The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of “jaywalking”


manhattan 1914

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100 years ago, if you were a pedestrian, crossing the street was simple: you walked across it.

Today, if there’s traffic in the area and you want to follow the law, you need to find a crosswalk. And if there’s a traffic light, you need to wait for it to change to green.

Fail to do so, and you’re committing a crime: jaywalking. In some cities — Los Angeles, for instance — police ticket tens of thousands of pedestrians annually for jaywalking, with fines of up to $250.

To most people, this seems part of the basic nature of roads. But it’s actually the result of an aggressive, forgotten 1920s campaign led by auto groups and manufacturers that redefined who owned the city street.

“In the early days of the automobile, it was drivers’ job to avoid you, not your job to avoid them,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “But under the new model, streets became a place for cars — and as a pedestrian, it’s your fault if you get hit.”

One of the keys to this shift was the creation of the crime of jaywalking. Here’s a history of how that happened.

Relevant to my interests since I’m anti-car culture… seeing as how car culture gave us suburban sprawl, big box stores, post-WW2 middle class values, flippant use of fossil fuels, fast food, and a crapton of pollution. Among other things, of course.

So naturally I get to find out that car culture is responsible for “enclosing” what tiny bit of the commons we had left in the West: the public road.