Jaywalking and Parking Tickets: The Livable Streets Litmus Test of 2014

Over our end-of-the-year break, there were two stories related to how the city thinks about its transportation needs which kept popping up in the news: the LAPD’s “Jaywalking Crackdown”** and the movement to restructure the city’s parking fees. The two stories were both treated as stories of regular people being harassed by a money hungry government.

While much of the mainstream narrative was the same, in truth the two couldn’t be more different. The stories are really about how Los Angeles residents see public space.

The parking reform movement in speared by a pair of advocates, one of whom happens to be the force behind getting the city to end its red light camera program, creating an advocacy machine to push against the city’s parking policies. They call the fees for illegal parking exorbitant, despite the fees being on par or lower than that in New York or Chicago and other major American cities.

The cheapest parking ticket in L.A. is a $58. In Chicago the cheapest fee is $50. In New York, it’s $65. The most common ticket in L.A. is $73 for “parking in a prohibitive zone.” In New York that costs scofflaw parkers $65. In Chicago it’s $75.

Some of their proposed reforms make sense, others are thinly veiled attempts to overthrow parking norms.

But the bedrock of this movement is a simple belief that making space for cars, and giving up a public resource to car owners at below market costs, is a primary function for cities in general and Los Angeles in particular.

Naturally, L.A. Weekly is very excited about all of this. As is the local television news.

The LAPD’s “Jaywalking Crackdown” in Downtown Los Angeles supports the notion that the public resource known as “city streets” are really just private space for automobiles. The LAPD cites safety for “cracking down” on people who step off a curb moments after a traffic signal goes from white to flashing red and make it across the street with time to spare. Even a precursory look at what’s causing crashes downtown shows that pedestrians crossing at crosswalks isn’t really a major safety issue, it’s cars turning either “right on red” or left after the signal has changed  without looking.

But what’s captured the media’s attention is the cost of the tickets. With tickets ranging from $197 to $258, the tickets for safely crossing the street are over three times the cost of the most common parking ticket. Remember, the “jaywalking sting” is not about catching people darting across the street mid-block, it’s been about ticketing people crossing at traffic signals.

To be fair, the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney took a look at how the “jaywalking crackdown” is really about the changing nature of streets and transportation in Los Angeles. The piece prominently featured Brigham Yen, the writer who’s DTLA Rising website has become a replacement for readers who desperately miss Blog Downtown. Earlier today, the Los Angeles Daily News blasted the stings and called for their end.

But this kind of crackdown has every possibility of nipping in the bud a pedestrian culture that is just beginning to flourish in a Southern California, where for too long the automobile has been the sole king of the urban jungle. Both the tourists and the locals who are flocking to the sidewalks of downtown could get a message that their kind are still not welcome here. If safety is truly the concern of the LAPD, begin an education program, not an entrapment one.

Both advocates for safe and attractive pedestrian experiences and advocates of below-market-rate private property storage plan on making a push at City Hall this year for changes to address their particular concerns. How City Hall reacts to these movements will be one of the first tests of whether or not this City Council and Mayor actually believe the rhetoric they promote about creating a safer city for people to utilize public space.

So far, the results have been mixed. On one hand they gave us the, “Spring Street Debacle” on the other the nascent “People St” program. But the elected leaders come down on the side of high-cost pedestrian crossings and low cost automobile parking, then we’ll know all we have to about the city’s true transportation priorities.

** – We use the term “jaywalking crackdown” in this article because it’s the term used by the LAPD about what it is they’re doing when they ticket pedestrians. We add the quotes because “jaywalking” is a term invented by the auto lobby last century to reframe how people think about street safety. This rebranding effort has been phenomenally successful.