Adwan: Jaywalking: social ill or inevitability?

Jaywalking can be thought of as an act of resistance, a reclamation of urban space by pedestrians from the tyranny of the car.

by Noor Adwan

You learn a lot in college: how to write a five-page paper in under two hours, make meaningful connections and, hopefully, how to succeed in your desired field.

You also learn how to jaywalk.

Anyone who walks to class is familiar with the inconvenience of having to wait for a light every time they reach a crosswalk. Valuable minutes that could have been spent speed-walking to your 9 a.m. lecture are lost in the wait for the illuminated red hand to finally turn into the walk sign.

Most decide to skip this ritual, opting instead to stop and look both ways before performing an awkward little jog across the intersection. It’s efficient, or so I’ve heard.

Jaywalking has resoundingly been construed as a social ill. Many drivers are even inclined to show hostility towards pedestrians, especially in crowded urban spaces. While it’s true that careless jaywalking can be dangerous, just like any other traffic violation, there may be another way we can look at it.

Once cars were introduced into urban American landscapes, they quickly dominated cities. Dr. Martin Melosi, the founding director of the Center for Public History at the University of Houston, Texas, wrote in a case study that it is estimated that as much as 50% of modern America’s city land area is dedicated to cars: roads, driveways, parking lots and more. The United States, it seems, is built for the car.

This is unsurprising, given everything that the automobile represents. In a 1995 article, Gabriel Dupuy, a professor of spatial planning at the Sorbonne, noted that a car grants its owner not only freedom of movement, but also access to places that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Like Dupuy observed, in the modern age, cars are freedom. This freedom, it seems, is inextricably linked to the modern American lifestyle. So much so, in fact, that most Americans are dependent on cars: according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, American car ownership has been over 90% for the past several years, and 2016 U.S. census data revealed that over 85% of Americans drive to work.

The prioritization and ubiquity of cars poses a variety of challenges to pedestrians. Walkers have been pushed aside (literally, onto sidewalks) to make way for the car. Even in more walkable areas, pedestrians are forced to make frequent stops at intersections or take inefficient routes to get where they need to go. Because of this, jaywalking can often feel like the only way to make one’s journeys by foot less time consuming. If University of Minnesota students were to all collectively agree to stop jaywalking and only cross when dictated by the lights, I imagine we would all start being late to class.

It’s also worth noting that the origins of jaywalking were somewhat dubious. In his book “Fighting Traffic,” Dr. Peter Norton explains that the concept of jaywalking was introduced in the 1930s by interest groups aligned with the automotive industry, primarily with the goal of shifting the blame for pedestrian deaths from motorists.

For these reasons, jaywalking can be thought of as an act of resistance: a reclamation of urban space by pedestrians from the tyranny of the car. Jaywalking, then, is not an isolated choice that pedestrians make when trying to get around, but rather an inevitable response to a lack of accessibility and convenience created by poor urban planning.

A shift in public opinion is warranted. Why are we blaming pedestrians, the most vulnerable and overlooked people on the road, for problems that originate from an inattention to modes of transportation that aren’t cars?