A conspiracy of the auto industry, you say? Why that's just crazy talk.

The Invention of Jaywalking

Drivers who kill or maim pedestrians with their vehicles are still only rarely treated as criminals, as long as they are not drunk and do not flee the scene. Even that is sometimes not enough to merit serious charges.

It wasn't always like this. Browse through New York Times accounts of pedestrians dying after being struck by automobiles prior to 1930, and you'll see that in nearly every case, the driver is charged with something like "technical manslaughter." Across the country, drivers were held criminally responsible when they killed or injured people with their vehicles. [...]

The paper opined that even in the case of a child darting out into traffic, a driver who disclaimed responsibility was committing "the perjury of a murderer."

Norton explains that in the automobile's earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver. [...]

Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city [...] The industry lobbied to change the law, promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of "jaywalking" - a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 - was enshrined in law.

The Crisis of Pedestrianism

He wondered about that inescapable word: pedestrian. If we were to find ourselves out hiking on a forest trail and spied someone approaching at a distance, he wanted to know, would we think to ourselves, "Here comes a pedestrian"?

Of course we wouldn't. That approaching figure would simply be a person. Pedestrian is a word born from opposition to other modes of travel; the Latin pedester, on foot, gained currency by its semantic tension with equester, on horse. But there is an implied -- indeed, synonymous -- pejorative. This dates from Ancient Greece. [...] In other words, not to be on a horse, flying or otherwise, was to be utterly unremarkable and mundane. To this day, Ronkin was intimating, the word pedestrian bears not only that slightly alien whiff, but the scars of condescension.

Simply by going out for a walk, I had become a strange being, studied by engineers, inhabiting environments whose physical features are determined by a rulebook-enshrined average 3 foot-per-second walking speed, my rights codified by signs. (Why not just write: "Stop for People"?) On those same signs in Savannah were often attached additional signs, advising drivers not to give to panhandlers (and to call 911 if physically intimidated), subtly equating walking with being exposed to an urban menace -- or perhaps being the menace.

Having taken all this information in, we would gingerly step into the marked crosswalk, that declaration of rights in paint, and try to gauge whether approaching vehicles would yield. They typically did not. Even in one of America's most "pedestrian-friendly" cities -- a seemingly innocent phrase that itself suddenly seemed strange to me -- one was always in danger of being relegated to a footnote.

Which is what walking in America has become: An act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text. Indeed, the semantics of the term pedestrian would be a mere curiosity, but for one fact: America is a country that has forgotten how to walk. [...]

Despite these upsides, in an America enraptured by the cultural prosthesis that is the automobile, walking has become a lost mode, perceived as not a legitimate way to travel but a necessary adjunct to one's car journey, a hobby, or something that people without cars -- those pitiable "vulnerable road users," as they are called with charitable condescension -- do.

Previously, previously, previously, previously.

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16 Responses:

  1. Don Hopkins says:

    Hans Monderman -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Monderman -- was a Dutch traffic designer who
    came up with the urban design concept called Shared Spaces -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shared_space -- which involves removing traffic regulation signs and mixing cars, pedestrians, bikes together in shared public spaces, so people have to make eye contact, negotiate their movement directly with each other, and take personal responsibility for their actions, instead of blindly following the directions of traffic signs.

    "Individuals' behaviour in traffic is more positively affected by the built environment of the public space than it is by conventional traffic control devices and regulations."

    It's reduced traffic accidents in the European cities where it's been applied, but somehow I think it wouldn't work well in America.

    • ix says:

      I think it works well in spaces where you want to slow down traffic. It's quite obvious that in a "shared space" you can't drive the type of speed you drive on a normal road. So on innercity roads where the city is trying to limit the max speed to something very low (around here, typically 30kph) I can definitely see it making sense. But it doesn't extend to all roads, some roads you wish to be able to drive faster. That's where the whole keeping pedestrians out of the road idea makes sense.

      I'm a bit confused by this "conspiracy" idea anyway. Clearly their lobbying was out in the open. And the reason it won the day was, in the end, that people agree with it. As you get more people driving cars, you realise you need some sort of structural solution. This might not be the optimal one, but surely nobody's suggesting that limiting all cars in the US to 25mph is a better one?

