Also listen on:
February 2022 - Episode 1
When you walk around a city, there are many rules you follow – or maybe, you don’t follow them. You might not think about them too much. Rules like, walk on the sidewalk. Wait for the walk signal when crossing an intersection. Don’t cross in the middle of the block.
When you break those rules in the U.S., we call it jaywalking, and it’s illegal. But most people who jaywalk don’t think about it as a crime. In fact, most Americans admit to having jaywalked.
Yet the data shows that police enforce jaywalking laws disproportionately in neighborhoods with limited pedestrian infrastructure – fewer crosswalks, sidewalks and signals, primarily underserved Black and brown communities. And so many instances of police brutality against Black Americans start when we are stopped for minor infractions like jaywalking.
Jaywalking laws are just one way that Black Americans have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re exploring the war on our right to walk in the street, and what you can do about it.
Wait. Southeast Division Street. Walk sign is on to cross Southeast Division Street.
Failure isn’t an option. We can’t wait until there is another Michael Brown or another George Floyd or another Breonna Hill to question what is wrong with our transportation system.
We basically de-legitimize the right of people to be in the street at all. Is it actually making people safer? It’s actually not walkers and bikers running into people and killing them. It’s usually people in vehicles that are doing so. Those are the deadly items on the street.
People’s opinions about how we should handle police reforms vary a lot, but I think almost everyone agreed this is a bad use of police resources.
Charles T. Brown:
On September 23rd, 2020, Kurt Reinhold was murdered in San Clemente, California by two deputies from the Orange County Sheriff Department. He was shot two times, and he was unarmed. Kurt was a Black unhoused man simply trying to exist in a public space. His crime was apparently jaywalking.
When you walk around a city, there are many rules you follow, or maybe you don’t follow them. You may not think about them too much, rules like walk on the sidewalk, wait for the walk signal when crossing an intersection, don’t cross in the middle of the block. When you break those rules in the US, we call it jaywalking, and it’s illegal.
But most people who jaywalk don’t think about it as a crime. In fact, most Americans admit to having jaywalked. Yet the data shows that police enforced jaywalking laws disproportionately in neighborhoods with limited pedestrian infrastructure, fewer crosswalks, sidewalks, and signals. I’m talking primarily about underserved Black and brown communities. Many instances of police brutality against Black Americans start when we are stopped for minor infractions like jaywalking. Jaywalking laws are just one way that Black Americans have had their mobility arrested.
Today, we’re exploring the war on our right to walk in the street and what you can do about it. I am Charles T. Brown, the Founder and Managing Principal of Equitable Cities LLC, a nationally-known urban planning, public policy, and research firm working at the intersection of transportation, health, and equity. And this is Arrested Mobility.
To set the stage, we need to go back and understand the history of jaywalking laws. What does it mean to walk illegally, and how did this idea originate? To illuminate the problem, I spoke with Angie Schmitt, a journalist and transportation planner based in Cleveland, Ohio. Angie is the author of the book Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America.
Thanks for joining us, Angie. Can you tell me a little bit about where jaywalking came from?
So about a hundred years ago, when cars are first appearing in American cities, it was pretty controversial. At that time, cities like Philadelphia and St. Louis and Cleveland were largely pedestrianized. People could use a streetcar maybe, but most people did a lot of their daily trips by walking.
Anyway, cars start coming into cities, especially in a big way after the invention of the Model T Ford. And what happened right away is people started getting killed in really, really high numbers. Thousands of people all of a sudden are dying from this cause of death that really didn’t exist too much a few years prior.
So there was a lot of panic and moral outrage about this at the time. And there was groups organizing. Particularly, groups of mothers who had lost children were organizing under the banner of the National Safety Council in cities across the country.
So in response to that, there was this organized campaign by car dealers, gasoline sellers. They organized and put forward this idea that streets were for cars and that pedestrians shouldn’t be in the roadway except in very limited circumstances. And Hoover, when he was president and commerce secretary, I think, before that, he institutionalized that, and then it became the norm around that time. And so there was a huge shift. There was an intentional propaganda campaign around it. So it was something that auto dealers and auto interests really fought for and originated to protect their interests.
