Fix the Law That Criminalizes L.A.’s Pedestrians

Don't assume that you actually have 19 seconds to cross this intersection. Pedestrian countdown signal via Systemic Failure
Don’t assume that you actually have 19 seconds to cross this intersection. Pedestrian countdown signal via Systemic Failure

In his insightful article “Struggling student a victim of high fines and misdemeanors,” Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez clearly lays out the human cost of so-called “jaywalking” tickets. SBLA includes “jaywalking” in quotes because the term was invented by the auto lobby last century to re-frame how people think about street safety.

The column profiles Eduardo Lopez, a 22-year-old striving to get from work to community college class. Running to make a rail to bus connection in downtown L.A., Lopez received a $197 ticket. From the article:

It’s the equivalent of an added tax for the crime of being poor.

Eduardo had to take time out of another busy day to go to court and ask if he could pay off his debt by doing community work. No, he was told. He has until April 27 to pay up, unless he tries to fight it, with no guarantees except that he’d eat up more of his valuable time.

The LAPD’s crosswalk sting operations, which the Times calls “a fish-in-a-barrel opportunity for cops”, are not just downtown, but include MacArthur Park and Koreatown. LAPD targets pedestrians at various high-foot-traffic Metro subway portals, including 7th and Flower, Wilshire and Alvarado, Wilshire and Vermont. Targeting pedestrians at these Metro locations targets the low-income communities of color who predominantly use L.A.’s transit system. Jaywalking tickets, like truancy tickets and fare evasion tickets, are one part of a system that criminalizes the poor, especially youth of color.

There are a lot of things that need fixing in this system, but it turns out that pedestrian countdown signals are part of the problem. At least in the way they interact with outdated state laws.

The city of L.A.’s countdown signals began widespread implementation as part of a 2008 pedestrian safety initiative. The countdown is supposed to be a boon to people on foot, letting them know how long they have to cross in relative safety.

Unfortunately, many pedestrians assume that their countdown phase is analogous to a yellow traffic light. Drivers can still legally enter the intersection while the yellow warning light is displayed. Not so for peds. Once the remaining crossing time is displayed, sometimes more than 20 seconds in L.A., it is too late to legally set foot in the crosswalk.

In a recent post titled “California’s Broken Jaywalking Law,” the Systemic Failure blog explains:

California law has not kept up with this new technology. CVC 21456, the “jaywalking” law, was enacted back in 1981. In those days, there was no countdown, just a flashing hand.

[…] This is ridiculous, and it has been going on for years. The Legislature needs to eliminate this ambiguity from CVC 21456. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a countdown signal?

The city Transportation Department (LADOT) is implementing scramble intersections and leading pedestrian “head start” intervals.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s sustainability pLAn calls for “adoption of Vision Zero policy and establishment of a multi-agency safety task force” which may help align LAPD practices with proven safety goals, similar to NYPD’s Vision Zero enforcement.

Perhaps another early step in supporting L.A. health and sustainability would be to work with state legislators to fix the state’s outdated crosswalk laws.

  • Some try to argue that the countdown is to clear the intersection to allow for turning cars. False. The countdown is an ADA requirement intended to help the disabled and elderly make a decision about crossing the street. If the city engineers believe more time is needed for turns, then the solid red hand should be extended.

    Whats worse is that the countdown timing was recently extended in the last ADA and MUTCD update to allow for those who cross EXTREMELY slow to get the time they need. Thats perfect, they need accommodation. The problem is, if the average person can cross in 10 seconds, but the flashing hand shows for 30, as to accommodate the slowest of the slow, then the average person gets hit with a ticket.

  • LAifer

    I often find that the countdown is way too much time at a decent walking pace. So, basically, to accommodate some people who need the additional alert for crossing time, LAPD is punishing everyone else who can make the crossing in no time.

  • Alex Brideau III

    “The countdown is an ADA requirement intended to help the disabled and elderly make a decision about crossing the street.” While the ADA countdown was no doubt well intentioned, I wonder how effective it is in its current form. Once it appears, the decision of whether to cross has already been made; you’re either in the crosswalk legally, or it’s now too late to begin crossing. The only decision that can be made is whether to turn back; something I’ve never seen anyone of any mobility level do.

    To be more clear and to better comply with human nature, the countdown timer should occur during the walk phase instead of the first don’t-walk phase.