      • Eric says:

        Why not? The average speed most vehicles make through my local city is 15-20 mph once all the traffic control devices are taken into account. I can bike faster than that, but am forced to slow down and deal with cars speeding past me only to be stopped a few hundred yards down the road. While I'm sure this wouldn't work in some larger metro areas, it would work in the vast majority of the urban areas I have been in. On top of that high speed roads and road maintenance is expensive and should be limited to those areas where it will really make a difference.

      • Hex says:

        Shared space is based on the assumption that drivers will behave themselves in the presence of pedestrians and bikes. Unfortunately, that assumption just isn't true when there are lots and lots of drivers.

        Here in London one of our major thoroughfares, Exhibition Road, home to a number of major and historic museums and a major tourist draw, was recently converted to shared space (at a vast cost, but that's a separate issue). It simply hasn't worked. The cars just bully their way through everyone else.

        Shared space may work on a small scale on quieter streets but it isn't a panacea for urban environments.

        • Dan L says:

          I wonder if crossing Exhibition Road would be a better experience if I were to walk my bike out in front of me... so drivers who fail to yield would side-swipe my bike instead of me.

          • Alex says:

            Monderman, on one of his projects, removed all the road signs in town except for one at the city limit that said "NO SIGNS". Highway engineering with a sense of humour.

      • jwz says:

        I just want to point out that the internalization of the status quo that caused you to use the phrase "normal road" exactly makes the point of both of these articles.

        A "conspiracy" need not be secret. Here we have collusion by various monied interests to manipulate public opinion, public space, and language itself to their own financial benefit but the great detriment of society, resulting in a fantastic tragedy of the commons and a century's worth of the rest of us picking up their hidden costs.

  2. CTD says:

    >Which is what walking in America has become: An act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text. Indeed, the semantics of the term pedestrian would be a mere curiosity, but for one fact: America is a country that has forgotten how to walk.

    Up to this point, I was wondering whether the author had ever visited countries like India, where pedestrians are first-class citizens whether they're human or not. But the gassy deconstructionspeak assured me that he has not even spent much time on the Prime Material Plane.

    • Jorm says:

      Are we talking about the same India?

      Because in the India that I know, walking onto a street - even at an "intersection", even "with the light", is a near-suicidal act. Drivers slow for no one or nothing; traffic "laws" are simple, vague, and ignored guidelines, and "stop lights" are "eh, if you want to, I guess, maybe".

      I have never experienced a greater terror than trying to cross the street in Mumbai. Never.

      • Joshuag says:

        Amen to that.

        My greatest moment of terror came on the outskirts of Pune, where the sundry country roads funnel into the city center. Unsafe for pedestrians and motorists alike.

        I asked my host on my first visit why everyone drove small, inexpensive cars, and he told me that you can really only expect 3 years out of a car on indian roads before it succumbs to the bump-and-run nature of indian traffic.

        I was all over the place in india and I never encountered a spot where I would have considered the pedestrian king, save for the side roads that were in such poor repair as to make motor vehicle passage at speed a significant danger.

      • CTD says:

        Oh, you're still mortal, but your rights are the same as those of a driver - you can effectively cross a street anytime you want. And they will try to not hit you. In my experience, on most streets the result is closer to the first clip here than to your account: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=726JIdqmQVs

        On more major streets it's more like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqlZFPjAI30&feature=related - you can still cross anytime, but people tend to do it in herds.

    • After about seven attempts, I still can't work out what you're trying to say.

      Having been a pedestrian in India, though, I can't remember ever feeling I was a "first class citizen". A country that still feels it necessary to erect signs exhorting people to actually stop at red lights is unlikely to form a useful data point in an article about responsibility on the road.

  3. Jeff says:

    Last time I was in the Netherlands, my friend was explaining to me that whenever there was an accident involving a car and a bicycle, the automobile driver was automatically at fault. Didn't matter what the bicyclist had done. Different perspective, more in line with relative kinetic energy - the effect is that car drivers are (more) careful.

    • chad says:

      So, you've been to Portland...

    • Rick C says:

      Those laws work right up until you get a malicious actor: "Hm, I need a new wardrobe, I think I'll ride my bike into the side of a slow-moving car."

  4. skreidle says:

    This seems relevant to bike:

    New Yorker rides into obstacles in bike lanes to prove a point | 22 Words -- [This is entertaining stuff. New Yorker Casey Neistat was ticketed $50 for riding his bike outside of a bike lane. He then made this PSA to show what happens to obedient NYC bicyclists who stay where they belong…]