Charles T. Brown:
The automobile industry got what it wanted. Today, in the US, most roads are designed to transport cars as fast as possible, and pedestrians are bound to the sidewalks. Let’s accept the premise for a moment that we live in cities designed to prioritize cars, trucks, and other vehicles on the road. Ideally, jaywalking laws would discourage people from walking in the street where they might get hit by a car. But are these laws actually keeping people safe? Not really.
People are sort of… A lot of times, they’re wronged. They’re doubly wronged by these rules. One example I wrote about one time, there was a couple guys and they were both hit by cars on the same road. I think it was in Virginia. In the course of a couple days, they were both hit. And in both cases, the police went to their hospital rooms and served them tickets after they’d been injured, when clearly there was something going on on that road. It wasn’t a very safe road. But they were using this rule to, I guess, criminalize pretty normal and rational behavior.
Charles T. Brown:
You wrote about a case in Philadelphia where a tragic fatality took place. Can you speak on that, and not only how infrastructure may play a role, but how it relates to this conversation we’re having right now about jaywalking?
Yeah. I used this example in my book, Roosevelt Boulevard, which is this huge corridor in Philadelphia. It started out, and I think a lot of roads start out this way, as being a rural road, a rural highway. So it’s 12 lanes wide. So it’s about 300 feet across, which is about the length of a football field. So it would take almost a full minute for the average person to cross this road.
And there was a really horrific case. I can’t remember the exact year off the top of my head, but it was several years ago, where a young mother was trying to cross the street. She lived near Roosevelt Boulevard with her four children. And they were struck by two racing drivers. And her name was Samara Banks, and her three young boys were all killed. So four people were killed in this single, terrible wreck there.
But that road is the site of, I think, on average about a dozen traffic deaths a year. And disproportionately, they’re pedestrians. So I think about one in four, one in five pedestrian deaths a year in Philadelphia occur on this single road.
And we see that in some other places, too. New York City used to have a similar road until they addressed the problem. There’s a road like it in Atlanta, too. So we have these roads that are repeat killers that are killing people at really, really high rates. And a lot of times, we haven’t had the political will to address it.
Charles T. Brown:
How did we end up with these roads that encourage what we now deem criminal behavior?
It goes back to who we’re designing roads for, but also all kinds of facilities for. I think in the minds of a lot of designers and a lot of people that are empowered with these public spending decisions and design decisions, the important client or person they’re building for fits in a certain profile. And I think in their minds, it’s a man who’s middle-aged more often, and he’s probably working age, and he might be a little more well-to-do, the kind of guy that’s commuting from the suburbs potentially on a highway.
So I think we’ve catered to that kind of person in a lot of our planning, a lot of times unconsciously. But I think the reality of the way people use the transportation system and the kind of roles they play in society over the course of their lifetimes are much more diverse than that. So the system serves that kind of person really well, and people that don’t fit that profile a lot of times can serve really badly and put them in danger.
Charles T. Brown:
Angie’s hitting on something really important here. Our transportation system works for some people at the expense of the lives of others. Actually, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Black and brown Americans have always faced violent institutional injustice. But many people make unexamined assumptions about the role of the law in their personal safety. Let’s talk to Mike McGinn, Executive Director of America Walks and former mayor of Seattle. Mike’s extensive experience in public service gives him a unique perspective on this conversation.
Right now, lots of money goes from the federal government to states for safety programs. A lot of that money for safety goes to enforcement, police enforcement. And this idea that enforcement automatically leads to safety is very much an unexamined assumption, right? It’s one of those things that people say, “Well, it just stands to reason, right? If you have rules, you have to enforce rules.”
And anytime you look closely at the enforcement of the rules, you see that they are applied unequally. So for example, in the city of Seattle, there’s disproportionate number of Black and brown people being stopped for jaywalking. They did a study recently on enforcement of the King County, that’s the county that Seattle is in, the King County helmet law, and it was huge number of people stopped were homeless people.
So these laws become a pretext for the police to stop and question those that they believe are more likely to commit crimes or deserve to be policed. And that is, almost in every instance that it’s reviewed, it’s members of Black and brown communities disproportionately.
