If jaywalking is wrong, I don’t want to be right
State Senator Harriette Chandler has an answer to the fatal vehicle-on-pedestrian accidents that have occurred near senior housing in Worcester: Jack up fines for jaywalking. In a weird way, pedestrian and bike commuters owe her a little gratitude. The bill she’s filed on Beacon Hill unwittingly shows how a cars-first mindset has shaped our laws about traffic safety. It’s high time for Massachusetts to rethink the issue.
Under a state law dating back more than half a century, the fine for crossing a street illegally is $1. Chandler hopes to raise that to $25 for a first offense, $50 for a second, and $75 for a third.
Yes, the fines for jaywalking should be adjusted. Just not upward. A $1 fine is already 100 cents too high.
When you categorize jaywalking as a kind of personal failing, it might seem entirely reasonable to bring the weight of the law down on people who disobey a “don’t walk” signal or cross a street outside of a crosswalk. “The best way to change a bad habit,” Chandler told State House News Service after a recent hearing, “is to penalize it in some fashion.” (I sought further comment from the senator but didn’t hear back.)
Philosophically, the problem with jaywalking laws is that they treat pedestrians as a menace to cars, instead of vice versa. The laws first emerged in the United States in the early 20th century, when automobiles first began competing for space with pushcart vendors and playing children. As University of Virginia historian Peter Norton has documented, carmakers prevailed by winning legal restrictions on pedestrian movement — and promoting the very term “jaywalking,” which originally meant something like “the clueless wandering of hapless rubes.”
Fortunately, police in today’s Boston rarely if ever write jaywalking tickets. Even without legal penalties, the threat of grievous bodily injuries gives pedestrians a strong reason not to waltz blithely into oncoming traffic.
In practice, people can generally judge when it’s safe to cross a street mid-block. Even at crosswalks, there’s no virtue in waiting on a walk signal in the rain or in the cold when it’s clear no cars are coming. A lot of jaywalking happens when the coast is clear.
Jaywalking in dicier situations is often a symptom of other problems: Sometimes people cross in places where a crosswalk is needed, but there isn’t one. At crosswalks, the signal cycles sometimes leave pedestrians waiting too long or allow them too little time to cross safely. Especially outside major transit hubs, such as South Station and Back Bay Station, lots of cars jockey for space in corridors that also have a high volume of pedestrian traffic, and disorder inevitably ensues.
In these situations, transportation planners have lots of different tools they can deploy. Rather than handing out tickets, says Wendy Landman, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group WalkBoston, authorities can achieve more by giving walkers more cues. For instance, more consistent signal timing from intersection to intersection would make it easier for pedestrians to anticipate when they should walk.
Samuel Schwartz, a transportation engineer and onetime New York City traffic commissioner who goes by the nickname “Gridlock Sam,” argues for firmer human management of certain congested intersections. “We have crossing guards for children and police officers who direct traffic,” he says, “but we don’t have a crossing guard for everyone.” When there’s a pedestrian traffic manager present, he says, there’s less honking. Drivers can relax, presumably, when it’s clear someone’s in charge.
Ironically, Chandler’s legislation comes up at the State House just as Boston is embracing Vision Zero — a strategy for eliminating all motor vehicle deaths and serious injuries by 2030.
Heightened law enforcement may be part of the strategy, at least at certain key intersections. But according to Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, the city will rely more on education and on a deeper analysis of street-level conditions: the physical design of intersections, the timing of traffic and walk signals, the movement patterns of people and vehicles not just at individual intersections but throughout the surrounding blocks.
Of course, the gradual fine-tuning of a city’s overall transportation system may not seem emotionally satisfying to a driver who’s been delayed by a jaywalker. And when you’ve grown up in a world where transportation laws primarily serve cars’ needs, it’s easy to persuade yourself that stiffer jaywalking fines — what Chandler calls “the stick approach” — are for pedestrians’ own good.
Never mind that pedestrian fatality rates are lower in places where jaywalking enforcement is lax than in Los Angeles, where it’s been far more aggressive. Motorists don’t need greater protection from the supposed threat of wayward pedestrians, and, anyway, not every annoyance in life can or should be fixed through tougher laws and stiffer tickets.