A bit over 100 years ago, the streets were for everyone: for walking, streetcars, and horse-drawn carriages, even for children playing. Jaywalking was not a crime, or even a concept that the average person on the street would comprehend.
Beginning in March, Virginia will take one large step back to that old concept of the streets when a bill decriminalizing jaywalking, HB 5058, takes effect. Under the new law, individuals cannot be stopped solely for jaywalking but, if stopped for another reason, can still be cited. The bill was enacted as criminal justice reform, folded in with measures prohibiting stops of motor vehicles for minor infringements and searches based on the odor of marijuana.
A governing.com article explains that “when a pedestrian does get a ticket for crossing in the wrong place, it is disproportionately likely to be a person of color.” This may be because these communities simply provide fewer places to safely and legally cross the street, or it may simply be harassment.
The new law “absolutely fits in with changing the nature of how the government is looking at pedestrians in the streetscape” Henry Dunbar, Director of Operations, Active Transportation, Arlington, told me. Criminalizing jaywalking has “just been something that’s been unnecessary as far as most of the pedestrian advocacy community has been concerned.”
Through some strange synchronicity, decriminalizing jaywalking also fits nicely into the Complete Streets movement, which seeks to end dominance of the car. Making streets safe and accessible to all modes, including buses, bikes, and people walking, will help all people and improve the environment. In turn, Complete Streets—if implemented widely, and not just in affluent neighborhoods—has a strong social justice orientation, since underserved neighborhoods have a higher proportion of residents without cars and a higher number of pedestrian deaths. According to one study, pedestrian-related hospitalizations , disproportionately affect minority groups and are 1.92 times higher for Multiracial/Other groups and 1.20 times higher for Blacks compared to Whites. Rethinking the way we walk, and reclaiming the streets, at least partially, will benefit public health in general and especially help underserved communities.
A Brief History of Jaywalking
The idea of automobiles as the “normal” mode of transportation, and other forms as intruders, seemed only natural in the latter part of the twentieth century, but there was a tumultuous earlier history. From 1915 through 1930, pedestrian advocates responded with horror to a slew of deaths, as documented in Peter D. Norton’s Fighting Traffic. “In the 1920s, motor vehicle accidents in the United States killed more than 200,000 people,” Norton explains, while in 1925 alone, “cars and trucks killed about 7,000 children.” Newspapers and activists of the day often took the side of people killed by cars, describing individual deaths and bemoaning drivers as “’joy riders,’ ‘road hogs,’ or ‘speed demons.’ Their machines were ‘juggernauts,’ ‘death cars,’ or ‘the modern Moloch.’”
In response, car manufacturers worked with motor organizations to normalize the car as the main form of transportation, for which the streets are designed, and to begin a regime of traffic laws that highly restricted movement on foot. Along with traffic signs, traffic cops, and a new network of signals, this included a new term, “jaywalker,” meant to show pedestrians that the streets are not for them. Motor industry advocates portrayed a “jay” as “a hayseed, out of place in the city; a jaywalker was someone who did not know how to walk in a city.” The effort was intentional and long-term, to make city streets a place for cars, to marginalize other forms of transportation, to make them seem out of place, even abnormal. With increasing design for automobiles and decreased public transit, alternatives diminished. Eventually, “the basic characteristic of the automobile-dominated city,” Norton quotes one expert, “is that, when one looks for an alternative to the private car, there is little or nothing there.”
A new reaction to the dominance of the motor car began in the 1970s, Norton explains, with a return to some advocacy for public transit. In the 21st Century, this has accelerated with the Complete Streets movement, and more recently with Vision Zero, which seeks to eliminate traffic deaths. The term “Complete Streets” was coined in 2003 and refers to efforts to “design and operate the entire right of way to prioritize safer slower speeds for all people who use the road, over high speeds for motor vehicles.” This can mean, for instance, slower car speeds, more frequent and safer crosswalks, and separate lanes for buses and bicycles. In many ways, this is a return to the way streets operated before 1915, although more conscious and organized, in reaction to the many decades of car dominance.
The new law decriminalizing jaywalking thus fits nicely into the Complete Streets paradigm. It also aligns with social justice efforts to provide safe transit for everyone, regardless of ability to afford a car.
Virginia, Complete Streets, and Vision Zero
Virginia, like many states, has advanced plans to reduce car dependence and make walking a more accepted part of the landscape. At the federal level, 1991 introduced The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act that called for a multimodal transportation system and “quadrupled federal funding for bicycle and pedestrian facilities” according to DRPT’s Multimodal System Design Guidelines. Change has been long coming, but “In 2018, VDOT [the Virginia Department of Transportation] developed its first statewide Pedestrian Safety Action Plan to address the continually increased rate of pedestrian fatalities,” including the goal to cut all traffic deaths in half by 2030, a vision that advances local Complete Streets policies.
