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Even when the law forbids it, “jaywalking” is the rational and natural choice

In the US, we all grow up learning that jaywalking is dangerous and illegal. Most of the time, we don’t question that. Of course people shouldn’t step outside of designated walking paths after waiting for the pedestrian signal to turn and after looking both ways. Of course streets are for cars, so people outside of cars shouldn’t expect to be safe. Eventually this thought process brings us to its ultimate conclusion: of course that person killed by a car brought her fate upon herself, she was jaywalking.

This is the logic that car-culture sells, but we don’t have to buy it. Angie Schmitt and Charles T. Brown wrote a recent article for Bloomberg CityLab: “9 Reasons to Eliminate Jaywalking Laws Now”. They premise it on the idea that jaywalking laws don’t even do the one thing that they’re supposed to do: make our streets safer. For example, pedestrians are killed just as often at crosswalks as they are on other parts of the street, and the laws are enforced unevenly. But one of their points especially stuck out to me:

5. When pedestrians jaywalk, they are often behaving rationally.

Jaywalking laws are not flexible enough to account for the range of scenarios pedestrians encounter, including prolonged signal timings and delays that give priority to automobiles. In some cases, jaywalking is driven by the fear of crime, particularly in low-income communities. In others, there simply aren’t enough crosswalks, or crosswalks are at the wrong location.

Jaywalking may be the most rational choice given a host of bad options. For example, an investigation into the nation-leading pedestrian deaths in Arizona by the Arizona Republic last year found only about a third of the pedestrians killed in Phoenix were near (within 500 feet of) a crosswalk. The reporters concluded there was a need for more crosswalks, not a crackdown on jaywalkers.

Among their arguments about history, engineering, and law enforcement, this is the one that focuses on the walkers themselves. I think that this cuts to the heart of why jaywalking laws are so problematic. Once we start to empathize with the walkers as rational people just like us, the laws are obviously wrong.

When you’re driving at 45 MPH down a four-lane road and you see a walker hustling across ahead of you, it’s easy to dismiss him or her as reckless, criminal, or just plain stupid (which is the actual meaning of “jay” in “jaywalk”). But if you were to switch places with that person, the situation may look completely different. As a walker, you just want to cross the street. You know that the closest crosswalk is far away and has a long light, so only a foolish person would waste their time on that route. Why not just cross here?

Both drivers and walkers are people who want to get from point A to point B. The drivers have the luxury of a transportation system that’s built to make their trips as easy as possible. The walkers have to work against the system. Playing by the rules, walking far away to a crosswalk and then walking all the way back on other other side of the road, is a ridiculous option to anyone in that situation.

Complying with pedestrian laws is so difficult that most walkers would rather just take out a loan on a vehicle and join the winning side of our pay-to-play transportation system. If we want to reverse this cycle, we desperately need to advocate for the dignity, and rationality, of people on foot.