A hundred years ago, if you were a pedestrian, crossing the street was very simple: you crossed the street, period. It didn’t matter if there was oncoming traffic or if a cross light was absent. Today, if you want to cross the street, you need to find a crosswalk. If there is a traffic light, you will have to wait until it turns green. If you fail to do so, you will be committing a crime: reckless crossing, also known as “jaywalking.” In some cities, such as Los Angeles, police fine tens of thousands of pedestrians annually for careless crossing. These fines can amount up to $250.
To most people, this seems like part of the essential nature of roads. But in reality, it is the result of an aggressive and neglected campaign of the 1920s led by automotive groups and manufacturers that redefined who owned the streets of the city.
One of the keys to this change was the creation of jaywalking – as a crime. Here is a story of how that happened.
It’s weird to imagine it now, but before the 1920s, the streets of the city looked very different than they do today. They were considered a public space. Roads were a place for pedestrians, wheelbarrow vendors, horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, and children playing.
“Pedestrians walked the streets wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and often without looking anywhere,” says Norton. During the 1910s, there were few painted street crossings, and pedestrians generally ignored them.
As automobiles began to use the roads during the 1920s, the consequence of this was predictable: an increase in deaths. During the first decades of the century, the number of people killed by cars shot up. As deaths increased, activists sought to curb them. In 1920, Illustrated World wrote, “every car must be equipped with a device that maintains the speed at a certain number of miles.” Local car dealers were terrified and took action, sending letters to all drivers in the city and putting out advertisements against it, but failed.
In response, automakers, dealers, and drivers worked to legally redefine the street so that pedestrians, rather than cars, were restricted.