Win Your Holiday Arguments: Jaywalking

(Stealing an idea from Salon, Streetsblog Los Angeles is here to help you win arguments with the beloved Car Culture Warriors in your life this holiday season. We’ll have at least two more parts in this series. – DN)

Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported on a “jaywalking crackdown” underway in Downtown Los Angeles. Pedestrians are being fined $250 for infractions as serious as starting to cross the street after the signal has become a flashing red hand. Response has been uniformly negative. Brigham Yen slammed it on DTLA Rising and KCRW. Ever restrained, Curbed called the crackdown “total bullshit.” The DTLA News comment section is similarly outraged. Even the L.A. Times weighed in with a negative editorial this morning.

I was actually standing next to an LAPD officer pointing at the infraction while he ticketed a pedestrian. He was neither amused nor enlightened.

I was actually standing next to an LAPD officer pointing at the infraction while he ticketed a pedestrian. He was neither amused nor enlightened.

While I agree with the sentiment of all the articles and outrage, the LAPD’s most recent “crackdown” is hardly new news. The Department’s love of what it calls jaywalking tickets earned it national outrage in 2006 when it ticketed 82 year-old Mayvis Coyle for not being able to cross the street during the walk signal. In 2008, there was the hilarious time that the LAPD was ticketing outside of Metro Center, handing out many tickets to employees of the Southern California Association of Governments…many of whom were planners or transportation engineers.

In 2009, I noticed LAPD officers aggressively handing out tickets to pedestrians while buses and cars ran red lights with impunity right in front of them. In 2010, the L.A. Times wrote almost the same story on a $191 dollar ticket “crackdown.”

So “jaywalking crackdowns” are nothing new. Because they’ve been in the news recently, it’s possible a car-culture warrior could bring up the topic in an attempt to trap you this holiday season. For that reason, we present these counter arguments:

Argument 1: Jaywalking crackdowns make everyone safer

There is actually little data to suggest that this is true.

The first thing to understand is that laws that concern ticketing pedestrians for traveling in the vehicle right-of-way were not made to make streets safer. They were made to normalize car travel over other forms of transportation, and a lot of money was spent to enshrine these statutes into law. In a review of Peter Norton’s book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American CityGoodyear writes:

AAA and other auto clubs turned first to the younger generation, financing safety education programs in the public schools that were designed to teach children that streets are for cars, not for kids. They funded safety patrols that taught kids they had to stop for traffic, not the other way around…

…Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city, saying that the rule would condemn the U.S. to the fate of China, which they painted as the world’s most backward nation.

In other words, the United States had safer streets decades ago and gave up that world for one with higher car speeds, even in urban areas. Comparing the United States to countries that went in a different direction, ie those who did not make it illegal for pedestrians to cross the street without being at an intersection, it’s clear we made a mistake. Fatality rates, both for pedestrians and drivers, are uniformly lower in countries that assume guilt on the driver, not the pedestrian, when there is a crash.

So what can be done to make the streets safer for pedestrians? Enforcement is one answer, but enforcement should focus on cars that are a) going to fast or b) refusing to yield.

Consider these statistics provided by Streetsblog.net member Sustainable Savannah:

…when pedestrians are hit by cars:

at 20 mph, the risk of death is 5 percent, and most injuries are minor

at 30 mph, the risk of death is 45 percent, and most injuries are serious

at 40 mph, 85 percent of pedestrians are killed.

Safety studies also show that “too many drivers fail to look left” before turning.

Of course, there are other answers that aren’t just about enforcement. Tom Vanderbilt, a traffic expert who writes at Slate, gives some better ideas:

Instead, here’s what should be done. First, spend more money on making walking safer; despite the fact that pedestrians make up a large part of the traffic deaths in many states, funding is always disproportionately scant. Second, provide good places to walk. People instinctively strive for the conservation of energy, and failing to provide proper crossings in the presence of clear “desire lines” invites a jaywalking problem. Third, install pedestrian-friendly engineering. One of the simplest tools is the “leading pedestrian interval,” which gives walkers a slight head start against turning traffic, thus making them more visible and allowing them to establish their presence in the intersection. A much more common problem than urban jaywalking crashes are left- and right-turn car-pedestrian crashes at intersections. Fourth, lower (and enforce) urban speeds.

Cities like Barcelona and Amsterdam—pedestrian paradises both—are proposing limiting entire tracts of the city to 30 kph (that’s 18.6 mph, folks), and in places like the “Skvallertorget,” or “Gossip Square,” in Norrkoping, Sweden, the legal right of way is shared equally, and safely, among pedestrians and drivers, without clear markings, because car traffic has dropped to human speeds. * Fifth, stiffen penalties for cars that violate the rights of those legally crossing (which would provide ancillary benefits for those crossing in a more informal fashion). Pedestrian fatalities wouldn’t exist without cars, a stubborn fact that the law should reflect.

Of course, here in Los Angeles the LAPD has other ideas about pedestrian safety. After a woman was thrown 40 feet in the air and killed by a hit and run driver, the LAPD released a handy set of pedestrian safety tips that included “look both ways before crossing the street.” At the time, I noted that this is similar to releasing match safety tips after a gas main explosion.

Now granted, there is the occasional person who is either in such a rush, or is so entitled, that he or she makes unsafe choices on the street. There is also the occasional mentally insane person who is just wandering around. The sad reality is that tickets are unlikely to change these people’s behavior.

Argument 2: People that walk should pay their fare share, and ticketing is one way to do it.

First off, the idea that car drivers are the poor, put upon load bearers of all transportation funding is extremely false. Nationally, the federal gas tax doesn’t cover national transportation needs. In California, a mix of sales tax, gas tax, vehicle registration fees, property tax and other fees pay for transportation funding.

When you consider the amount of damage done to streets as a result of driving, as compared to walking, the opposite is true. The car-free are subsidizing vehicle drivers.

20% of all trips in Los Angeles County are made on foot or bicycle, yet funding for pedestrian and bicycle projects falls somewhere in the 1% to 3% range. No, the people that are walking are not the freeloaders in the transportation funding equation.

Blog Downtown

With that in mind, let’s look at how the money raised with pedestrian tickets is used. In 2010, Blog Downtown broke down where the money goes from the $190 ticket. About 12% goes towards the city’s transportation fund and less than 1% into the state transportation funds. The rest goes into a variety of state and local criminal justice fees.

Argument 3: Pedestrians are getting in the way of the cars

As discussed above, this is pretty backwards thinking. We’re not living in a Pixar film, we should be building our cities for human beings, not Lightning McQueen.

Of course, this argument is really “people that aren’t me are getting in my way.” This is a hard argument to counter logically, because often times the person is arguing from an anecdotal point of view, and it’s hard to argue that someone’s experiences aren’t valid.

The best counter here is to provide your own experiences as a harassed walker, cyclist, pogo stick rider or whatever form of transportation you use. Just yesterday, I passed through 12 crosswalks on foot or on my bicycle (I ride my bicycle on the sidewalk underneath a 405 over pass when I pick up/drop off my son at school. I believe this is the safest option and there are crosswalks on each side of the bridge.) Eleven times there was a car parked in the crossing.

Eleven times.

Of course, that’s just my experience. I’m sure you have plenty of better ones of your own.

(Up next: what to say about all the money the city is “waisting” on bicycle lanes!)