A history of “jaywalking”

Here’s a fascinating bit of etymology from the era of street commodification, showing how auto interests (which ultimately led to the city’s ruin at the hands of their road-hogging rural contraptions) turned city dwellers’ cosmopolitanism against themselves with the term. From Peter D. Norton’s Fighting Traffic (MIT, 2008), pp. 72-79:

A ‘jay’ was a hayseed, out of place in the city; a jaywalker was someone who did not know how to walk in a city. Originally the term applied as much or more to pedestrians who obstructed the path of other pedestrians—by failing, for example, to keep to the right on the sidewalk. As autos grew common on city streets, jaywalkers were more often pedestrians oblivious to the danger of city motor traffic… ‘Jaywalker’ carried the sting of ridicule, and many objected to branding independent-minded pedestrians with the term. In 1915 New York’s police commissioner, Arthur Woods, attempted to use it to describe anyone who crossed the street at mid-block. The New York Times objected, calling the word ‘highly opprobrious’ and ‘a truly shocking name.’ Any attempt to arrest pedestrians would be ’silly and intolerable.’ […]

In 1921 a National Safety Council member from Baltimore confessed to his colleagues that, at least in pedestrian control… ‘You are affecting personal liberty when you keep people from crossing the streets at certain places.’ […] The cleverest anti-jaywalking publicity effort was in Detroit in 1922, where the Packard Motor Car Company exploited the new fashion for monuments to traffic fatalities. Packard built an oversized imitation tombstone that closely resembled the monument to the innocent child victims of accidents in Baltimore. But Packard’s tombstone redirected blame to the victims. It was marked ‘Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking.’ […]

A St. Louisan, defending pedestrians’ traditional rights to the street, tried to turn the ‘jaywalking’ label against those who promoted it. ‘We hear the shameful complaint of jay walkers, to console jay drivers,’ he wrote. ‘It is the self-conceited individual who thinks people are cattle and run upon them tooting a horn.’ ‘Make every machine stop and wait,’ he demanded, ‘until the road is clear, and give precedent to people who are walking. The streets belong to the people and not to any one class, and we have an equal right, in fact more right than the automobile.’ Nine months later the Washington Post argued that ‘the jay driver is even a greater menace to the public than the jay walker,’ and in 1925 Washington’s deputy traffic director I. C. Moller endorsed the term… But promoters of the epithet ‘jay driver’ failed. Critics of motorists could call them cold-hearted, tyrannical, or selfish, but a motorcar’s power, modernity, and worldly sophistication made its owner anything but a jay…

In 1920, when the wave of public safety campaigns was just beginning, ‘jaywalker’ was a rare and controversial term. Safety weeks, more than anything else, introduced the word to the millions. Frequent use wore down its sharp edge, and it passed into acceptable usage as a term for lawless pedestrians who would not concede their old rights to the streets, even in the dawning motor age.

What preceded the invention of jaywalking? A 1926 report notes “a Common Law principle which developed centuries ago… This ancient rule is that all persons have an equal right in the highway, and that in exercising the right each shall take due care not to injure other users of the way.” (Miller McClintock for the Chicago Association of Commerce, “Report and Recommendations of the Metropolitan Street Traffic Survey,” p. 133, quoted by Norton on p. 289.)


8 thoughts on “A history of “jaywalking”

  1. I’ll undoubtedly post further excerpts from this astonishing book (it also examines the invention, and then wholesale reinvention, of traffic engineering as a profession and how it forgot about people), but here’s another that shows just how far police attitudes have changed. It’s gone to the extent where police, upon finding a dead body, no longer presume fault with, well, the guy wielding the deadly weapon (i.e., driving the car). Page 53:

    ‘Police officials also tended to defend the customary rights of those on foot, and to expect automobiles to defer to them. Since most traffic casualties were pedestrians struck by motor vehicles, the safety problem, in this view, was not to make streets safe for motorists (relatively few of whom were getting injured), but to make them safe from motorists. Police authorities and ordinary “cornermen” (traffic police) tended to blame the motor vehicle and its driver for street casualties. In a [1926] survey of 480 city police chiefs, 72 percent chose “carelessness of the driver” as the leading cause of street casualties. Only 16 percent blamed pedestrians.’

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