At morning tea Te Ara staff were discussing the tragic case of Venessa Green, who was tragically hit and killed by a bus while crossing Wellington’s Willis Street the week before last. The morning paper showed a photo of a sign that may have blocked her view of the street. In bitter irony, it featured an image of a bus with the warning ‘Buses Coming this Way’.
Some of us wondered why she could not have crossed at the pedestrian crossing barely 10 metres away. We then agreed that jaywalking was a New Zealand cultural trait that even the most fervent traffic engineer had little hope of shifting. That’s not to say they haven’t tried. One my favourite Te Ara clips is from a 1952 government road-safety film attempting to stop jaywalking. ‘Jay’ is early 20th century slang for a stupid person, which the film plays up to the full.
Wellington is, according to a recent newspaper article, the jaywalking capital of New Zealand. And I have to confess I’m a totally unreformed jaywalker and will blithely cross streets within sight of pedestrian crossings. This is partly because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered treading the few extra metres, but it is also, I like to think, a small public protest against the pre-eminence of the car. For a few brief seconds I can ‘reclaim’ the street for those it was originally intended for: pedestrians.
As I discovered while researching the Te Ara Street life entry, the motor vehicle’s dominance of city streets is barely a century old. Before then the street was a shared space, where vehicular traffic had to travel at walking pace and negotiate around pedestrians, not the other way round. But with the growth of motor traffic in the 1920s, pedestrians were officially sidelined to footpaths and encouraged to cross streets at particular places, at particular times.
That many pedestrians continue to jaywalk perhaps suggests there is a hidden impulse in our ‘urban DNA’ that resists such constraints being placed on our passage through cities. (Having had free reign of city streets for millennia this impulse decreed it was not going to surrender that right for the sake of a mere machine.)
Urban DNA or not, some city planners have finally recognised that privileging motor traffic over pedestrians is a sure-fire way to kill city life. Since the early 2000s cities such as Auckland and Wellington have been trying to introduce ‘shared spaces’ – where, as before, vehicular traffic and pedestrians share the street. Proposals in Elliot Street in Auckland, and lower Cuba Street in Wellington, are currently coming to fruition. It is my hope that these will prove successful and lead to further shared spaces, eventually taking in the likes of Willis Street, making it safer for all.