The Invention of Jaywalking

by Christopher Paul on April 28, 2012

There have been a string of articles bemoaning the death of the pedestrian. The death phrase is both a literal and figurative interpretation. We, as a nation, do not walk as much as we used to. But the respect and treatment of walkers in cities and suburbs alike has transformed our culture and invented new terms to identify those who don’t follow the new rules of the road. And Sara Goodyear writing for The Atlantic looks into how the term “jaywalking” was introduced into our society.

She writes that long ago, streets were only for pedestrians. If you look back in time you’ll notice horse and buggy did share these streets but they were almost always filled with pedestrians. As Goodyear notes, cars were very rare and, when accidents happened, the common law of the heavier object (the car) was at fault. Drivers were often charged with a crime.

But after heavy lobbying for car car clubs (AAA) and dealers, the laws were changed to control the pedestrian and punish them for behaviors that they were accustomed to for hundreds if not thousands of years. Now, if a pedestrian is hit, criminal charges are almost only filed if the driver was drunk.

She notes:

"…in the automobile’s earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver.

Public opinion was on the side of the pedestrian, as well. “There was a lot of anger in the early years,” says Norton. “A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets.” Auto clubs and manufacturers realized they had a big image problem, Norton says, and they moved aggressively to change the way Americans thought about cars, streets, and traffic. “They said, ‘If we’re going to have a future for cars in the city, we have to change that. They’re being portrayed as Satan’s murdering machines.’”"

Living in New York, I’ve seen the changes Mayor Bloomberg has done to make the city more pedestrian friendly. So, in many ways, there may be a shift back to the walking class of commuters. I doubt it will extend to suburbia, though. But all is not lost. Some towns, like Princeton, NJ (where I spent a lot of time in my youth) actively enforce the pedestrian right of way and the police force will ticket a driver for not stopping for someone crossing the street.

But there is no denying that walkers are considered second class when it comes to the design of roads and the cities they traverse. It’s come to inventing new terms and crimes against those who dare to do what was so common less than 100 years ago.


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