“The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) supports the common transit goals of providing travelers with a safe, convenient, cost-effective, and reliable trip,” Amy Wight, Virginia’s Assistant Secretary of Transportation, told me in an e-mail interview. She touted the state’s commitment to the Toward Zero Deaths movement—a variation on Vision Zero for highways—that “uses a data-driven approach to reduce crash injuries and fatalities.” Wight also emphasized the physical safety of pedestrians around transit stops as a key part of a multimodal transportation system.
Whatever the laws about jaywalking, Wight emphasized careful walking practices as part of basic safety. “We all share our roads, so for everyone to get home safely, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists need to respect each other.” For pedestrians, this means planning safe routes, alert walking, and making sure to “dress to be seen, but never assume drivers see you.” It is also important to “be predictable, follow the rules of the road, and obey signs and signals,” Wight explained.
Certainly, in our current environment, we should all take these basic precautions. However, Vision Zero does emphasize changing the driving environment, through engineering and other methods, so that the onus is no longer on pedestrians to maintain safety. As the Vision Zero Network puts it, “Vision Zero recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities.”
We are far from that point, as pedestrian deaths and injuries remain serious in Virginia as they rise around the U.S. In 2019, Virginia had 1,625 pedestrian crashes, a .1 percent increase over 2018, with 124 deaths, a .8 percent increase, according to 2019 Virginia Traffic Crash Facts. The good news is that pedestrian injuries decreased by .6 percent. Meanwhile, fatalities moved from rural roadways—a 20.5 percent decrease—to urban streets, up 10.7 percent. The picture is mixed, but still grim.
How Arlington Fits In
Arlington has long been a national leader in Complete Streets and related efforts, such as Smart Growth, which is basically the built environment equivalent of Complete Streets. For over 50 years, Arlington has worked to build compact, walkable neighborhoods around key corridors and transit stations. This means that decriminalizing jaywalking might not have much of an impact in Arlington, where walking is safe and easy, at least compared to more car-oriented parts of America. Thus, Dunbar believes that for Arlington “we’re not going to see that much of a change at the street level,” regarding either pedestrian safety or police stops of Black and brown people. If this turns out to be true, it will demonstrate that Arlington’s Smart Growth policies have already had a long-term impact on social justice. It will be worth closely monitoring the impact on other, more car-oriented areas of the state. Perhaps the new law will provide additional incentive to move more quickly toward Complete Streets?
One intriguing aspect of decriminalizing jaywalking is its potential impact on mid-street crossings. In Arlington, 71 percent of critical pedestrian crashes from 2017-19 occurred in intersections, according to Vision Zero Systemic Analysis Data, with 34 percent occurring when cars are turning left. Nationally, however, over 75 percent of pedestrian fatalities do occur at non-intersection locations according to the Federal Highway Administration. Why the discrepancy? “I stress this is my opinion,” said Dunbar, but “it probably has to do with the fact that Arlington is an urban community with relatively few road-miles of straight highways or high-speed roads.” Arlington’s relatively safe pedestrian environment has already reduced the need to cross on dangerous stretches of road. Indeed, in 2010 Arlington had a death rate of .04 per 1000 drivers, among the lowest in the state, according to 2019 Virginia Traffic Crash Facts.
It could even be argued that mid-block crossings are safer than intersections, depending on circumstances. For instance, a wide grassy median mid-block means that pedestrians can cross half-way at a time, checking for traffic only one way each half. An idiosyncratic 1997 article on the fine art of jaywalking, by Lawrence G. Proulx, argues that “any experienced jaywalker prefers to cross away from the corner,” because “in the middle of the street cars can come at you from two directions. But at the corners you have to watch four directions.” While national statistics belie this, it does make a strong argument for more and better mid-block crossings around the state, and indeed the entire country. This is particularly true in areas with “super-blocks” that make it difficult to cross the street at all.
Mid-block crossings are just one area where the complete streets and Vision Zero movements are forcing a rethinking of practices. Slowing car speeds, narrowing streets and even removing lanes, pedestrian priority signals, and wider sidewalks are a few more areas being rethought. Placing the onus for avoiding danger on pedestrians amid a dangerous environment designed for speeding cars is the real problem, not jay walkers. Indeed, decriminalizing jaywalking best occurs in synch with continuing improvements to pedestrian safety. If the new law decriminalizing jaywalking can spur even more movement toward Complete Streets, it will be well worth it.