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Jaywalking: What, So What, What To Do

Article Table of Contents

What Is “Jaywalking” #

authors note: This feels very draft-y. There’s two distinct perspectives I note in my mind, as I write this. Some people might “believe in jaywalking” and view non-car-users as an underclass, and act in such a way that makes this belief manifestly obvious. Other people maybe know something feels off about walking across streets, and might ‘simply’ be wondering why American streets ‘feel so dangerous’. I feel friction in my mind as I hold both of those.

There’s two components to jaywalking.

First, a “legal definition” might be:

To ‘jaywalk’ is be to cross into or across a street, outside of a ‘signalized intersection’1, outside of an ‘appropriate time’, especially in a way that impedes the existing passage of a vehicle.

The second component:

“Jaywalking” is a legal fiction invented by supremacists in america, who wanted to prevent cars from getting banned in cities in the 1920s as cars/car drivers were causing chaos and death. “the pedestrian should not have been jaywalking” has been used reliably to as a figleaf for road engineers (and others) allowing dangerously-designed roads to keep killing people.

As a bonus, ‘jaywalking’ is super convenient for deputized slave patrols to hassle non-white people, who often-enough would cross roads, thus ‘police encounters’ could be coerced.

If you ‘jaywalk’ in the presence of a police officer, you might get got.2

If you ‘jaywalk’ in the presence of a car, you might be killed.

Of course, in the vast majority of time and space, including today, ‘jaywalking’ is also called ‘crossing(using) the street’. If you can get out of your mind the idea of jaywalking and can instead see streets in their historic function, the below diagram will ring intuitively true:

crossing the street

source: Driven To Excess: Impacts of Motor Vehicles on the Quality of Life of Residents of Three Streets in Bristol UK

An ethical read of streets says “they’re available to everyone”, and just because someone is not currently in a car or moving in a way directly parallel or perpendicular to the street doesn’t mean that person needs to give enormous social deference to the presence of a different person in a vehicle.

It could be noted that lots of the individualized supremacist driving is a result of terrible systems that normalize/indicate-the-correctness-of that kind of driving. I do take issue with the people, but mostly with the engineers and people who claim special authority and expertise. Please see my piece on bollards for more of the same.

If you’re a person of the global majority, or perceivably poor, you’re vastly more likely to have an encounter with violence-dealing, coercive people.

“Jaywalking” is a propagandist slur that supports the norms of the oppressor class. It is a slur, castigating both an economic and social norm, created by the auto industry in conjunction with white politically powerful government officials to solve a problem the car industry was facing - their products kept causing people to die, and were at risk of getting banned in cities!

The ‘social innovation’ of this jaywalking was a huge step forward for american policing.

Here’s how to view “laws” and “claims of authority”:

Laws are threats made by the dominant socioeconomic-ethnic group in a given nation. It’s just the promise of violence that’s enacted and the police are basically an occupying army.

Because American Police got their start as “deputizing the slave patrols”3, jaywalking gave another HUGE realm for social control. Now police could justify assaulting someone as ‘enforcing jaywalking laws’.

In 1991, two police officers stopped Tupac Shakur for jaywalking. He said he was knocked unconscious during his arrest, and sued the city of Oakland for 10 million dollars [he ultimately got a few thousand dollars, a total slap in the face]. His lawyer says many of the police brutality cases he’s worked on started with jaywalking stops.

from the This is Criminal podcast Episode 267: Right of way

What Wikipedia Says ‘Jaywalking’ Is #

Here’s how Wikipedia explains the concept:

Jaywalking is the act of pedestrians walking in or crossing a roadway if that act contravenes traffic regulations. The term originated in the United States as a derivation of the phrase “jay-drivers”. the word jay meaning ‘a greenhorn, or rube’[, a ‘country bumpkin’], ‘jay drivers’ being people who drove horse-drawn carriages and automobiles on the wrong side of the road.

“Jaywalking” was coined as the automobile arrived in the street in the context of the conflict between pedestrian and automobiles (also then known as horseless carriages), more specifically the nascent automobile industry.

Jaywalking laws vary widely by jurisdiction. In many countries such as the United Kingdom, the word is not generally used and, with the exception of certain high-speed roads, there are no laws limiting how pedestrians can use public highways. This has caused confusion among British people visiting countries with less freedom, with the BBC reporting on a case where a man from the UK was arrested in the U.S. city of Atlanta for crossing the road.

