‘It is the self-conceited individual who thinks people are cattle and run upon them tooting a horn. Make every machine stop and wait until the road is clear. Give precedent to people who are walking. The streets belong to the people and not to any one class. We have an equal right, in fact, more right than the automobile.’
The metamorphosis of city streets from places for gathering into high-speed automobile highways was not a natural process. This transformation was a bloody coup orchestrated by the affluent and powerful at the expense of the commons. It was not for accommodation of the masses, though it was deceptively marketed as such. This history of destruction, the dismantling of streets as public space, is perhaps the least known American injustice that’s provoked the greatest unseen harm to our lives.
On May Day 2013, I explained via megaphone this criminalization of walking to a crowd of about 60 protesters. I spoke about police departments the world over using these laws to suppress civil disobedience and social rebellion during the last century. After sharing this dismal account, the entire group participated in an ‘un-permitted march’ that drew the response of some 40 armed PPB officers, as well as several marked Homeland Security vehicles.
You’d have thought some serious criminal activity was about to go down. Considering human beings have enjoyed walking safely within the common space of the urban street for thousands of years, you gotta’ ask yourself: How in hell did we get here?
The answers have actually been well documented, but still remain far outside the public conscious. We’re constantly told that streets are for cars, even though this has only been the norm over just the last eight decades. Prior to these modern times of convenience, streets, especially in the city, were for children to play in, to sell food from, to celebrate in, they were the place to bump into old friends and to meet new ones. This was how we lived for millennia. Then we threw it all away.
When automobiles began appearing on city streets around the turn of the century, they were slow, loud, and hard to miss. Still, they were lethal when striking a person, even though in 1910 the average urban speed limit in America was just 10mph. Deaths caused by these machines elicited rightful outrage and garnered much media attention. It was quickly understood, cars were fundamentally incompatible with humans and how people were accustomed to using the street. As more and more motorized vehicles invaded the city, fatalities were increasing. The auto industry realized it had a problem. The impression of their product as deadly was beginning to have a backlash. To solve this, there would come a radical shift in the perception of the act of walking.
Hence, the term ‘jay-walking’ was coined in a move of marketing brilliance at the same time motor clubs were successfully petitioning local governments to make walking illegal. In essence, a ‘jay’ walker was a country hick who lacked the sophistication necessary to yield to wealthy, metropolitan motorists. Not only was walking now the unfashionable habit of an imbecile, it was also the proclivity of the poor. Pedestrians were framed as literally standing in the way of progress and modernism. During this period, the first president of the criminal enterprise known as the Yellow Cab Company stated, “We fear the jay-walker worse than the anarchist, and Chicago is his native home.”
For a period of some 30 years, law enforcement, city officials, the public, and auto lobbyists struggled for and against these changes. Many op-eds chastised the term jaywalker as overly condescending. In 1915, the NY Times characterized use of the label as “shocking and opprobrious“. A judge running for re-election in Detroit recognized that people walking needed protection, “The pedestrians have a right in the street, however much reckless drivers insist to the contrary.”
Despite this, the power and speed of the motor car made protest difficult. Some fought back by deliberately avoiding cross-walks while racking up as many jaywalking tickets as possible. But cars were moving more rapidly, and their numbers increased every day. Laws were being enacted to reflect changing values. E. B. Lefferts of the Automobile Club of Southern California knew the key to cementing this change lay in shaming people. In 1927 he articulated his schemes, “We have recognized that in controlling traffic, we must take into consideration the study of human psychology, rather than approach it solely as an engineering problem. The ridicule of their fellow citizens is far more effective than any other means which might be adopted.”
Auto manufacturers were keen on the shaming game. In 1922 Detroit, the Packard Motor Car Company built a massive tombstone meant to mock a similar memorial for actual fatalities of children in Boston. On Packard’s tombstone was inscribed “Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking.” Once you’ve mustered the courage to mock dead children as part of your campaign, you’re probably no longer concerned with backlash. Truthfully, by the year 1930, the fight was over. The invasive auto species had victoriously dominated the urban street. Walking anywhere but the narrow sidewalk was now a crime. The term ‘jaywalker’ has endured, as has the culture of victim-blaming that perseveres today.
In our modern era, a man is killed by a truck racing at 60mph on a surface street and the headlines don’t mention speeding at all. A woman crossing a busy road witnesses one of her children struck and killed by an impaired driver, yet authorities charge her with vehicular manslaughter. The practice of shaming pedestrians has deteriorated to the point where you can be arrested simply for picking up your kids from school on foot.
To be sure, policing was merely a supplement to the effort to abolish walking in the street. Now, law enforcement is willfully complicit with the violence inflicted by the automobile. Unless there is overwhelming evidence that a motorist deliberately intended to kill or maim a person walking or cycling, there likely won’t be any charges for the driver at all.
Which brings me back to May Day, 2013. The ‘march’ we engaged in involved – in total – the act of calmly and legally crossing the street at a marked crosswalk. Local media actually voiced disappointment that there was no altercation with the dozens of police officers present, who were left standing useless as we celebrated our successful action. Had we walked up the street instead of merely crossing it, the officers would have certainly beaten and arrested us, just as they did to protesters May Day, 2012.
On that May 1st, the police violently tackled to the ground and arrested over 35 people. While the charges filed varied from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest, the Portland Mercury pointed out the obvious – that these people were the victims of police battery solely for the traffic offense of jaywalking.
Many have claimed crossing the street at-will is far safer than at crosswalks, with some citing a 28% variance in collisions based on crossing method. Ultimately, if we want to reclaim our commons from commodification and make walking safe again, we’re going to have to do far more than simply step off the curb and into the street. It will require new shifts in culture, and perhaps utilizing methods of shaming isn’t such a bad way to go.
Nothing, however, changes driving habits more than the built infrastructure of the street itself. Diverting auto traffic from residential streets, reducing parking availability, and increasing the multiple expenses of the automobile are also excellent tools to continue cutting the car out of our lives. Like a tumor upon the city, it will take time to treat.
We’ll likely need more than just three decades to undo the damage the automobile has wrought. Tragically, in that time, many more people will die while walking across streets. Let’s make sure their deaths aren’t in vain.