California, Where Jaywalking Laws were Invented, Now Legalizes It

Jaywalking laws have been used as a pretext for over-policing that has disproportionately hurt Black and Latinx Californians.

Pedestrians walking everywhere in Detroit, 1917
Pedestrians walking everywhere in Detroit in 1917, before there were jaywalking laws.

Library of Congress

According to Peter Norton in "Fighting Traffic," jaywalking became illegal with a 1925 law in Los Angeles that was copied everywhere.

The ordinance codified pedestrians’ confinement to sidewalks and crossings , leaving to individual cities the choice of how far to go. At a minimum, cities adopting the ordinance would require pedestrians to yield the pavement to motorists everywhere except in a crosswalk. At their discretion, cities could require pedestrians to cross only at crosswalks , even in the absence of motor traffic.

And now, the State of California has passed The Freedom To Walk Act, which decriminalized crossing the street outside of an intersection when it is deemed safe to cross, something that everybody does.

As Matt of California YIMBY tweets, and we have noted previously, Jaywalking laws were introduced because pedestrians were being killed by cars in great numbers, but regulating cars would be inconvenient for drivers. So laws were passed to shift responsibility from drivers to walkers. According to Norton, People who walk had to be taught and they had to be regulated, to be “lawful and considerate” of the needs of cars.

“Pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights”, said George Graham, auto manufacturer and chairman of the safety committee, National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, in 1924. “We are living in a motor age, and we must have not only motor age education but a motor age sense of responsibility."
where is it safe to cross

Kiwanis via Copenhagenize

The problem is that once automobiles got rights, people lost them. And since the dawn of the automobile age, these rules have been disproportionately used against black people. As Assemblyman Phil Ting, who introduced the bill, notes:

“It should not be a criminal offense to safely cross the street. When expensive tickets and unnecessary confrontations with police impact only certain communities, it’s time to reconsider how we use our law enforcement resources and whether our jaywalking laws really do protect pedestrians,” said Ting. “Plus, we should be encouraging people to get out of their cars and walk for health and environmental reasons.”

Ting cites data showing that black people are cited up to four and a half times as often as white people. Poorer people of color also live in areas with fewer crosswalks and safe places to cross; there could be miles between safe intersections. This makes them easy picking for the police.

"Jaywalking laws do more than turn an ordinary and logical behavior into a crime; they also create opportunities for police to racially profile. A jaywalking ticket can turn into a potentially life-threatening police encounter, especially for Black people, who are disproportionately targeted and suffer the most severe consequences of inequitable law enforcement," said Jared Sanchez, Senior Policy Advocate for CalBike.

According to Calbike, the new bill legalizes walking by:

  • Decriminalize safe, commonsense street crossing, when traffic permits, whether or not a pedestrian is within a marked/unmarked crosswalk.
  • Remove a pretext for over-policing that has disproportionately hurt Black and Latinx Californians.
  • Recognize the rights of pedestrians to fair and equitable use of our public roadways.
  • End a traffic enforcement practice that places an undue financial burden on low-income residents through fines, fees, and penalties without increasing safety.

This is only one of many rules that are used to harass people of color; according to historian Sarah Seo, author of “Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom,” The history of cars and policing are deeply connected. According to the Harvard Gazette,

"In her book, she writes that the mass production of cars, and the traffic safety issues that ensued, led to the professionalization of the police. In the early 20th century, traffic norms were enforced via the honor system and through voluntary and civic associations, but when traffic safety became too big an issue to be left to self-governance, police were given the task of overseeing traffic law enforcement." They were not evenhanded.

“As soon as Black people began driving, they experienced not just discourteous, but also abusive, violent, and unconstitutional policing,” said Seo. “Racism on the road became even more entrenched when traffic violations were used to pursue criminal investigation.”

It's time to change the rules of the road, the designs of the road, and maybe even the police to stop this from happening. California's AB 2147 was a good place to start, but there is a long way to go.