Nor is there an examination of how those laws are then used by the police for their purposes of policing. And I want to go another layer here, which is that the police are very often doing exactly what communities are demanding of them that they do, which is, “There’s somebody suspicious in my neighborhood.” All you have to do is go on Nextdoor to see this very frequently. “There’s somebody suspicious in my neighborhood, and we need the police to check them out.” And that very often is either a person who appears to be homeless, so they appear to be of very low social standing and means, or they’re a young Black person or an Asian male, something that says to the person complaining that, “They don’t belong here, this community is not for them, and I need to get the police there to enforce that.”
So to a great degree, the police are enforcing the norms and mores of the community that they’re in, and we have to acknowledge that as well. I think sometimes we want to distance ourselves from the behavior of the police, suggest that the institution is itself so corrupt and has found a certain path or attracts a certain type of people. But their behavior is also very reinforced by the communities that they are in.
The issues of biased enforcement of traffic laws generally, and bias enforcement exists across a whole host of things, stopping people when they’re driving, the rules that we apply to people when they do something wrong, the fees and fines issue, all of those things exist across a whole spectrum of issues. Jaywalking is a really narrow issue, but it’s an entry point to have a discussion with people about this, because most people jaywalk at some point in their lives, and most people think that when they jaywalked, it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do and it wasn’t a crime.
Charles T. Brown:
Jaywalking certainly doesn’t feel like a crime. Sometimes, you just have to cross the street. Maybe you’re in a hurry or you don’t feel safe remaining on the sidewalk. You can get stopped for jaywalking even when it’s safe to cross if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to Angie, these situations can escalate when neither pedestrians nor police fully understand the rules.
I think even from the perspective of city officials, police officers, these stops can be very explosive, because people feel rightly like, “This is ridiculous that I’m being involved with a police officer at all for crossing the street wrong,” just because I think we intuitively understand that this is such a petty offense.
So oftentimes, these kind of things can escalate. They’re enforced incorrectly. Police often don’t understand the rules. So there’s really a lot of reasons. Once you dig into it, I think it sounds very radical. But when you start looking closely at it, I think it’s a slam dunk. It makes so much sense for all parties. People’s opinions about how we should handle police reforms vary a lot, but I think almost everyone agreed this is a bad use of police resources.
Charles T. Brown:
It’s hard to come up with a reasonable argument in favor of jaywalking laws. They’re confusing, they don’t keep people safe, they’re not enforced equally, and they can easily lead to confrontation with the police.
So what can we do to make things better? Progress is being made across the country. This year, Virginia passed a law decriminalizing jaywalking. It’s still a secondary offense, but you can’t be stopped for it. And in Kansas City, an organization called BikeWalkKC helps successfully advocate for the city to repeal jaywalking laws. Here’s Michael Kelley, Policy Director at BikeWalkKC.
Jaywalking is important in Missouri. It has such a fraught recent history at the intersection of traffic safety and racial justice and over-policing. We have the example, unfortunately, of Michael Brown in Ferguson over on the St. Louis side, but the events that happened there aren’t lost on the people here in Kansas City.
The other reason why I say it’s important is because it is something that is very much tied to the history of traffic safety in Kansas City. One of the first mentions of the term jaywalking was from the Kansas City Star all the way back in 1905. And so that it not only has ties to the beginning of our modern era, but also one of the most important events in Missouri’s history makes it all the more important as a term and as a form of what we sometimes refer to as traffic safety.
Charles T. Brown:
How is this law negatively affecting people?
So the way that it negatively affects people in Kansas City, for example, is that it disproportionately has impacted Black pedestrians. Something that really drew people’s attention to the issue was data that was released by our local police department, which found that, despite making up only 30% of the city’s population, Black pedestrians were 65% of the targets for jaywalking tickets. And so when numbers are that stark, it’s very hard not to see how jaywalking has morphed whatever the initial intent was into something that is harmful for the community.
Charles T. Brown:
What are you all doing in Kansas City to change these jaywalking laws?
