A FEW years ago, I was waiting to cross the street in Los Angeles.
And kept waiting.
I watched several cycles of traffic go through the intersection. I checked my iPhone. I admired the distant Hollywood Hills.
But the indication to walk never came. I was contemplating a four-lane dash when a man appeared who told me I had to press the “Walk” button. I did, and at the next signal change for cars, my signal appeared as well.
At first, I applauded this municipal beneficence, which I encountered during a visit while researching my book. Los Angeles is looking after its pedestrians! In New York City, by contrast, the once-functioning “Walk” buttons were left to go dormant, then largely removed. But in my subsequent visits to Los Angeles, my feelings have shifted.
The reason the buttons were rendered obsolete in New York is that there was no need for them. There were always pedestrians waiting to cross. In Los Angeles, the working button came to seem a rare and feeble plea: May Iplease cross the street?
Let’s put aside the tired trope that no one walks in Los Angeles — Ray Bradbury nailed that one with his 1951 short story “The Pedestrian,” about a man picked up by the police for the suspicious activity of walking. In fact, Los Angeles has many places that are quite pleasant for walking.
Take the Silver Lake neighborhood: It does not even rank among the city’s top 20 “most walkable” areas, according to the website Walk Score, yet still wins 75 points (“most errands can be accomplished on foot”) — a number that puts many American cities to shame. In 2012, the city hired its first “pedestrian coordinators.”
But then came the surest indication of a walking resurgence in Los Angeles: It suddenly had a pedestrian problem. As The Los Angeles Times reported, the Police Department was targeting people for a variety of pedestrian violations in downtown Los Angeles — an area that once featured as an emptied post-apocalyptic wasteland in the 1971 science fiction movie “The Omega Man,” but has of late enjoyed a renaissance of life, much of it occasioned by foot traffic.
“We’re heavily enforcing pedestrian violations because they’re impeding traffic and causing too many accidents and deaths,” said Lt. Lydia Leos of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Thus a familiar pattern reasserts itself: The best way to reduce pedestrian deaths is to issue tickets to pedestrians. A similar dynamic can be seen in recent weeks after a spate of pedestrian deaths in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has endorsed more aggressive enforcement by the New York Police Department against jaywalkers.
Enforcement against jaywalking varies between states, but it is an infraction in most, even a misdemeanor in some. The international picture is mixed: Crossing the road at other than a designated spot is also an offense in Canada, Spain, Poland and Australia, among other countries. Singapore is especially harsh — jaywalking can earn a three-month prison sentence. As you might expect, Scandinavian countries are less punitive. In Britain, the term is rare, and the presumption is that crossing the road safely is a matter of personal responsibility.
But neither enforcement nor education has the effect we like to think it does on safety. Decades of graphic teenage driving safety films did not bring down teenage driving deaths; what did was limiting the age and conditions under which teenagers could begin to drive. Similarly, all the “awareness campaigns” on seatbelt usage have had a fraction of the impact of simply installing that annoying chime that impels drivers to buckle up.
If tough love will not make pedestrians safer, what will? The answer is: better walking infrastructure, slower car speeds and more pedestrians. But it’s easier to write off the problem as one of jaywalkers.
Nowadays, the word connotes an amorphous urban nuisance. In fact, the term once referred to country bumpkins (“jays”), who came to the city and perambulated in a way that amused and exasperated savvy urban bipeds. As the historian Peter Norton has documented, the word was then overhauled in the early part of the 20th century. A coalition of pro-automobile interests Mr. Norton calls “motordom” succeeded in shifting the focus of street safety from curbing the actions of rogue drivers to curbing rogue walkers. The pedestrian pushback was shortlived: An attempt to popularize the term “jay driver” was left behind in a cloud of exhaust.
Sure, we may call an errant driver, per the comedian George Carlin, an “idiot” or a “maniac,” but there is no word to tar an entire class of negligent motorists. This is because of the extent to which driving has been normalized for most Americans: We constantly see the world through what has been called the “windshield view.”
Those humans in Los Angeles who began walking a second or two after the light was blinking were, after all, violating the “Vehicle Code.” Note that cars, apparently, do not violate a “Human Code.”
As for pedestrian safety, which is the typical stated purpose of jaywalking crackdowns, more pedestrians generally are killed in urban areas by cars violating their right of way than are rogue pedestrians violating vehicles’ right of way. Then there are those people struck on sidewalks, even inside restaurants. What do we call that? Jay-living?
I routinely jaywalk across one-way streets with my young daughter in our Brooklyn neighborhood. I do this not as an act of vigilante pedestrianism, but simply because the times we came closest to being hit by cars were when we had the “Walk” signal and a driver attempted to make a turn.
Pedestrians, who lack air bags and side-impact crash protection, are largely rational creatures. Studies have shown that when you shorten the wait to cross a street, fewer people will cross against the light. When you tell people how long they must wait to cross, fewer people will cross against the signal.
When you actually give people a signal, more will cross with it. As the field of behavioral economics has been discovering, rather than penalizing people for opting out of the system, a more effective approach is to make it easier to opt in.
The Los Angeles Police Department may be patrolling on foot in downtown Los Angeles, but it is still looking through the windshield.