Where “Jaywalking” Is Not a Crime

In the Netherlands, you can cross city streets where you want. Photo:  Bicycle Dutch
In the Netherlands, you can cross city streets where you want. Photo: Bicycle Dutch

What would it be like to live in a place with safely designed streets, where people on foot can cross midblock if they think it’s safe, knowing that the law supports them?

You can see for yourself if you ever get a chance to visit the Netherlands. For the last two decades, people walking in Dutch cities have had the freedom to cross the street where they want, reports Mark Wagenbuur at Bicycle Dutch:

If you want to cross a city street you just wait for a gap in traffic and you cross. So, isn’t there an obligation to use a zebra crossing? No, there no longer is! That article 99 was scrapped from the traffic laws on 1 January 1995. Until then, pedestrians were not allowed to cross within 30 metres of a zebra crossing, effectively making it illegal to cross the street for over 60 metres with just one zebra crossing in the middle of that zone. That restriction was abolished to simplify the traffic rules and to give the pedestrian more freedom.

A zebra crossing is now just a service to the pedestrian. You are allowed to judge for yourself if you want to use it, but you are not obliged to. If you do use the zebra crossing, other traffic must yield the moment it becomes clear you are going to cross the street. Just the visible intention to use the zebra crossing already gives the pedestrian priority over motor traffic and people cycling. Unfortunately, a lot of Dutch drivers choose to forget that rule (and people cycling also tend to miss this regulation all too often) so it is best not to depend on getting that priority.

That Dutch pedestrians have had this extented freedom to cross the streets for over 20 years, now even becomes apparent in the street design. Some municipalities literally encourage people to cross wherever they like by lowering the kerbs (curbs).

It is very different across the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, the concept of ‘jaywalking’ was propagated in the 1920s by the auto industry, with the object to restrict pedestrian movements and to give motor traffic more space in the towns and cities. Nowadays it is still illegal to cross the street mid-block in most of the United States. Although in New York even children are taught to do it carefully as it may be safer than crossing at the crosswalks. As a foreigner it would be best to stick to the rules though, or you may end up flat on the sidewalk with five police officers pinning you down, like a British professor after he crossed a street mid-block in Atlanta.

The video Wagenbuur made for the post is a must-watch:

For the record: The United States has nearly three times as many traffic deaths per capita as the Netherlands.

More recommended reading today: Smart Growth America reports on El Paso’s “transnational trolley,” a streetcar that will connect the city with Juarez, which is scheduled to open in 2018. And the New Journal at Yale profiles a New Haven bike co-op and looks at how bicycling can improve access to jobs that have sprawled farther from the city center over the years.

11 thoughts on Where “Jaywalking” Is Not a Crime

  1. I rely on my bike for transportation, but I don’t see why I should get excited over a bike co-op; any more than the typical automobile driver should want to service their own car.

    As with any auto mechanic, I should be able to take my bike into the shop at an appointed time, they fix it, and then I leave with a working bike. Unfortunately, most bike shops tell you “leave it here, maybe we’ll get to it in 3 days.” Like… how am I supposed to get around for the next 3 days? How am I even supposed to get home?

    The ONLY reason I service my own bike is because the shops offer such pathetic service. They undercut the very idea of bikes-as-transportation by treating your bicycle like it’s not essential to your life.

    As for the cost… yes, I might save a few pennies servicing the bike myself, just like I could save pennies on an oil change. But when the mechanic tells me “your chain is stretched and you need a new cassette; do you want to replace it for $35”, I think about how I just spent $2000 on a new clutch for my car, not to mention the $150/mo I fork over for insurance, as well as a $30 “repair” I must do at the gas station every few hundred miles. Why are the bike mechanics even asking me this question? Just make the d**m thing work, I pay a few $100, and then go my merry way for another year.

  2. The same is true in Germany. When a crosswalk is available, usually at an intersection, the law requires you to use it. Certain road types (like the Autobahn) do not allow pedestrians at all. But “traffic permitting”, you can cross anywhere.

  3. Speaking of repairs and the Dutch, The web site for this bike shop in Breda, NL (http://www.dekleinfietsen.nl/tarieven/) leads with a pragmatic statement:

    “We repair 7 days a week! Our aim is to perform the repair immediately, so you usually have your bike back in an hour. In the afternoon, when it’s busy, it takes a bit longer. This, of course, depends on the size and complexity of the repair; Small repairs are done quickly, major repairs take longer. Your bike is almost always repaired the same day!”

    Many (most?) USA bike shops are geared towards weekend warriors who have no problem driving to the shop on Monday and leaving their bikes all week. That doesn’t work so well for utility bicyclists who might not have a car to fall back on.

    This comes down to mode-share. Since the Netherlands contains a large percentage of carless people who use a bike every day, bike repair shops in NL tend to be geared towards quick turnaround.

    You can find bike shops like that in the USA too. Once you have found such a shop, give ’em all your business.

  4. Also worth pointing out that the average Dutch bike doesn’t need a whole lot of maintenance in the first place, but the maintenance that it likely does need (i.e. flat) does take a bit of work to fix since the bikes are sturdier and more sealed.

  5. The streets in these pictures are one, two lanes, at most. You cannot have this on most avenues in Los Angeles. Why are these pedestrian/cyclists activists unable to understand that Los Angeles is not the same as a European city that was developed before cars existed.

  6. One key thing is to not use the term “jaywalking”. It is undefined and essentially a catch-all for any “illegal” crossing behavior; midblock, against a signal, while the signal is in countdown. Some extend it to mean even things like not waiting for a gap even when crossing at an intersection. And reporters use it while not articulating just what took place. It is a pejorative aimed at giving automobiles greater priority, as mentioned in the article, so it’s time to start chipping away at its power by not employing it and challenging those who do to define what it means.

  7. § The wording of laws vary from state to state, but in California “jaywalking” only exists between two signalized intersection. If you cross midblock elsewhere, you are not breaking state law (but your right-of-way changes).

    The state does allow local jurisdiction to restrict crossing midblock, e.g. in commercial districts. Which is a dumb trend, since commercial districts are where we’re all better off with more foot traffic, and with cars going as slow as possible.

  8. You have to measure the space between buildings (the true width limit) and then look how that space is used. In many places in Europe (Germany for example) this space is taken up much the same way it is in the US on a four lane through a neighborhood.

    Has nothing to do with when a city was built (to indulge your inaccurate statement) but rather the choices made on how you allocate that public space between buildings.

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