Metro

Fearless, defiant, detested: Meet the Boston jaywalker

A group crossed Washington Street in Boston last week against traffic and outside the crosswalk.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
A group crossed Washington Street in Boston last week against traffic and outside the crosswalk.

To harried Boston drivers, they are a scourge — those ambling pedestrians who casually cross the street in defiance of green lights.

And woe to anyone who honks at them in frustration.

“You get a lot of fingers,” grumbled one Boston cab driver parked in Downtown Crossing. “A lot of cursing.”

“I’m not a nasty person naturally, but it can make you nasty,” said Jan Shepherd, a mild-mannered freelance writer who has found herself in screaming matches with jaywalkers. “It can ruin your day.”

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The long-running tension between the city’s drivers and its pedestrians spilled into City Hall last week after Mayor Martin J. Walsh took to the radio and suggested people pay more attention when they walk and bike around the city. He was instantly slammed by cycling and pedestrian advocates who accused him of victim blaming.

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Advocates gathered at City Hall Plaza Friday morning and held a moment of silence for those killed by cars, then went to Walsh’s fifth-floor office to present him with a petition that called for more funding to improve safety in the streets.

But to drivers, Walsh’s comments on WGBH were a mild and much-needed remonstration of a jaywalking practice that feels unique to Boston.

“It’s a type of behavior you don’t see in any other major city,” said retired Boston police officer Donald Gosselin, who used to investigate traffic accidents for the department. “They blithely walk into traffic. Try that in New York and see what happens.”

There are troubling trends.

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The number of reported motor vehicle accidents in which a pedestrian was injured more than doubled from 284 in 2015 to 574 in 2016, according to Boston police. There have been 212 such reports so far this year.

Boston police officials cautioned that the jump could be attributed to more reporting by victims. Because the department does not release details of accidents, the public cannot track the causes of accidents involving pedestrians.

A pedestrian walked on Congress Street last week with his back toward traffic.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
A pedestrian walked on Congress Street last week with his back toward traffic.

Advocates and those who have studied the city’s traffic patterns said that as streets get busier, Walsh should not be criticizing cyclists or pedestrians.

Instead, he should show a stronger commitment to programs such as Vision Zero, a city-led effort to eliminate serious and fatal traffic accidents in Boston. On Friday, Walsh announced a commitment to increase Boston’s Vision Zero budget by $1 million to $4.1 million in fiscal year 2018.

“Boston is without question the most lawless city when it comes to pedestrians,” said Peter Furth, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University. “It’s an annoying thing, but that is not the cause of our fatalities.”

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He said that Walsh’s comments that pedestrians should remove their headphones and quit darting in and out of traffic are undercut by data that show that at least four of the 15 pedestrians killed in Boston last year were older than 65. Two others were children under 3.

“The idea that pedestrians jaywalking makes for an unsafe environment is not borne out by the data,” Furth said.

In fact, a 2014 study that looked at 51 major metropolitan areas ranked Boston as the least dangerous city for pedestrians. The city’s chaotic streetscape which lacks a traditional grid pattern makes the city safer for pedestrians, in a way, because cars are forced to drive more slowly, Furth said.

In cities like Miami, pedestrians must contend with wide lanes full of zooming cars.

“Pedestrians are respected in Boston and that’s a good thing,” Furth said.

Jaywalkers around Downtown Crossing said the narrow streets make them feel safe taking the risk. Other reasons for their transgression: impatience, poorly timed lights, and a sense that they are only doing what drivers in Boston do every day — flagrantly violating traffic rules.

“People don’t obey the rules when they’re driving. Why should I?” said Jeremy Wood, a 37-year-old construction worker who had just calmly walked between two SUVs barreling down State Street. “Everyone is just trying to get ahead of each other,”

“If there is no one coming, I will walk across,” said another pedestrian, who identified herself as Barbara after she crossed against the green on Washington Street. Told she had just cut in front of a taxi driver, she shrugged and laughed.

Attempts to curb jaywalking have foundered. A bill to increase the fines from a maximum of $2 to a maximum of $75 was introduced in 2016 but has failed to advance out of the Transportation Committee.

In Boston, many police officers say they don’t bother citing jaywalkers. Technically, they could be arrested for disorderly conduct but no self-respecting cop would bother taking the time to book someone for such an offense, said one city police officer who has been cursed at for chiding jaywalkers on Causeway Street.

“Can you imagine me arresting people for jaywalking on disorderly conducts?” said the officer, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “My supervisors would have my head. You can’t abandon your post to process a fool who is jaywalking.”

Gosselin, the retired officer, said he never bothered jaywalkers when he was on the force because he was also guilty of skirting cars across four lanes of traffic on Columbus Avenue to get to Boston police headquarters.

Said Gosselin: “Never punish anyone for something you do yourself.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at maria.cramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.