  • Alex Brideau III

    “The countdown is an ADA requirement intended to help the disabled and elderly make a decision about crossing the street.” While the ADA countdown was no doubt well intentioned, I wonder how effective it is in its current form. Once the countdown begins, the decision of whether to cross has already been made; you’re either in the crosswalk legally, or it’s now too late to begin crossing. The only decision that can be made is whether to turn back; something I’ve never seen anyone of any mobility level do.

    To be more clear and to better comply with human nature, the countdown timer should occur during the walk phase instead of the first don’t-walk phase.

  • calwatch

    There is a reason for this, and that is consistency between signals with a fixed ped time and signals where the ped phase is resting in green:

    http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/knowledge/faqs/faq_part4.htm#top

    Now in the very next question, FHWA addresses that other jurisdictions have legalized crossing during the countdown signal. Salt Lake City, of all places, has had this legal for the past five years. http://koonceportland.blogspot.com/2011/10/meaning-of-flashing-dont-walk-at.html

    Simply writing this into state law would fix the problem. The counter is that often the flashing don’t walk time is used to clear right and left turning traffic, which now would not be able to clear due to pedestrian volumes. This may be dangerous if someone is turning left into a crosswalk but may have to stop in the midst of oncoming traffic if someone darts across with three seconds left.

  • calwatch

    In the meantime those with the ability and means to fight jaywalking tickets should do so, especially since there is no impact to the driving record (which would normally encourage drivers who receive tickets to go to traffic school). http://www.reddit.com/r/LosAngeles/comments/33yi77/struggling_student_a_victim_of_high_fines_197_for/cqqdlvk

  • While they’re at it, ALL crosswalk signals for pedestrians need to switch to walk at the appropriate time along with the signal change for cars. It’s absolutely ridiculous that the signals for pedestrians don’t automatically change and that we need to press the beg button to get the signal to walk across a street.

    I see the beg buttons to be useful in two cases: To actually request a signal when the light wouldn’t change otherwise — or when the possible walk cycle would be too short to cross safely…thus extending the light for pedestrians.

    That being said, my experience is that in 99% of cases, the current system penalizes pedestrians. Nothing more.

  • Alex Brideau III

    No doubt there’s a reason for this; I just don’t think it’s a good enough reason to preserve the status quo.

    I agree that allowing pedestrians to cross during the flashing don’t walk phase would be the simplest solution, but as the MUTCD FAQ notes, the flashing don’t walk countdown “most likely lead[s] pedestrians to speed up their pace as the numerals decrease toward zero” which makes me worry you’d see more people dashing across in those last few moments (indeed we already do) which could lead to an increase in car/pedestrian collisions.

    If I were king, there would be a standard walk phase with a countdown, and then a yield-to-cars phase, and that’s it. Pedestrians would have the right of way for a measured period of time and then get to cross at their own risk at all other times. Basically a legalized version of pedestrian behavior in cities back east.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Hear hear!

    And to make matters worse, LADOT(?) places beg buttons at intersections adjacent to Metro stations! These are areas that are supposed to be among the most pedestrian friendly in a given neighborhood, and yet pedestrians must still take a backseat (no pun intended) to automobile traffic.

    Heck, I say remove all beg buttons within a certain radius of Metro stations, and better yet, outside of rush hours, make these intersections default to all-way red signals with all-way walk signals, until a car arrives at the intersection to trigger a green cycle. That way pedestrians are prioritized, but cars are still accommodated.

  • Joe Linton

    make drivers have to get out of their cars to press buttons!!

  • Cameron Newland

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. Is there an organization that is actively working to change this anti-pedestrian law that I might be able to donate to?

  • Derek

    Joe, you are on fire! Amazing analysis of the proposed fare increases last Friday, and now this.

    Imagine being poor in this city: can’t afford to take the bus, so you decide to walk, only to get slapped with $197 ticket for trying to cross the street.

  • stvr

    Shame on Mayor Garcetti for sleeping on this one.

  • I am utterly floored by the concept of getting a jaywalking ticket. Here, its used as the classic example of something against the law that everyone does that you will never get ticketed for (although sadly seems failing to signal lane changes is the new winner), although if you do it, you’ll be blamed for anything bad that does occur.

  • Jamonit

    How are people who can make the crossing in time punished if additional time is provided (perhaps for younger or older pedestrians who cant’ walk as fast)?

  • LAifer

    Good question. The answer is that, as it is currently implemented, the additional time on the countdown increases the share of the total allotted crossing time that is devoted to the “don’t walk” phase. The net effect is to reduce the amount of time for everyone to enter the crosswalk, even though people of average or better-than-average mobilities could still enter and clear the crosswalk in more than sufficient time several seconds into the “don’t walk” phase.

