For those of us choosing to be carless…
### Slate Posted Monday, Nov. 2, 2009, at 4:01 PM ET
In Defense of Jaywalking
Banning the practice won’t make pedestrians safer.
By Tom Vanderbilt
Looking at any number of big-city dailies over the last few weeks, one might reasonably surmise that we are in the middle of a new public-health epidemic with an old name: jaywalking.
The very word jaywalk is an interesting—and not historically neutral—one. Originally an insult against bumptious “jays” from the country who ineptly gamboled on city sidewalks, it was taken up by a coalition of pro-automobile interests in the 1920s, notes historian Peter D. Norton in his book Fighting Traffic. “Before the American city could be physically reconstructed to accommodate automobiles, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where cars belong,” he writes. “Until then, streets were regarded as public spaces, where practices that endangered or obstructed others (including pedestrians) were disreputable. Motorists’ claim to street space was therefore fragile, subject to restrictions that threatened to negate the advantages of car ownership.” And so, where newspapers like the New York Times once condemned the “slaughter of pedestrians” by cars and defended the right to midblock crossings—and where cities like Cincinnati weighed imposing speed “governors” for cars—after a few decades, the focus of attention had shifted from marauding motorists onto the reckless “jaywalker.”
– Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Post by Elizabeth Kerr