Automobile interests in the US took up the cause of labeling and scorning jaywalkers in the 1910s and early 1920s. In 1912, for instance, Popular Mechanics magazine reported that the term was current in Kansas City:

The city pedestrian who cares not for traffic regulations at street corners, but strays all over the street, crossing in the middle of the block, or attempting to save time by choosing a diagonal route across a street intersection instead of adhering to the regular crossing, is designated as a “jay walker,” in Kansas City.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1917. The word was promoted by pro-automobile interests in the 1920s, according to historian and alternative transportation advocate Peter D. Norton. Today, in the US, the word is often used synonymously with its current legal definition, crossing the street illegally.

Originally in the US, the legal rule was 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”. In time, however, streets became the province of vehicular traffic, both practically and legally.

American traffic planners, if they had an ethical bone in their body, would see ‘jaywalking’ as an environmental sign that better infrastructure is needed to meet the needs of a group of people moving about a geography, safely and smoothly. Jaywalking is more akin to desire paths than a crime, unless you want to maintain social control over certain people with violence.

Roads in America are built as often to accomplish the goal of walls as anything else. So a Jaywalking law says something like the following, to people of the global majority:

please respect our intent of placing a wall across this community/neighborhood/junction, and if you don’t we’ll ruin your life.

Maybe I’ll do a follow-up post on how to recognize in the environment that a wall was built for a road, and upgraded repeatedly to better accomplish the goals of severing a community. It’s screamingly obvious, once you know what to look for. City engineers cannot be held responsible for the deaths they oversee and bring about, and this is unforgivable. An abuse that deserves open condemnation and ridicule and contempt for as long as it’s in place.

Anarchist Calisthenics as the Antidote to Jaywalking Propaganda #

This is a hot take, perhaps.

‘law and order’ is the rallying cry of the oppressor class. There’s a quote that went big, created during a streamed dnd campaign:

Laws are threats made by the dominant socioeconomic-ethnic group in a given nation. It’s just the promise of violence that’s enacted and the police are basically an occupying army. (source: dnd/dimension20, reddit meme)

So, how to not participate in the domination?

Exercise anarchist calisthenics and jaywalk, yourself, and enlist friends and others in your scheme as often as possible.4

The whole piece is great, 2050 words.

The place you’re most likely to be struck (and killed!) by a vehicle, while crossing roads outside of a four-wheeled vehicle, is while using pedestrian infrastructure, while crossing at an ‘approved’ time. Car drivers are sometimes not paying close attention, or they drive like supremacists, or the sight lines are atrocious, and it’s extremely common for right-turning cars to run over pedestrians who are crossing the road.

The ‘pillar’ of the windshield is often obstructing the driver’s view of where pedestrians might be standing, and when drivers are trying to slide into gaps in traffic, they often do not scan conflict areas with their eyes.

It’s vastly safer (in america) to cross a road outside of the established times/places, because you can see/thread gaps in traffic, as needed. If American ‘traffic planners’ or ‘city engineers’ or ‘municipal planners’ were not hell-bent on maintaining oppressive systems set up by actual white supremacists, American roads could be rendered safe in about two weeks.5

My Jaywalking Exploits #

If you and I go on a walk together, we’re jaywalking as we’re walking around, and I’ll explain all of this (again) to you.

The legal regime of America is ‘just’ the wet-dream of settler colonialists trying to implement regimes of social control on the colonized populations. Lets not extend dignity or respect to a regime such as this.

Colefax, near Park Ave, in Denver, is atrocious. Cars regularly go 50-60 mph, and vast swaths of it have zero lights or crosswalks or even center signs or cones to separate the lanes going in opposite directions.

There’s a donut shop right across from my house, with no pedestrian crossing, so I ‘jaywalk’ across the street all the time, and when I go to Cheesman Park or the Botanic Gardens. Here’s what some of my activity data looks like. This isn’t all just walking, most of the activity is technically me on my scooter. Maybe I’ll make the difference distinguishable by color some day.

The green boxes show where there is zero road-crossing infrastructure, the red lines are where I’ve ridden my scooter or walked across Colefax. It’s very dangerous and un-fun to cross or ride along on my scooter, too.