  • Sam M.

    Date: Sun, Apr 26, 2015 at 9:46 PM
    Subject: Re: Struggling student a victim of high fines and misdemeanors
    To: steve.lopez@latimes.com

    Mr. Lopez,

    Excellent piece in today’s (Sunday’s) LA Times. As a person who works in Downtown LA, I frequently see pedestrians being ticketed. As a transportation professional, I also understand that enforcement of traffic laws is a tricky thing. Many of the enforcement officers I have worked with and spoken to over the years express a clear desire for laws that leave little interpretation – either someone did or did not break the law. In the case of California Vehicle Code Section 21456(b), the law is (unfortunately) very clear.

    About 10 years ago there was an excellent study and paper (Source: http://www.popcenter.org/problems/pedestrian_injuries/PDFs/Markowitz_etal_2006.pdf) prepared by the the City of San Francisco that studied pedestrian behavior at signalized crossings. The study discovered that people didn’t really follow the “letter of the law” when it came to crossing the street. My favorite line of the paper says “Pedestrians are capable of judging time and distance, as demonstrated when they cross at uncontrolled crossings with heavy traffic volumes, determining whether a gap in traffic is adequate.” The countdown timers at nearly all Downtown LA signalized intersections support the authors’ statements.

    Last year the Los Angeles Department of Transportation released a Strategic Plan (Source: http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/cs/impl/ca-losangeles-dot-strategicplan2014.pdf) with a vision statement that pointed out “In 2012, nearly 80 pedestrians were killed in collisions with motor vehicles in Los Angeles, accounting for 40% of all deaths from traffic crashes.” The statement continued: “it is the goal of LADOT to eliminate all traffic fatalities in the city by 2025. We [The City of Los Angeles] have a lot of work to do to realize this goal.”

    One of the first orders of work, if I may recommend, should be for the City of Los Angeles to support modification of CVC Section 21456(b) so that in intersections where countdown timers are present, pedestrians may begin crossing after the flashing DON’T WALK or red hand indication appears, as long as they believe there is adequate time remaining for them to cross the street safely.

    The next order of work is to have the City of Los Angeles prioritize enforcement of those traffic violations that go against the Strategic Plan’s first stated goal: “Eliminate traffic fatalities in Los Angeles by 2025.” Rather than ticketing people for trying to walk across a street, enforcement officers could issue tickets for CVC 21453, not obeying a red light, which carries a base fine of $100 (Source: http://www.lacourt.org/division/criminal/pdf/misd.pdf, plus additional fees); or, CVC 21951, passing a vehicle stopped for a pedestrian, which also carries a base fine of $100. By enforcing both of these two code sections, more revenue would also be generated, since they have base fines of about four times as much as CVC 21456(b). Anyone who stands on a street corner in Downtown LA can tell you plenty of people run red lights – at least one car in each direction every time a light turns red.

    Isn’t it about time the traffic enforcement officers focus on those illegal actions that could actually kill people?

    Sincerely,
    Sam

  • Sirinya Matute

    Exactly–basically I have found is that if I don’t put my foot immediately into the intersection within one or two seconds of the “Walk” guy appearing, I am in effect in violation of the law because it switches so quickly to the countdown mode. It’s ridiculous.

    It *feels* like pedestrians really only have less than 5 to 10 seconds to begin walking, whereas cars have up to 75 seconds to enter an intersection legally (this needs to be validated, and of course, every intersection is different). As a pedestrian who now mostly waits because it is known that LAPD issues expensive citations for ‘jaywalking’, when I arrive at an intersection, I expect to spend more time waiting than actually crossing. If I see the white walk man signal up, I sprint to try to literally plant my foot in the intersection before it changes so I can assert my right to cross.

    I understand the need to have the longer ‘don’t walk’ phase in order to benefit pedestrians who need more time to cross due to their level of fitness. I remember as a kid reading about how people fought to change signal timing at 3rd and Fairfax, before it gentrifiedish, because there were so many elderly who sought to cross to reach the farmers’ market, and they weren’t necessarily getting cited so much as they were getting hit by motorists. Not good. The way things work, however, criminalizes walking, however unfairly. In other countries, you see how the don’t walk actually appears as the outline of a person who speeds up as the phase is about to end.

  • baklazhan

    I like to analyze it like this:

    Suppose you have an intersection with 35-second red lights and 35-second green+yellow lights in each direction, and suppose the pedestrian signals give 10 seconds of walk and 25 seconds of don’t walk.

