The Invention of Jaywalking

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We’ve all done it. You’re standing at an intersection waiting anxiously for the orange hand to change to a white person so you can cross the street. The stream of cars has thinned, so you look both ways, note that no vehicles are approaching, and simply walk across the street—and break a handful of laws in the process.

In the past four years, LA police have issued 17,000 jaywalking tickets (which carry a $197 fine) to pedestrians who violated the agreement that people may only exit the sidewalk and cross the roadway at designated points at designated times. However, in the not so distant past, it was the cars, not the people, who were fighting for their right to be in the street. 

In American cities before the 1920s, pedestrians always had the right-of-way [PDF]. The streets were filled with some street cars, fewer automobiles, and people crossing from one side to the other at their leisure. Mothers often sent their children to play in the street without fear that someone would come back injured.

But then the number of cars on the road began to increase. Henry Ford’s Model T was the first automobile that was affordable for the average American. And as the number of cars began to grow, so did the number of automobile-related accidents. In 1923, 17,000 to 18,000 people were killed in automobile accidents; three-quarters of those were pedestrians, and half of those killed in cities were children. When the public needed someone to blame for these deaths, they often turned to the cars themselves.

“Most—including many motorists—would have agreed that streets were not for fast driving, and that motorists who drove faster than pre-automotive vehicles were alone responsible for any harmful consequences,” writes Peter Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City [PDF].

Public opinion of automobiles took a turn for the worse. Cartoons depicting cars as child-eating monsters appeared in newspapers across the country. Mothers who lost children to automobile accidents were given white ribbons to wear to commemorate their sacrifice. City managers began to consider outlawing cars in cities all together. 

The auto industry—the manufacturers, dealers, and motor clubs who were making money off these children-killing monster machines—started to get nervous. It was feared that if cities passed laws restricting the use of cars, people would stop buying them. The automobile interest banded together, sometimes called “motordom,” and set to work on shifting the blame for automobile accidents to the recklessness of both the driver and the pedestrian—the people, not the machine.

Motordom started taking out editorials in newspapers to condemn the practice of “jaywalking.” The term referenced the derogatory term used at the time for a country bumpkin, a “jay.” A jaywalker, they argued, was someone who was so taken by the sights and sounds of the city that he or she becomes an obstruction to drivers and other pedestrians.

“The streets are made for vehicles to run upon,” Charles Hayes, president of the Chicago Motor Club, wrote in an editorial.

E.B. Lefferts, a member of the automobile club of southern California, was the brains behind the operation. According to Norton, Lefferts wanted to reach people through psychology. After an ordinance against jaywalking was passed in 1924, Lefferts urged police officers, instead of ticketing offenders, to publicly shame them by calling out their actions. “The ridicule of their fellow citizens is far more effective than any other means which might be adopted,” he wrote.

Whenever a police officer saw a pedestrian crossing against a light or in front of traffic, they would call out the individual. “Hey you! Don’t you know what you’re doing?” they would yell.  

And it worked. In 1925, strict regulations for pedestrians were written into the Los Angeles Traffic Code, and Lefferts used the city’s laws as an example of success for other locales. By the 1930s, cities across the country had effectively educated individuals and enacted laws against jaywalking. Urban planners developed cloverleaf intersections and built expressways to make it easier to drive in the city. The right to be in the street had effectively been turned over to vehicles, which has left pedestrians to be the ones waiting for the light.