So BikeWalkKC was part of a coalition that successfully advocated for removing jaywalking from the municipal code of ordinances. So following the death of George Floyd and several other individuals, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and local instances here of police violence, including against individuals like Breonna Hill, BikeWalkKC sat down and identified what portions of the municipal code were leading to over-policing against people who walk and bike that also could not reasonably be shown to actually keep people safe. And so jaywalking was actually one of several measures that we identified and sought to either significantly modify or move from the books altogether.
Jaywalking often occurs in some of these communities not because of a flippant disregard of the law, but out of necessity. We have specifically built our infrastructure system here in Kansas City in a way that does not support the needs of those road users. I can’t tell you how many neighborhoods I walk through, I ride through, I go through as part of my work where it’s not that the sidewalks are crumbling or in disrepair, it’s that they’re non-existent. You have a roadway, you have a ditch, and then you have someone’s front yard.
And so the connection is that jaywalking more often than not occurs in situations where the infrastructure doesn’t allow anyone to do anything else. It’s not that people want to break the law. It’s that the system specifically has not been built to allow them to follow the rule of the law.
Charles T. Brown:
This is another part of the solution. Beyond addressing jaywalking laws, we have to work on improving access to safe infrastructure for everyone. One reason why we don’t have adequate pedestrian infrastructure in some places is because of a document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD. In the United States, all traffic infrastructure from signs to signals to road markings must abide by the standards in the MUTCD. But again, those standards are designed with vehicles as a priority, and they can actually prevent safe crossings at dangerous intersections from being built. It’s something of a catch-22. The government penalizes jaywalking while not allowing crosswalks to be built.
So for people who aren’t aware, there’s this very important document called the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices. People who work in bike and pedestrian advocacy have been worked up about this issue for years, but it’s very wonky, in the weeds into the institutional practices of what engineers do, because the MUTCD, it’s an engineering manual. So it’s like a 700-page book that tells engineers how to design streets. It’s going through the federal regulatory process, so it’s actually the law. And there’s a lot of problems with it. We sometimes refer to it as a recipe book for streets, and I think it compels and almost requires engineers to develop dangerous streets for people who walk or bike.
Again, it’s 700 pages and it’s a technical manual, but one of the examples is that the MUTCD says that a crosswalk with a traffic signal is not warranted unless almost a hundred people are crossing the street at that location per hour or, failing that, if three people are struck over a four-year period, I believe it is now. They just changed it. It was higher. You had to have five people struck over three years. And in this recent edition, they changed the ratio so it’s not as bad. But still, they have this requirement. You can’t put in a crosswalk, which is what we’re requiring people to use to cross the street, unless a certain number of people have already been struck or this crazy high volume of pedestrians is crossing at this weird location that doesn’t have a safe crossing.
When you put those two things together, I think it’s pretty clearly unjust that, one, we’re criminalizing this behavior of crossing without a crosswalk and, two, we have a secret law that almost no knows about that pretty much makes it illegal to add crosswalks with traffic signals almost anywhere.
Charles T. Brown:
In your book, you talk about something called safe systems. Tell me about that.
Okay. So in traffic safety, there’s a new concept that’s taking hold. It goes against the way we’ve thought about these issues in the United States for a long time, which is… And I think in the United States, our attitude about traffic deaths has been they’re the cost of doing business, they’re acceptable. The best we can do is sort of tinker around the edges.
But some of these Scandinavian countries, and some Asian countries too, are on the cutting edge with this idea, Vision Zero, or safe systems, like you said. And it’s the idea that we should make the environment less risky for people, so to be less focused on controlling people’s behavior and instead more focused on creating an environment where if people do make mistakes or break the rules, which is something we can absolutely expect, that they won’t suffer very serious injury or death as a result.
Charles T. Brown:
According to Mike McGinn, the former mayor of Seattle, building new pedestrian infrastructure isn’t enough. We’ll talk about this in a later episode, but there are pockets of cities that are safe and walkable. Of course, access to these neighborhoods tend to be exclusive to the affluent, mostly white people who live there.
We often think about to try to make a place more walkable, you make the physical infrastructure for walking better, right? And that’s accessibility, too. I want to be really clear, curb cuts and smooth sidewalks and the types of signals so that anybody, whether they’re young or old or disabled, can really enjoy the community. I think we need to also start talking about the fact is that not that we need to make less walkable communities more walkable and accessible. We also need to open up existing walkable communities, the ones that have all of the nice leafy green streets and businesses nearby and that type of vibe that people love. We need to open those up to allow more people to live there.