    A motorist will have zero delay 50% of the time, if they arrive at the green, and an average of 17.5 seconds delay the other 50% (timed signals would lower this number), for an overall average delay at that intersection of 8.75 seconds.

    A pedestrian will have zero delay 10/70 of the time, and an average delay of 30 seconds the other 60/70, for an overall average delay of 25.7 seconds (and timed signals aren’t really possible). A beg button increases this number further significantly, since it turns what could be a zero wait into a full 60-second wait.

  • Prinzrob

    Great ideas. I also suggest ditching the “walk” signal, just use “don’t walk” and then a countdown signal. People walk at varying speeds and one standard is not appropriate for everyone, so let people figure it out for themselves based on the timer and their own speed.

    So called “smart”signals are really only smart for car drivers, and degrade both utility and safety for everyone else. If a actuated signal must be used then have it be passive actuation that detects a pedestrian or bicyclist without them needing to do anything (like we currently provide for drivers). Bicyclists can also be detected down the street, in advance of the signal, and be given a green by the time they reach the intersection.

  • Prinzrob

    Beyond that, if there are so many pedestrians in an area that drivers can’t make turns, then that should be an argument for installation of a scramble, pedestrian-only phase, not for further restriction of pedestrian accommodation.

  • Joe Linton

    You might start with L.A. Walks http://www.losangeleswalks.org/ and don’t forget that Streetsblog depends on your donations, too!

  • p_chazz

    I received a jaywalking ticket for crossing in the middle of the block on Mission Boulevard in Hayward to go to the Turf Club, a gay bar back in the 1970s. The cop who gave me a ticket actually apologized and said that he didn’t regard this as legitimate police work. The ticket was $5, and I didn’t bother to pay it so I got a $50 warrant. The next time I had an encounter with the police, the warrant came up and I went to jail. For jaywalking.

  • voltairesmistress

    Wow! I loved the Turf Club. Is it still there?
    The high cost of today’s jaywalking and bicycling tickets have me deciding to tell cops I am not carrying my wallet/id with me. I give a different name and old address from out of state. Politely, of course. So far, nobody has hauled me down to the police station for not having ID when being cited. And even if I do get prosecuted at some point, it is about a $1000 fine, about twice what some of these infractions would be after all costs. One can end up in jail for up to a year, but if one has no prior record, that is extremely unlikely. I am fine with taking that risk. But I could understand that many people of vulnerable legal status (immigrants, etc.) would not want risk that.

  • Elias Zamaria

    I have seen something like this in Washington DC. They have walk signals but the timer shows up as soon as the walk signal comes on, instead of being hidden until the flashing hand. I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else, although I wish I would.

  • Prinzrob

    A situation I encounter frequently is this: A light turns green in my direction and the pedestrian walk light comes on, but I can’t enter the crosswalk because drivers who entered the intersection late in their phase are still crossing. By the time the crosswalk is clear just a few seconds later the flashing/countdown phase has already started, meaning I can’t legally enter the crosswalk. This repeats ad nauseum, with no pedestrian ever able to legally cross.

    Another pet peeve is when a pedestrian beg button is pushed just a split second after the green light comes on, but I still am not given a walk beacon and have to wait through another whole signal phase.

    I guarantee that whoever designed these systems did not spend much time outside walking.

  • gb52

    I’m glad to see that this is such a hot topic here in LA and in so many other cities as well. I do see a reason for the “beg” buttons as long as they give priority and extended crossing times for pedestrians since “smart” signals are important tools when used for transit and other reasons (think of those times when you’re walking, there are absolutely no cars coming but the light is against you… )

    But the notion that the police, in LA and otherwise are ticketing people who SAFELY cross with adequate time left (not counting the folks that dash across with a mere second or two), there is absolutely no reason for a ticket. However people must also understand that they need to be clear of the intersection when the do not walk sign is solid so that pedestrians also do not impede the movement of cars. (this creates gridlock, frustration, and inevitably dangerous vehicular maneuvers that create collisions.

    So I definitely agree and i’m frankly still shocked to see how many pedestrian focused stings are going on: people who are both aware of their surroundings and can predictably and safely cross a street, are being ticketed for no reason! Ticket dangerous behavior like people darting into the street without regard to traffic, but this is nonsense.

