We had crossed the street at Sherbrooke when the light turned green (for vehicles), seemingly indifferent to the possible danger we had put ourselves in. No cars were present, but my friend brought up the time he tried to jaywalk in Edmonton, and the people he was with gasped and looked on disapprovingly. Apparently, people did not do that in Edmonton.
For those unfamiliar with the term, jaywalking is crossing or walking in the street or road unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic. In Canada, police can fine jaywalkers, handing out tickets anywhere from $15 to $700. This makes sense. Right? Every adult ingrained in us to be smart and safe while crossing the road—to look both ways, wait for the light or the crosswalk sign to avoid being hit by a car. So, being fined for putting our safety in danger is an expensive lesson.
However, as I recently learned, jaywalking is actually an urban design principle—a signifier of success in many European cities. This blew my mind. I assumed jaywalking was a product of laziness or impatience, but really, it’s a lost relic from a time when public space prioritized people over vehicles.
According to Vox's Joseph Stromberg, jaywalking didn’t exist a hundred years ago—you simply walked across the street. However, in the 1920s, auto groups and manufacturers ran an “aggressive” campaign to redefine “who owned the city streets.”
This campaign centred on encouraging fellow citizens and even law enforcement to publicly shame transgressors by “whistling or shouting at them — and even carrying women back to the sidewalk — instead of quietly reprimanding or fining them.” Moreover, the auto industry used the media to shift the blame for accidents onto pedestrians, effectively absolving vehicles from any real culpability in the death of pedestrians.
Around this time, Stromberg writes, the term jaywalking finally entered the public lexicon. Previously, “the word "jay" meant something like "rube" or "hick" — a person from the sticks, who didn't know how to behave in a city. So pro-auto groups promoted the use of the word "jaywalker" as someone who didn't know how to walk in a city, threatening public safety.”
In my previous article, Can we ban driving in urban spaces?, I threw out an idealistic, if not naive, take on how to transform our urban spaces into more pedestrian-friendly areas. Even if we can’t eliminate all vehicles, at least we should aim to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
Before the 1920s campaign, city streets were “considered to be a public space: a place for pedestrians, pushcart vendors, horse-drawn vehicles, streetcars, and children at play." Vehicles were considered “frivolous playthings, akin to the way we think of yachts today (they were often called "pleasure cars"). And on the streets, they were considered violent intruders.” And often, while walking, I feel the same way.
Winnipeg has had a tremendous number of pedestrian fatalities in 2019. In fact, according to Manitoba Public Insurance, pedestrians accounted for almost half of the total deaths on local roads so far.
Many arguments that blame the pedestrian in these accidents refer to jaywalking as the cause. However, as Michael Lewyn argues in Planetizen, jaywalking is not the primary issue in these accidents. Crosswalks and traffic lights are not a wall of safety between drivers and pedestrians—many other factors contribute to unsafe conditions for people on the street.
Speeding, reckless or distracted driving and ownership over the road are integral to these conditions, and it boils down to a toxic culture of driving. It has gas-lit the public into thinking vehicles play no significant role in pedestrian fatalities. However, concerning a four-years old girl who died in a crosswalk with her mother at Isabel Street and Alexander Avenue this past March, it proves areas designated for pedestrians make no difference. So, addressing this culture is critical—for public safety, especially, but also for many other factors that create a more liveable city.
There’s a synergy of economic and environmental benefits when we prioritize pedestrians over vehicles. The process of urban design focuses on how we understand the relationship between public space and its built surroundings. It includes the arrangement of buildings and streets and how those decisions can impact the design of neighbourhoods and cities, i.e. how it affects people. So, there’s a reason jaywalking is a principle of successful urban design. “Improving the pedestrian experience is crucial to such revitalization efforts, and reforming jaywalking laws would advance this goal,” writes Scott Beyer for Forbes.
When Winnipeg held the plebiscite for opening up Portage and Main, many local businesses came out in support. Improving pedestrian experience creates a ripple effect. In other words, more foot traffic on city streets ensures more foot traffic for businesses.
Even design and planning experts in Edmonton, the city where my friend was chided for jaywalking, recognize how important it is for pedestrians to feel comfortable and confident using city streets.
Rob Shields, a University of Alberta sociology professor who specializes in architecture and urban planning, told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM that the city isn't adequately planned for foot traffic. "We haven't allowed for people who want to get places," he said. "We have new attractions, we're inviting and getting people downtown, but we're not quite ready for them… Streets should belong to people, not cars.” He describes the city’s approach to traffic design as archaic—but as we’ve come to realize, it’s also an enduring product of the auto industry’s “aggressive” and successful campaign from the 1920s.
Nadi’s resident urban designer Malvin Soh often talks about the process and theory behind urban design, and from reading his articles, it’s clear that the pedestrian experience is instrumental to the approach. Jaywalking or merely crossing the street when you need to should not be a crime, but an expectation of public space. Now, I understand that not every road can prioritize pedestrians over vehicles, but urban centres should.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.