The Invention of Jaywalking

An interesting article from The Atlantic, about how we came to regard streets and roads as the exclusive domain of automobiles.

Twenty years ago, an out-of-control driver plowed through New York’s Washington Square Park, killing 5 people and injuring 27 others. That horrific incident caused a public outcry and galvanized advocates in what has become known as the livable streets movement. But the driver, a 74-year-old woman, was not charged with any crime.

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.” And it wasn’t just New York. Across the country, drivers were held criminally responsible when they killed or injured people with their vehicles.

So what happened? And when?

18 Responses to “The Invention of Jaywalking”

  1. BrianN says:

    Few of us remember those blissful days when we could shake our fists and yell “get a horse!” at those newfangled contraptions. And whatever happened to horses, those well bred animals, who kept thousands of stable-hands employed and American farmers busy harvesting hay to feed our home-bred transportation system (who ever heard of a Japanese Horse!) Well, look no further than Big Auto, who set out to crush the equestrian industry with its, “stop shitting on my street” campaign. If it weren’t for industries incessant lobbying and adversing surely Americans never would have sent their faithful steeds off to French resteraunts in exchange for a gas guzzling hunk of iron.

  2. matt says:

    Shh. You need a disguise, so you won’t startle the horses.

  3. Pitt says:

    There is incontrovertible proof that streets are not designed for pedestrians. It’s called the sidewalk. This article might as well have been written 100 years ago it’s so out of touch and out of date. Just more arrogant hipsters trying to cancel the last 100 years of progress so we can return to a simpler time when horses crapped everywhere and individual ownership of the automobile was limited to the rich and powerful.

  4. BrianN says:

    I find the fact that almost every aspect of modern life can be presented as, “back in the golden age, there were magical rainbows and people never got hurt, but then corporations came along and stole EVERYTHING, and never once did the fact that people just enjoyed the products those corporations made and chose to buy them and base there life around them have anything to do with… hang on I have to feed my cows on farmville.”

    Best part is the comments at the end of every Atlantic or NYT magazine.

  5. matt says:

    So, treating murder-or-injury-by-car as a criminal matter would be standing in the way of 100 years of progress. Got it.

    Ford’s in his flivver, and all is right with the world.

  6. BrianN says:

    Here’s an interesting graphic.

    Now I’ve lived a while in two of those cities: in one of them there is a belief that the road is a shared resource and that cars should be mindful of everyone and stop when they see a person who wants to cross the road.

    The other has several times the number of both cars and pedestrians. Everyone knows if you stand in front of moving car, you will die.

    Guess which one has the lower pedestrian death rate.

    It’s nice to have fantasies though.

  7. Pitt says:

    Brian, you’re forgetting the part where the evil corporations trick all the hapless consumers into buying their products through evil advertising.

    Yeah, I love the comments. Sometimes I wonder why politics in this country is so polarized. Then I read the comments section in a blog posting.

  8. Pitt says:

    I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta.

  9. BrianN says:

    To clarify. I think both New York and Boston have some very smart planning to keep pedestrians safe and they are both relatively safe, however, I don’t think teaching pedestrians that crosswalks are magical shielded bunkers and that drivers have a never-failing ability to spot you walking out from behind that parked SUV while you wear black at night helps anybody.

    Prosecuting pedestrian accidents like murder would be along those lines. Besides; the reason people don’t prosecute traffic accidents is because they are, well, accidents. The majority of people drive cars and realize this. Just because when a few people drove cars people thought it was shocking doesn’t change this; you might ask whether people were prosecuted for murder when their horse back-kicked some kid, or when their ship sank killing everyone on board.

  10. Pitt says:

    Obviously, there’s lots of gray areas here. If a driver is driving his car at the posted speed, and a pedestrian, obstructed by a parked vehicle, dashes out in front of the driver and the distance the car needs to stop is greater than the distance between the car and the pedestrian at the moment he becomes visible to the driver, well, sorry, the pedestrian’s at fault. And you know what? Most of the drivers who encounter this situation will STILL feel awful, even though there was nothing they could have done in that circumstance to prevent it. Most people don’t LIKE taking another person’s life in any situation. Laws against murder, frankly, are just for the small subset of the population who are wired very, very differently.

    On the other hand, if a driver is drunk, speeding, talking on his cell phone, or otherwise not operating in a safe manner, and they cross over to the shoulder and kill a pedestrian walking there, well, that person should be tried with vehicular manslaughter or some such thing.

  11. BrianN says:

    also, notice how people were charged with murder. No mention of convition rate

  12. matt says:

    “In 2010, in more than 6,000 New York City traffic accidents involving cyclists, 36 people died, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Transportation Nation reported that no criminal charges were filed against the drivers involved.”


    Now, I suppose it’s possible that every single one of those accidents was the fault of the cyclists. But it’s unlikely. It’s more likely that there’s an assumption that the street belongs to cars, and people on bikes deserve whatever happens to them. And that’s unfortunate.

  13. Pitt says:

    Were any of the cyclists ticketed or otherwise punished?

    I agree that there’s blame enough to go around. And I will further agree that in a city, there needs to be recognition on the part of motorists that they will be sharing the streets with other types of vehicles, and people.

    My disagreement with the author’s article was that he seemed to be taking the opposite view, that streets are not meant for cars at all, which is just as preposterous as saying that motorists have every right to mow down any pedestrian, cyclist, or horse that gets in their way.

    When motorcars were first regulated in NY State, it was a requirement that a man walk in front of the car, carrying a lantern, to warn others of the car’s approach. Do we really want to go back to that?

  14. matt says:

    We could call them “daytime walking lights”.

  15. BrianN says:

    Not to revive a dead thread, but it turns out at that before cars were a menace, bicyclists were too. Maybe we should rethink letting those scorchers use our streets. Or at least teach them some manners:

  16. matt says:

    That’s funny, I just posted that link on a friend’s Facebook wall.

  17. BrianN says:

    It reminds me of what it’s like to live in NYC. I always thought the cops were pretty friendly, but they’ll give you a ticket for anything. Lighting a BBQ in the park, or walking your dog without carrying a bag for the poop, riding your bike 5 feet on the sidewalk.

    Oddly enough, crossing police barricades is usually OK, just make sure to make eye-contact and wait for a nod.

  18. Pitt says:

    In Boston right now…cyclists are insane. Cutting off buses, riding on sidewalks, ignoring traffic signals, plowing through pedestrians. Yikes. If I lived here, I’d probably be arrested for vehicular manslaughter inside of 4 months.

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