And so I think another place for us to go is to break down exclusionary zoning, which also has, as we know, racist origins. It’s very related to the jaywalking discussion and the thing I was just saying earlier. So I think that’s a big piece of the puzzle as well if we’re truly going to allow more people to enjoy the benefits of walkable, accessible, inclusive communities. That’s not just an infrastructure question. It’s breaking down exclusionary zoning and allowing more people to live in more places.
Charles T. Brown:
As we draw to a close, I asked Michael Kelley from BikeWalkKC about how restorative justice plays into this conversation about access to infrastructure. In case you’re unaware, this term restorative justice can be used in a number of contexts. It can refer to a philosophy in criminal justice of repairing harm done by a crime. But jaywalking is a crime in name alone. The right to walk in the street was taken from pedestrians in the guise of safety reforms.
Today, when Michael Kelley and I talk about restorative justice, we mean repairing the harm done to our Black and brown communities by jaywalking laws.
Knowing the impact of jaywalking on Black Americans and other communities of color, what does restorative justice look like?
I think with regards to jaywalking, I think restorative justice, it does begin with trying to stop the harm. So I hope, I sincerely hope that the efforts of our community to remove jaywalking is stopping the immediate harm. But more importantly, I hope that it gets us to begin to ask the questions of how we can begin to do right by the communities that have been harmed for so long, and in and of that, how we can specifically prioritize their needs as we work to build our transportation system as a whole in a way to better support the needs of pedestrians, because that is an ongoing conversation in Kansas City, is that we know that our east side, which is predominantly where many Black individuals live and it’s home to a number of households without access to a car, we know that that’s where the lack of investment is.
And so restorative justice is not only stopping the harm, but also doing more to specifically target investments in a way that moves beyond just the blanket, “We need to fix infrastructure everywhere,” and specifically goes to, “How can we use infrastructure as a means of supporting the broader needs of a community?,” because justice is not just about doing what is right and wrong, in my view. I think it really is about how do you make someone whole? And that can’t come from just stopping a harm. It has to come from going beyond that to support more of the needs of what a community really is asking for.
Charles T. Brown:
You identify as a Black man in Kansas City, and I’m sure that you walk. Do you ever feel like your life is at risk?
Yes, unfortunately. I feel it’s at risk because I oftentimes walk on streets that don’t have sidewalks, and I have to look over my shoulder whenever there is a car coming. And it’s unfortunate, too, because I know that there’s always a chance that I could be stopped for no other reason than looking suspicious, even though I am well-educated and I work for a pretty well-respected nonprofit.
But that doesn’t deter me, because I know that as an individual, walking is good for my health. And it’s especially important as a Black man to do more to ensure my own health, because that is something that is oftentimes one of the first things to be harmed when that infrastructure is removed from us. But also, to be an example for my daughters, to show them that it is possible to exist and not just exist in Kansas City, but to thrive. And to show them what thriving means, it means to show them joy. And I take great joy in walking, even if I have to have those concerns, because I know that showing that joy is the only way that I can instill in them that same sense of wonder, that same sense of peace, but also that same sense of determination to continue to push for something that is better than what they initially found.
Charles T. Brown:
There’s still work to be done. In California, a jaywalking decriminalization bill was recently vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom. That was in October 2021. But I’m optimistic that hardworking activists will continue to fight for our right to walk in the city. For example, the city of Philadelphia just became the first major US city to ban minor traffic stops to promote equity and curb negative interactions with police.
If you want to get involved and make a contribution of time, energy, or money, look for local advocacy groups like BikeWalkKC or national organizations like America Walks. I want to thank my guests Michael Kelley, Michael McGinn, and Angie Schmitt. I appreciate your expertise and your time.
For Arrested Mobility, I’m Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on Twitter at CTBrown1911 or at #ArrestedMobility. Visit our website and sign up for our email newsletter at ArrestedMobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities with support from Puddle Creative.