking” Laws Do More Harm Than Good

  1. You refer specifically to Seattle, but this story is (appropriately) filed under “Streetsblog USA”. Sure, one region can learn from another, but I expect this problem is best resolved locally.

    History: your quaint tale of the origin of the term “jaywalking” may have a whiff of accuracy, but the situation that prevailed 100 years ago and back into the dim mists of time yielded zero rights to pedestrians interacting with those on horseback or in carriages or chariots. Share the road? Right. And for my next joke….

    Can we do better? Compared to 100+ years ago or to the present, I certainly hope so. But with “rights” go “responsibilities”. We all encounter Meanderthals, utterly oblivious to their surroundings.

    By chance, I live a few blocks from a residence for folks with limited or no vision. The burden is on me to accommodate them (and offer assistance if it’s appropriate), but I can think of no rational justification for accommodating those who willfully ignore their surroundings either because they’re visually distracted or their ears are plugged. Or both.

    One possible resolution: “jaywalking” shouldn’t be a crime. Indeed, this blog has offered excellent coverage of how pedestrians crossing streets mid-block – and alert to their surroundings – are frequently safer than those crossing at corners. But anyone who’s willfully distracted – either visually or with earplugs or both – should lose any cause of action if they’re injured.

  2. Jaywalking should only be ticketed if the person crossing the street tries to block traffic or walk in front of a moving car. Otherwise it’s a frivolous law

  3. “I can think of no rational justification for accommodating those who willfully ignore their surroundings”

    Long ago I decided that if I ever hit a child, it would be not because the child didn’t watch where they were going, but because they had a death wish and deliberately threw themself under my wheels. So now I stay aware of my surroundings as well as I can, I even drive slowly and cautiously past parked or otherwise stopped cars because you never know when a child might pop out.

  4. I mentioned living near a residence for folks with limited or no vision by way of pointing out special care that’s due to people with special needs. Thanks for noting the special care that’s due to children.

    Restoring my words you omitted:

    “…I can think of no rational justification for accommodating those who willfully ignore their surroundings either because they’re visually distracted or their ears are plugged.”

    Meanderthals want Darwin Awards – the “death wish” to which you refer.

  5. Jaywalking laws are worse than nothing. They substitute the ground-level judgment of people who are using the streets with that of people who don’t.

    Crossing mid-block is dangerous? No, it’s safer than crossing at an intersection. But the state thinks you should risk your life (more) and cross at an intersection.

  6. But to many Americans, a car is a prized possession, not a “hulking death machine”. One of the Mercedes-Benz dealers in southern California has a slogan, “If the car in your dreams is not the car in your driveway, you should come see us at [name deleted].” Long before most of us were born, a vast number of the citizens of the USA sold their souls to Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan.

  7. I’ll go even further. In cities where walking or cycling are common means to get around, I think both should have priority over motor vehicles all the time, regardless of light color or traffic controls. That would mean motorists would have to approach every intersection with the thought a cyclist or pedestrian might be crossing. No longer would a string of green lights be an invitation to put the pedal to the metal.

  8. In NYC I’ve done plenty of “hmm, based on those two cars coming from the left, and those two cars coming from the right…if I wait for the first two cars to cross, walk out into the middle of the road, and the cross after the other two cars cross, I can cross without incident.”

    I can still drop back into this mode back in NYC but in LA I’m much more skittish because I realize that a lot of the drivers just don’t give a fuck.

    And I still remember shortly after I moved to Arlington, VA from NYC. I was waiting to cross the street. Three lanes, one way. There was a car approaching in the middle lane. I mentally judged, based on the rate of approach of the car, if I waited until the car got to X, and then I started crossing at Y pace, both of us would be able to proceed without skipping a beat. Instead I was partway into the first lane when the driver slammed on his brakes and laid on his horn. I could see his face and it was pretty clear he thought I was trying to commit suicide by car. Meanwhile I’m just thinking “dude, you’re the one who fucked this up, all you had to do was keep going!”

  9. If I have my in-ear monitors in, I look around heavily to make sure I’m aware of my surroundings.

    If I’m walking around with no earphones in but looking at my phone, while I do primarily rely on my eyes, uh…I’m not wrapped in 2 tons of steel and glass. I know what the Doppler effect is, and my ears can tell me whether a vehicle is moving toward or away from me.

  10. I’ve taken to this comparison when trying to explain this to people, in the context of parking:

    Try to imagine people demanding free street storage for private property on public land for literally anything other than cars. People would laugh at you as being completely delusional. But for a car on the side of a road? Obviously that’s a God-given right!

  11. Walking down the street is very low risk in Germany. This is the German law on the topic:

    3. Pedestrians must use sidewalks. They are required to cross traffic lanes quickly and on the shortest route perpendicular to the direction of traffic. Furthermore, when traffic requires it, they may only cross at intersections, or at traffic lights or marked crosswalks between intersections. When crossing at intersections, the available markings and lights should be used.

    Note the phrase “when traffic requires it”.

    Some other notes: Where there is no sidewalk, pedestrians must walk on the left side of the road, single file if traffic and visibility requires it. It is prohibited to jump over fences blocking access to roads from the side. It is legal to push a bulky vehicle or other object in a traffic lane, but not in a left turn lane.

    (That’s a summary from StVO paragraph 25, my translation)

    In other words, you can cross anywhere you want to if traffic allows it, as long as you have an eye on the traffic. Also not mentioned here, you can walk on any road where it is not explicitly forbidden,

  12. Correct. I’ve heard arguments that intersections with stop signs are safer than signalized intersections, because without the green light the assumption of the right-of-way is removed. Drivers must slow down and check for hazards before proceeding. This has the added benefit of slowing through traffic, which would improve the survivability of crashes if and when they do occur. But even though I like this idea, I think removing stoplights would be a very hard sell.

  13. Truer now that it was when I learned how to drive (1950s). “Back in the day”, one could buy a usable car for $100 or so, fill the tank, and have change from a $5 bill. I’ve forgotten when the State of California started requiring smog checks, but the cars I had in the 1960s and 70s were so old they were exempt. Nowadays, replacement parts that used to cost $5 to $20 are up in the hundreds.

  14. “because they’re visually distracted or their ears are plugged.”

    You mean like people who are in a car? Driving in a car with the windows up inhibits hearing more than walking with ear buds in does. Strangely, no one seems to complain about that when they throw out the nonsense you have.

  15. If you want to stop jaywalking, get car drivers to start respecting both marked and unmarked crosswalks!

  16. Actually, in the 19th century, if someone with a horse ran down a pedestrian, they were in BIG trouble. They ususally got imprisoned for manslaughter.

  17. Gonzales says that she plans to search literature to see if there is support for her aversion to jaywalking ordinances. That’s the way that good public policy is made: by getting the facts and the science first. Harrell says that he would push back against proposed changes. That’s the way that poor public policy is made: by taking a hard position without investigating. Harrell should rethink his approach to public policy formulation.

  18. As a New Yorker, I have to say that the courtesy and solicitude of Northern VA drivers, irrespective of ethnicity and gender, just blows my mind. I can’t wait to get back to the mayhem in New York City 🙂

  19. As a New Yorker, I definitely prefer to cross streets midblock rather than at an intersection. I have crossed at intersections only to see at the last second a cyclist zooming toward me at my seven o’clock or eight o’clock – and two seconds ago, the son of a bitch was nowhere to be seen approaching the intersection.

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