California ends its war on jaywalkers

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California Governor Gavin Newsom stands at a podium.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, on Friday signed the Freedom to Walk Act, which allows pedestrians to cross the street outside of an intersection without being ticketed, as long as it’s safe to do so. Until now, jaywalkers in California could receive a fine of up to $198, which could end up costing even more in court fees.

As with many minor offenses, enforcement had often proved arbitrary and discriminatory. In one high-profile 1991 case, rapper Tupac Shakur was stopped by Oakland police for jaywalking and, he alleged in a lawsuit that was settled for $42,000, cuffed and choked until he passed out, and was jailed.

L.A.’s population is only 9% Black, but “in L.A., nearly a third of pedestrians issued jaywalking tickets over the last decade were Black,” LAist reported in 2021.

But that’s about to change, although police officers can still stop pedestrians from jaywalking if they are creating an imminent risk of collision with an automobile.

This is already the unofficial norm in many large cities, and it was once the norm throughout the country, including in California. Photos of urban streets from the early years of the 20th century — including West Coast cities such as San Francisco — show the road filled with people alongside horse-drawn carriages.

“When you visit any city in America today, it’s a sea of cars, with pedestrians dodging between the speeding autos,” Smithsonian magazine reported in 2014. “It’s almost hard to imagine now, but in the late 1890s, the situation was completely reversed. Pedestrians dominated the roads, and cars were the rare, tentative interlopers.”

But in the 1920s and ’30s, as cars rose in popularity and deadly collisions with pedestrians became a widespread problem, auto companies successfully lobbied local governments to outlaw crossing outside of intersections and without a green light.

People jaywalk in light traffic on a New York City street in 1936.
People jaywalking in light traffic at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City in 1936. (Tom Watson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images) (NY Daily News via Getty Images)

“Their most brilliant stratagem: To popularize the term ‘jaywalker,’” Smithsonian wrote. “The term derived from ‘jay,’ a derisive term for a country bumpkin. In the early 1920s, ‘jaywalker’ wasn’t very well known. So pro-car forces actively promoted it, producing cards for Boy Scouts to hand out warning pedestrians to cross only at street corners. ... Only a few years later, in 1924, ‘jaywalker’ was so well-known it appeared in a dictionary: ‘One who crosses a street without observing the traffic regulations for pedestrians.’”

In the decades since, cities have largely been built to accommodate cars more than people. The result is that Americans drive a world-leading 16,000 miles per person every year. That’s why transportation is the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change, and it is one reason the United States has one of the highest emissions per capita in the world.

Now, climate-minded jurisdictions are beginning to unwind car culture and encouraging residents to use cleaner modes of transportation like bicycles and their feet.

“It should not be a criminal offense to safely cross the street,” said California Assembly Member Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco, who sponsored the Freedom to Walk Act. “When expensive tickets and unnecessary confrontations with police impact only certain communities, it’s time to reconsider how we use our law enforcement resources and whether our jaywalking laws really do protect pedestrians. Plus, we should be encouraging people to get out of their cars and walk for health and environmental reasons.”

Advocates argue that criminalizing pedestrians hasn’t worked and that cities should instead improve pedestrian safety with traffic-calming measures that will force cars to slow down and proceed more carefully.

A man walks across the middle of a street.
A pedestrian crosses the street in front of the Hollywood sign in 2021 in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

“California’s pedestrian fatality rate is almost 25% higher than the national average, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety,” noted Anne Stuhldreher, who directs the Financial Justice Project in the San Francisco city treasurer’s office, in a 2021 blog post. “But we can’t ticket our way to safer streets. The focus should be on designing smart streetscapes that are people-centric, not car-centric.

“Roadways should have sufficient sidewalks, multiple functional streetlights and abundant safe street crossings. Crosswalks should be broadened, better illuminated and timed to give walkers more time to cross the street.

“Let’s make cars slow down. Install speed bumps. Ban right turns at red lights, which increases pedestrian crashes by 60%.”

The new law follows California’s recent range of actions taken to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, including state regulators making a rule a week earlier banning gas-burning heating and hot water systems as of 2030 and a rule in August that new vehicles sold in the state from 2035 onward must be electric. (On the same day that he signed the jaywalking bill, however, Newsom announced an easing of restrictions on oil refining to allow more polluting types of gasoline in California, in order to ease the state’s high prices at the pump.)

The state Legislature also recently struck a blow against the state’s entrenched car culture in September, when it passed a law eliminating minimum parking requirements for new buildings near public transit stops.

California is not the first locality to decriminalize jaywalking. The state of Virginia did so in March 2021 and it had no discernible effect on pedestrian traffic fatalities through the rest of the year. Kansas City, Mo., fully legalized jaywalking in 2021 and there is not sufficient data yet to determine whether it has affected traffic safety.