Science & Nature

California Decriminalizes Jaywalking Laws

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Jaywalking laws disproportionately affect marginalized and low-income residents.

Published October 4, 2022 09: 30AM EDT

Jaywalking is illegal throughout most of the United States but ticketing for the act varies by region: Some places (like Boston and New York) don’t ticket for it while others (like California) do. Jaywalking wasn’t illegal until a 1925 law made it so in Los Angeles as the automotive industry soared. The policy was copied everywhere else, according to Peter Norton‘s “Fighting Traffic.”

Norton wrote: “The ordinance codified pedestrians’ confinement to sidewalks and crossings, leaving to individual cities the choice of how far to go. At a minimum, cities adopting the ordinance would require pedestrians to yield the pavement to motorists everywhere except in a crosswalk. At their discretion, cities could require pedestrians to cross only at crosswalks, even in the absence of motor traffic.”

Now, the state of California passed The Freedom To Walk Act, which decriminalized crossing the street outside of an intersection when it is deemed safe to cross—something that everybody does. The law goes into effect on January 1.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

Safe streets and walkable communities are key to reducing our carbon emissions from driving. Treehugger prioritizes pedestrian safety and advocates for regulations making our streets more pedestrian-friendly and equitable for all.

As Matt of California NIMBY tweets, and as we have noted previously, jaywalking laws were introduced because pedestrians were being killed by cars in great numbers, but regulating cars would be inconvenient for drivers. So laws were passed to shift responsibility from drivers to walkers.

READ:  California Is Legalising Stick-On License Plates, And Yes, We’re Jealous

According to Norton, people who walk had to be taught and had to be regulated to be “lawful and considerate” of the needs of cars.

“Pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights,” said George Graham, auto manufacturer and chairman of the safety committee, National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, in 1924, in Norton’s book. “We are living in a motor age, and we must have not only motor age education but a motor age sense of responsibility.”

Kiwanis via Copenhagenize


“It should not be a criminal offense to safely cross the street. 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,” said Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), the assembly member who introduced the bill. “Plus, we should be encouraging people to get out of their cars and walk for health and environmental reasons.”

Ting cited data showing that Black people are cited up to four and a half times as often as white people. Low-income people of color also live in areas with fewer crosswalks and safe places to cross; there could be miles between safe intersections. This makes them easy to pick for the police.

“Jaywalking laws do more than turn an ordinary and logical behavior into a crime; they also create opportunities for police to racially profile. A jaywalking ticket can turn into a potentially life-threatening police encounter, especially for Black people, who are disproportionately targeted and suffer the most severe consequences of inequitable law enforcement,” said Jared Sanchez, the senior policy advocate for CalBike.

According to Calbike, the new bill legalizes walking by:

  • Decriminalize safe, commonsense street crossing, when traffic permits, whether or not a pedestrian is within a marked/unmarked crosswalk.
  • Remove a pretext for over-policing that has disproportionately hurt Black and Latinx Californians.
  • Recognize the rights of pedestrians to fair and equitable use of our public roadways.
  • End a traffic enforcement practice that places an undue financial burden on low-income residents through fines, fees, and penalties without increasing safety.

This is only one of many rules that are used to harass people of color. According to historian Sarah Seo, author of “Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom,” the history of cars and policing are deeply connected.

The Harvard Gazette reported: “In her book, she writes that the mass production of cars, and the traffic safety issues that ensued, led to the professionalization of the police. In the early 20th century, traffic norms were enforced via the honor system and through voluntary and civic associations, but when traffic safety became too big an issue to be left to self-governance, police were given the task of overseeing traffic law enforcement.” They were not evenhanded.

“As soon as Black people began driving, they experienced not just discourteous, but also abusive, violent, and unconstitutional policing,” said Seo. “Racism on the road became even more entrenched when traffic violations were used to pursue criminal investigation.”

It’s time to change the rules of the road, the designs of the road, and maybe even the police to stop this from happening. California’s AB 2147 was a good place to start, but there is a long way to go.

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