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The Case for Legalizing Jaywalking

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Bans hurt poor people and people of color. Cities and states are catching on.

You don’t have to look far to find people who have been ticketed for jaywalking in American cities. Two of my colleagues eagerly shared their stories of being hit with fines during their morning commutes to Mother Jones’ offices. In 2012, when she was an assistant editor, investigations editor Hannah Levintova was fined $200 for “violating the walk signal” in San Francisco. Four years later, crack senior reporter Dan Friedman was jogging across the intersection of 16th and M Streets in Washington, DC, when a police officer ticketed him for violating a “Don’t Walk” signal. (In his defense, Dan insists that the light was yellow.)

If you regularly walk in any American city, you, too, probably have crossed a street against the signal or outside of a designated crosswalk. Sure, one could argue that crosswalks were created as a way to protect pedestrians from potentially dangerous automobiles. But why would transgressing those limits become a petty crime? Thanks to a century-old automobile industry campaign to push pedestrians out of the streets, jaywalking is now, in most places, punishable by a hefty ticket ranging from $68 in Seattle to as much as $250 in New York City.

This could be consigned to the realm of being merely annoying, but in fact, there’s a serious injustice embedded in the process. According to research in several cities, policing pedestrian behavior disproportionately affects low-income people and people of color. Plus, making jaywalking an offense doesn’t keep people safe. Now, a growing number of cities and states are striking these antiquated statutes from their books.

In September, the governor of California—whose biggest city, Los Angeles, is notorious for doling out jaywalking tickets—signed a law putting an end to the practice of ticketing jaywalkers. Last month, a bill to repeal jaywalking laws was introduced in Washington state. And last week, the Denver City Council voted to decriminalize jaywalking in Colorado’s capital.

The notion that pedestrians should be relegated to sidewalks and allowed to cross the street only when a walk sign tells them it’s safe is a relatively new phenomenon. As Peter Norton, an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, wrote in his 2007 article “Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street,” groups ranging from the Chicago Motor Club and the Automobile Club of Southern California to the National Safety Council and the Boy Scouts began using the word “jaywalker” in the late 1910s and early 1920s to insult pedestrians who had the audacity to enter the roadway outside of intersections. The then-common prefix “jay-,” which meant “hick” or “rube,” implied that people who did such a thing were ignorant countryfolk who didn’t know how to act in a city. As cars increasingly gained dominance, Los Angeles passed the first anti-jaywalking ordinance in 1925, which became a model for other cities across the country. Discrimination soon followed.

“Even long before the automobile, there’s a history of laws that were written without ever mentioning race, but which empowered authorities to exercise a kind of racial enforcement,” Norton explains, citing vagrancy laws in the period after the Civil War as an example. “Jaywalking is that kind [of law] in the sense that basically everybody who walks anywhere ends up at some point crossing a street in a convenient way.”

Now, data from cities across the country show that Black people are routinely cited for jaywalking at higher rates than white people, making their simple act of crossing the street grounds for potentially dangerous police interactions. In 2017, a sweeping investigation by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union (republished with permission on Mother Jones) found that Black people received 55 percent of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville, despite comprising just 29 percent of the city’s population. Those tickets were also overwhelmingly focused on residents of poor neighborhoods.

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