In defense of jaywalking

No, it’s not a very good idea. Learning about traffic issues and observing the drivers on Mass. Ave. has scared me into the crosswalk. (And by “jaywalking,” I’m talking about crossing Mass. Ave outside of a crosswalk.)

Some jurisdictions discourage jaywalking though strict enforcement, but it seems to be part of New England’s pedestrian DNA. Here are two dirty secrets about jaywalking that you should know.

First of all, jaywalking speeds traffic. Not in every case, but in aggregate. Jaywalkers do not trigger the walk cycle at traffic lights or (usually) stop traffic the way that pedestrians in marked crossings do (You do stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, don’t you?)

Planners are aware that accommodating jaywalkers, for instance by building raised medians such as those on Mass. Ave. in North Cambridge, can facilitate traffic flow by reducing stops for pedestrians.

Second, paradoxically, jaywalking is safer. The Federal Highway Administration found that for multi-lane roads such as Mass. Ave.

having a marked crosswalk was associated with a higher pedestrian crash rate (after controlling for other site factors) compared to an unmarked crosswalk.

The FHA concludes that to be safer than “unmarked crosswalks” (i.e. jaywalking) the marked crosswalks need

more substantial improvements … for safer pedestrian crossings, such as providing raised medians, installing traffic signals (with pedestrian signals) when warranted, implementing speed-reducing measures, and/or other practices.

I’m making these points not to encourage jaywalking, but for two reasons.

First, those “more substantial improvements” (pedestrian islands, bump outs) that are part of the Mass. Ave. plan are tremendously important. They make the unsignalized crosswalks safer, and without them the crosswalks are really not very safe at all.

Second, some of the design changes that slow traffic and eliminate multiple-lane threats make the street safer for everyone, even jaywalkers. Even though jaywalking is wrong, that’s a good thing.

When tragedy strikes there is a tendency to seek a moral lesson. In terms of death or injury from automobiles, people want to know things like, Was the cyclists wearing a helmet? Was the pedestrian in a a crosswalk? although these things often have no bearing on the actual events of the crash.

Whether you were in a crosswalk or not, you can be just as dead.

When it comes to safety, it shouldn’t be about who was at fault. Even if jaywalking is illegal, transgressors should face a civil fine, not the death penalty.

Note: Quotes from Safety Effects of Marked versus Unmarked Crosswalks at Uncontrolled Locations: Final Report and Recommended Guidelines, HRT-04-100, Federal Highway Administration, Washington, DC, September 2005; page 51.

2 comments so far

  1. dr2chase on

    Why shouldn’t jaywalking be encouraged, if it reduces the risk of being hit by a car? Is obeying the law more important than avoiding death? That’s not rational behavior.

    • Mark Kaepplein on

      Jaywalking is slightly safer than crossing multiple lanes at unsignaled intersections because the jaywalkers use more caution and rely less on faith that everyone: can see them in often dark clothing; vision won’t be blocked by a big SUV (purchased to accommodate mandated child car seats); and will stop. Curb extensions provide zero safety benefits – they are cosmetic to mainly give the appearance of safety.

      Raised median is the real winner, but bicyclists rather have the space for bike lanes which also don’t improve safety. Cyclists and pedestrians compete with planners and landscape architects who want wider sidewalks for expensive landscaping and street clutter. I predict that eventually the safe raised medians of North Cambridge will be lost to bike lanes – not the excessively wide sidewalks. I wish instead that obese sidewalks everywhere were considered having part marked for bicycle use at jogging speeds.

      Sadly, Mass Ave plans don’t include any on demand pedestrian crossing signals as ALL the residents have wanted. Too much money was wasted on features that don’t enhance safety.

      Another fact about jaywalking is that the slower the traffic, the more jaywalking occurs, which leads to more slowdowns for traffic, thus more particulate pollution from brake dust and green house gas production from resuming speed after slowing for jaywalkers.

      So, exactly where are those communities that ticket jaywalkers? The fine is $1 in Massachusetts, $2 for habitual offenders. What is the fine where there is enforcement?

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