Jaywalking? I do it on the daily. Whether I'm crossing against the signal to catch a bus or crossing midblock because the closest crosswalk is blocks away, it's a choice I make out of convenience and safety. Yet, I've never been stopped. Why? Maybe it's because I'm an able-bodied, middle-class white woman.
Real Change readers won't be surprised to learn that national data shows jaywalking laws are enforced unequally, are rooted in oppression and fail to protect people walking or rolling. In fact, jaywalking enforcement trends resemble helmet law enforcement trends, which a coalition —including Real Change’s Advocacy Department — took on and convinced the King County Council to repeal last year.
That's why our organization, Transportation Choices Coalition, and a dozen other organizations are fighting to repeal jaywalking laws throughout Washington state with our campaign, “Free to Walk Washington.”
The targeting of people walking in Washington state began more than a century ago when Spokane, Washington, became the first city to pass an anti-jaywalking law that made crossing the street outside a designated crosswalk a crime. Within a decade, most cities and towns across Washington state enacted similar laws criminalizing jaywalking. The trend was part of a national campaign by the car industry to blame pedestrians for their injuries and deaths sustained while crossing the street instead of drivers. Even the term “jaywalking” was designed as a slur, suggesting an unintelligent, rural person.
Jaywalking laws don’t protect pedestrians from getting hit by cars.
Pedestrian deaths and injuries are on track to set a record-high this year due to poor infrastructure, speeding and distracted driving — not jaywalking. And yet, legislators haven’t addressed these underlying issues.
The reality is, jaywalking is often the most rational, safest choice for people needing to cross a street, given a host of bad options. A 2014 study by the Federal Highway Administration looked at the surrounding area — like the presence of a right-turn lane or the distance between crosswalks — to predict with 90 percent accuracy where a person would cross the street. People who jaywalk often do so because they don't have other options. On many Washington streets, pedestrian crossings can be miles apart, making jaywalking an inevitability.
We know that punishing people for walking doesn’t protect them from injury and can actually cause harm. Instead, we must focus on creating a complete network of safe sidewalks and crosswalks, with streets designed to slow cars down. Study after study has shown that investing in these priorities is what actually reduces pedestrian injuries and deaths.
Jaywalking laws are enforced inequitably.
We also know that jaywalking laws disproportionately impact people of color and low-income people. A 2017 Seattle Times article found that of the 1,710 jaywalking tickets issued by Seattle police from 2010 to 2016, more than 25 percent went to Black people, who represent just about 7 percent of the city's population. Currently, Transportation Choices is conducting research to better understand who is impacted by these laws, not just in Seattle, but across our state.
Of course, Washington isn’t the only place disproportionately targeting Black people for jaywalking. From San Diego, California, to Atlanta, Georgia, police issue an inordinate percentage of jaywalking tickets to Black residents.
And for Black and Brown Americans, interactions with police can result in negative financial impacts and physical harm. Jaywalking has often been used by police as a pretextual stop, leading to dangerous interactions between police and people of color, like the 2014 incident in Ferguson, Missouri, where teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by an officer. Brown was initially stopped for crossing in the middle of the street. In 2019, an Auburn, Washington, police officer shot and killed 26-year-old Jesse Sarey while trying to arrest him for jaywalking.
In addition to these racial disparities, low-income and working-class Washingtonians are also more likely to be cited for jaywalking because they tend to live in areas with less infrastructure and resources. In October of this year, The Seattle Times reported that Washington is facing an “epidemic” of inaccessible sidewalks with thousands of intersection sidewalks lacking ramps. Where there are ramps, the Times’ review of more than 30 cities and counties found no jurisdiction where even 50 percent comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Not only are low-income and working-class Washingtonians more likely to be cited for jaywalking, but they are also less likely to be able to afford fines or to take time off work to fight citations in court. In addition, our early research findings show that many jaywalking stops target unhoused and visibly homeless individuals.
Jaywalking enforcement is a waste of public resources.
Finally, repealing jaywalking laws will also help free up limited public resources. When local police departments are struggling to meet the needs of the communities they serve, it only makes sense to focus police resources on deterring behaviors that threaten public safety rather than wasting them on jaywalking.
The evidence clearly shows that jaywalking laws don't protect people from getting hit by cars; are disproportionately enforced against low-income people, people of color and unhoused individuals; and are an inefficient use of public resources. It's time for Washington to join places like Virginia, Nevada, California and Kansas City, Missouri, in ending jaywalking laws. Washingtonians deserve to be "Free to Walk."
Learn more and share your story at freetowalkwa.org
Hester Serebrin is the policy director at Transportation Choices Coalition.
Read more of the Dec. 21-27, 2022 issue.