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 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!)

  • Matt Ruscigno RD MPH

    This is very helpful. Glad you stole the idea!

  • I’ve noticed a lot of this kind of victim-blaming thinking recently. I live in New York City and there’s been a spate of it here. I used to live in London and it’s also currently popular there. It’s an easy way to seem to be addressing road safety issues while doing nothing of the sort. I wrote recently about some of the thinking and unpacked the statistics that prove it mistaken:

  • AlexHirsch

    Brigham Yen, not Brigham Young (first paragraph). Otherwise, great article!

  • If the lapd wants to make money they should simply enforce the noise ordinances in downtown and fine all the construction crews and garbage bin trucks that create illegal off-hours rackets. The problem is way out of hand and lapd officers appear to be ignoring it and in fact siding with the law breaking construction people.

    I complained recently to a couple of guys in a squad car about noise on a Sunday night that was shaking an entire building from a half block away. I was treated as if I should convince them that I even lived in the area. I felt that nothing short of a dinner invitation would put these mules at ease. After being told in no uncertain terms to do their goddam job, they did nothing but chat with the workers. Then they claimed there was a permit even though no one could produce it. Absurd. This is the kind of thing that hurts downtown, not jaywalking.

    A war on pedestrians is just a staggering stupidity. Nothing new from the dimwit chief of police and his easily antagonized troops.

  • DMalcolmCarson

    Maybe we should try to pilot a “jaywalking zone”, maybe someplace without much existing pedestrian infrastructure, but a lot of pedestrians, and then post “Yield to Pedestrians” signs all around it, and then see what happens . . .

  • Irwin Chen

    Someone should organize a civil disobedience protest in front of Parker Center. Mass “jaywalking” demonstration…

  • DTLARes

    In an argument between a pedestrian and a car’s bumper, the car will always win.

  • Christopher Kidd

    In an argument between a pedestrian and car’s bumper, the pedestrian will always win because car bumpers are inanimate objects and can neither speak nor formulate thoughts.

  • DTLARes

    Google “metaphor.”

  • weshigh

    I get that its a metaphor, but it really implies that cars drive themselves. Which they don’t, yet. There is a human behind the wheel that makes the choice to keep going or start going when they see a pedestrian crossing. Thats not bumper vs ped, that is human being irresponsible while driving.

  • DTLARes

    Google “metaphorically speaking.”

  • weshigh

    I still get that it is a metaphor. I just think its an overly simplistic metaphor that dehumanizes auto-pedestrians collisions. In my opinion that is bad for everyone.

  • DTLARes

    Tell that to the thousands of medical and public safety professionals who use the acronym “PVA” on a daily basis. And….wait for it….Yes, Google “PVA.”

  • weshigh

    Penn Virginia Corporation?, Paralyzed Veterans of America?, Polyvinyl alcohol?, Percision Valve and Automation?, Your Google advice is not working well. I assume you are referring to Pedestrian VS Automobile? I’d be happy to tell those thousands of medical and public safety professionals.

  • OK, as long as you know that Parker is empty because the LAPD moved to their new building.

  • Which, let us hope shall never bear the name of that terrorist.

  • Christopher Kidd

    Trolls stay trollin

  • Salts

    Google “joke,” “clever,” and “signs I am easily offended”

  • Alex

    this already exists in the concept of ‘shared space.’ There are numerous zones of this type within the UK. Their effectiveness is disputed.

  • DMalcolmCarson

    Sort of. The ones I’ve seen are narrow streets with parallel parking and it made me think, that’s basically how parking lots operate in the U.S. In a parking lot, cars are supposed to go less than 10 mph and generally expect that pedestrians could be anywhere and have the right of way. But I was thinking more along the lines of just taking a section of town where there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic and posting signs around it making it clear that pedestrians have the right of way anywhere within it.

  • CA for Sensible Crosswalk Laws

    Crossing the street while the countdown sign shows sufficient time to safely cross should not be against the law.

    Please consider writing to your state rep and state senator to ask them to change the law.

    You can find more info and a sample letter at:

  • Tombs31

    The folks commenting negatively on this subject seem to think their time is more important than the people in the vehicles. I can’t count how many times I have been the victim of some jerk weaving around or just cruising outside of the provided bike lane. If the drivers are supposed to realize that the yellow light means “don’t enter if you cannot clear the intersection if you can’t be completely clear by the time the red light is triggered”(not, “as long as the vehicle has entered the intersection before the light turns red I’m legal”, When a driver sees a bicyclist approaching on the sidewalk he has to wait, where he would have had time to turn if it had been a pedestrian at the same location. The cyclist could actually be out of the drivers field of vision, but still be going fast enough to get into the crosswalk and get hit . My personal favorite is the guy that is riding in the street properly and the light turns red causing the rider to swerve into the crosswalk to get across the intersection without stopping, then back into the street. I also believe that cars that stop in the crosswalk or pass a cyclist in an unsafe manner should be ticketed. If all traffic laws were observed instead of some folks trying to beat the system, we would see traffic as well as pedestrian travel much quicker.
    As to pedestrian safety(Arg. #2); Looking both ways, don’t cross except in crosswalks as well as, wait for the cars to pass are thing pounded into my head by my parents, as they should be. It is sad that a statement by the PD was even necessary! If people don’t do everything they can to not endanger themselves, legislation won’t help. A person doesn’t have the right to demand everyone else make sure he is safe. Parents today tell their kids that the car has to give them the right-of-way. Not true, they are SUPPOSED to give them the right-of-way in designated crosswalks and at corners regardless of designated crosswalk or not. This rule is strictly for ped. safety.
    When a person crosses at locations other than the ones mentioned, they are in violation of the law.

  • Tombs31

    or is it “pedestrian” being irresponsible crossing where or when he isn’t supposed to be?

  • Thanks for the information shared ” 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.” great post..


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