I have open contempt for the kinds of people that exert effort to maintain a bad regime, especially when it’s obvious they’re simply trying to maintain emotional comfort. I vomit these people out of my mouth, they are not welcome in my home or around those I love. Unfortunately, I have lots of these kinds of people in my direct, immediate family. (I was raised by white supremacists, grew up around a lot of them, I know them intimately)

Yet we live…

Additional Sources #

It’s de-dignifying if I keep adding sources as if to “prove” my case. I’m simply noting that the regime of propaganda around ‘jaywalking’ is strong. Did you know that the most likely place to die on a road, as a carless driver, is crossing the road in an intersection, while the signal is instructing you to go?

Here’s a good-enough explanation of the concept:

The data shows that the majority of the time pedestrians are hit, they’re in the crosswalk crossing with the signal, which blows the “irresponsible pedestrian” narrative which is sometimes present in discussion of this topic right out of the water.

source: r/chicago, map of cars striking pedestrians and cyclists

  1. Apologies for the scare-quotes. It’s my small noting the unwilling use of these words. This is how you might hear a traffic engineer talk about jaywalking, or a police officer, or how you yourself might think about it, because the concept of jaywalking is a convenient-for-some social fiction that has perhaps been coerced upon many from a young age, same as geocentrism

  2. If you’re white-passing, and perceivably not of the lowest economic class, you’re vanishingly unlikely to ever hear from a ‘law enforcement officer’ a breath about ‘jaywalking enforcement’. 

  3. The podcast behind the police discusses more than just this, but perhaps you’ve seen an american ‘western’ movie. A common trope is where the town “deputizes” a local vigilante, to better enlist his support in defending them from some external threat. He pins a metal star to his leather jacket, and does his thing. During the chattel slavery time, the wealthy white people used the poor white people to staff ‘slave patrols’ to ‘manage’ the 85% of the people that lived in the region, who happened to also be slaves. When ‘policing’ made it’s way to America from the UK, southern white people ‘just’ fabricated police badges for the existing slave patrols. The innovation of social tooling is the darnedst thing. 

  4. from the piece

    Outside the station was a major intersection. During the day there was a fairly brisk traffic of pedestrians, cars, and trucks, and a set of traffic lights to regulate it. Later in the evening, however, the vehicle traffic virtually ceased, while the pedestrian traffic, if anything, swelled to take advantage of the cooler evening breeze. Regularly between nine and ten o’clock there would be fifty or sixty pedestrians, not a few of them tipsy, who would cross the intersection. The lights were timed, I suppose, for vehicle traffic at midday and were not adjusted for the heavy evening foot traffic. Again and again, fifty or sixty people would wait patiently at the corner for the light to change: four minutes, five minutes, perhaps longer. It seemed an eternity across the flat landscape of Neubrandenburg, on the Mecklenburg plain. Peering in each direction from the intersection, one could see a mile or so of roadway with, typically, no traffic at all. Very occasionally a single small Trabant made its slow, smoky way to the intersection.

    Twice, perhaps, in the course of roughly five hours of my observing this scene, did a pedestrian cross against the light, and then always to a chorus of scolding tongues and fingers wagging in disapproval. I, too, became part of the scene. If I had mangled my last exchange in German, sapping my confidence, I stood there with the rest for as long as it took for the light to change, afraid to brave the glares that awaited me if I crossed. If, more rarely, my last exchange in German had gone well and my confidence was high, I would cross against the light, thinking, to buck up my courage, that it was stupid to obey a minor law that, in this case, was so contrary to reason.

    It surprised me how much I had to screw up my courage merely to cross a street against general disapproval. How little my rational convictions seemed to weigh beside their scolding. Striding out boldly into the intersection made a more striking impression, perhaps, but it required more courage than I could normally muster.

    As a way of justifying my conduct to myself, I began to rehearse a little discourse that I imagined delivering in perfect German. It went something like this: “You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is anarchist calisthenics. Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim — and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.” 

  5. A skid steer + well-shaped rocks, serving as bollards, large enough for an adult to sit on, obtained for functionally free, could sneckdown every road that has more than one lane in a given direction into a one-lane-each-way road. For all junctions, one would convert from lights/stop signs to small-footprint roundabouts, shaped by rocks and bollards, with a target max speed of like 15mph and a target min speed of 4 mph. everything would be fixed. “but car drivers would be surprised” says every traffic engineer and police officer I’ve spoken to about it. me: “behold, my field of f*cks, you can see that it is barren!” 

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