  • chairs_missing

    I’ve written the City of Pasadena about this twice now… no response :/

  • leetramp

    And there are many timers I have seen that end WAY before the car light turns yellow. I see this especially in the burbs where the car times are LONG, and the pedestrians are only give a few seconds of green before the countdown timer starts.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Interesting story (or not): There is an access road that heads into the Union Station grounds from Cesar E Chavez Blvd. The light and walk signal are set to always give Cesar Chavez traffic the right of way, and yet there are still beg buttons to cross that access driveway.

    I used the MyLADOT website to request the beg buttons be removed as they served no purpose, and to my surprise a nice staffer from LADOT called me back to follow up on my request. He politely told me that it’s true the beg buttons were not active at this intersection, but because the department doesn’t see the upside to removing the buttons, they would not be expending resources to remove them. Had I not been tired after a day of travelling (I was on vacation at the time of the callback), I might have had the wherewithal to note that to minimize waste, the beg buttons should be removed and returned to LADOT stockpiles for future use or recycling. (Or, barring that, perhaps some sort of high-visibility “button no longer in service” sticker could be placed on the inactive beg buttons so that approaching pedestrians don’t feel they have to run to press them in time to beat the light cycle or keep pounding on them in vain when they don’t even work.)

    I know it may not seem that important in the grand scheme of things, but to me it’s just another example of how pedestrian issues are given short shrift by LADOT. (I mean, when an intersection is converted from stop signs to traffic lights, the old sign poles are removed, so why not out-of-service beg buttons?

  • RedBaron77

    No. You went to jail for not paying the fine. Silly as the fine may be, you caused the warrant by not paying it.

  • Nun U.R. Bizness

    As someone who drove for decades in NY, lived in Ohio and moved to LA I have to say I have never seen a place where pedestrians go about with such an air of privilege. You people have no clue how much cars here bow to your needs compared to other cities. You guys should stop whining and realize how good you have it and start realizing a car can hurt a person, but a person cant hurt a car and THAT is why it is your duty to be a safe pedestrian and not walk around with your eyes closed and think everything is about you.

  • Joe Linton

    All those people walking around with their eyes closed! Scandalous!

  • neroden

    A pedestrian can totally hurt a car. Oddly, it’s considered illegal when pedestrians cut car tires and smash car windows, but it’s considered legal for motorists to maim and kill pedestrians.

  • Alex Brideau III

    “a car can hurt a person, but a person cant hurt a car and THAT is why it is your duty to be a safe pedestrian” [sic]

    Incorrect. While indeed all road users should always be as safe as possible, vehicle drivers have the unique ability to easily hurt/kill other road users. Thus, the greatest “duty” of responsibility should rest upon their shoulders.

  • Michael Lewyn

    It seems to me that the city council should be able to fix this quite easily. All they need do is pass the following ordinance: “no police officer may issue a jaywalking ticket to a pedestrian, nor may any employee of the city do anything to enforce such a citation.” Why wouldn’t that end the problem?

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’m with you and also rush to place my foot on the roadway in those precious few seconds of legal crossing time. That’s exactly why I’d prefer to see a walk-signal countdown timer instead or in addition to the flashing-hand timer.

    Cars get a yellow light to warn them that it’s about to be illegal to enter the intersection. Why don’t I get the courtesy of such a warning as well?

  • vostok

    This law is a crime against humanity and is another reflection of how the republic has failed the public. Defining jaywallking to be illegal upon the countdown makes no sense, and is nothing but a penalty income source for the insolvent cities that enforce such an inhumane law. However, no one asks on the uses of these fund, namely the corrupt cops that are charging overtime and milking the city’s General Fund while sitting on their fat asses. Why should law abiding tax payers pay for this horse shi*t? If anything needs reform, it is firstly to repeal this unjust law and then on the flip side cap officers’ pay so those fat f*cks learn their place in society as nothing short of human garbage not worthy of any real salary.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Another beg button annoyance of mine (at a “standard”, no-protected-turns intersection) is when a fellow pedestrian has requested the parallel walk signal and the light turns green and the walk signal only lights up on their side, not mine. My frustration with this gets compounded with the one-second-too-late beg button issue.

    At a “standard” intersection with no turn-arrow light phases, there seems to be no logical reason in allowing one crosswalk to walk while prohibiting the parallel crosswalk from doing so. The only “justification” I can dream up for this is that the goal is to convince drivers that because no one pressed the button on this side of the intersection in time, they need not watch for pedestrians when turning.

    If the City is serious about implementing a Vision Zero policy, updating the programming on these beg buttons would be a small but significant first step.