Strolling in our cities is not a crime

One of the most interesting — and profound, even — things I’ve found from following the musings of contemporary urban planners is that it was the automobile companies that came up with the idea of “jaywalking,” and made it illegal.

Think about it. Through all of human history, the hundreds of thousands of years we have roamed the planet, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century — as some of our grandparents were being born — that there were choices beyond walking, cycling and equestrian power for getting around.

Except for a few crowded horse-drawn-chariot blocks of New York City, London and Paris, there were no speeding vehicles to present a danger to the stroller. It was only with the advent of multi-ton engine-powered cars and trucks that the streets were stolen from the pedestrian.

There was no need for the passage of laws against … walking.

And then, suddenly, supposedly, there was.

“In the early days of the automobile, it was drivers’ job to avoid you, not your job to avoid them,” Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,” told Vox News. “But under the new model, streets became a place for cars — and as a pedestrian, it’s your fault if you get hit.”

Fail to wait until the walk sign comes on at the designated corner, Vox says, “and you’re committing a crime: jaywalking. In some cities — Los Angeles, for instance — police ticket tens of thousands of pedestrians annually for jaywalking, with fines of up to $250.”

One place the criminalization began was Cincinnati in 1923, when 42,000 residents signed a petition trying to get governors placed on cars to slow them dramatically down after a spate of deadly crashes, cars v. people.

In response, goaded by car makers and dealers, the city went the opposite way: “legally redefine the street — so that pedestrians, rather than cars, would be restricted.”

That was 99 years ago. What goes around the traffic circle, comes around. Pedestrians are fighting back. Government takes, and, very occasionally, government gives back. Come Jan. 1, jaywalking in California will be decriminalized with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature on the Freedom to Walk Act.

Under the new law, pedestrians will be able to legally cross the street outside of designated intersections without the threat of a citation, unless it’s during an immediate danger, KFMB reports.

“We believe everyone in California has the freedom to walk across the street without being feared of citation. At a time when we are facing climate change, we want more people to walk, we want more people to bike,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, who introduced the bill. He also hopes the new way of looking at ambling will shed light on the fact that jaywalking rules mostly affected “marginalized and low-income residents,” who could least afford the fines. Making walking against the law has been propagandized into our brains for generations. But, when you pull back and think about it, our cities need to serve all people, and not just motorists. This new law is a breath of fresh urban air.

Yes, boulevard-crossers need to look both ways. They need to exercise abundant caution wherever speeders and oblivious drivers yakking on their phones are to be seen in the wild. So that’s on them. Children still need to be taught how to stay safe. So far as I can see, traffic signals and crosswalks will not disappear. What will go away is the crazy need to walk half a long block on a quiet street to avoid the long arm of John Law.

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. lwilson@scng.com.