In praise of jaywalking

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.

Corner of Cuba and Manners streets in Wellington, around 1920, when cars had taken streets from pedestrians

Corner of Cuba and Manners streets in Wellington, around 1920, when cars had taken streets from 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.

4 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Stephen || July 11th, 2011

    Ben, it seems we think alike — http://vital.org.nz/entry/title/jaywalking_or_just_walking

  2. Comment made by Heath || July 11th, 2011

    I read this post: http://vital.org.nz/entry/title/jaywalking_or_just_walking by Stephen Judd over the weekend.

    I loved this quote from the Taranaki Herald on 10 July 1909:

    ‘… the person who has the first right to the road is the pedestrian, after him comes the equestrian, then the drivers of horsed vehicles, then the cyclist, and lastly the motorist.’

    Maybe we should go back to that law.

  3. Comment made by Robyn || July 11th, 2011

    I would argue that jaywalking is more a Wellington trait, than New Zealand in general. That is, my friends from Auckland are shocked – shocked! – when they come here and see the high levels of jaywalking.

    Auckland streets are wider and harder to cross – bags not being stranded between four lanes of busy Queen Street traffic. Wellington streets are narrower and are easier to quickly cross. I imagine Invercargill’s nice wide central streets don’t get a lot of jaywalking.

    But indeed why must jaywalking be sigmatised? Why is it that pedestrians are seen as a nuisance to cars, and not the other way around?

  4. Comment made by Kerryn || July 12th, 2011

    Papers Past provides some entertaining information on encounters between pedestrians and other road users and reminds us that pedestrians didn’t always have it sweet in the 19th century. The Normanby and Hawera Star of 12 July 1893 contains a letter in which the writer complains of having been knocked down by reckless horse-riders – ‘equestrian lunatics’ – whilst strolling about the streets one evening with friends: ‘One of the riders I may state was a lady (!), and though it must have been clearly apparant to herself and escort that there was a human being under the horse’s legs, yet neither stopped to see whether it was possible to render any assistance.’ His indignation shines through 118 years on.

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