The NYPD Enforces Jaywalking When It Damn Well Feels Like It

Jaywalkers galore at Fulton and William streets in ManhattanEXPAND
Jaywalkers galore at Fulton and William streets in Manhattan
Jon Campbell, the Village Voice

In 1920, the New York Times published a brief news story about a woman named Esther Harvey, describing the "severe jolt" she'd received on a recent trip to Hartford, Connecticut. While crossing Main Street on foot, the pedestrian signal "set against her," she was stopped by the police.

Harvey, apparently not shy, "argued the point" with the Hartford officer, insisting on her right to cross whenever and wherever she deemed appropriate. Despite her stand for the "freedom of the pedestrian," Harvey was duly arrested. The charge was something called "jay walking."

The Times' wry headline — "Hartford policeman disagrees with New York woman's idea of freedom" — is certainly applicable today. New Yorkers remain defiant about jaywalking. When the city of Los Angeles cracked down on the crime last year, the L.A. Times wrote about the reactions of outsiders and transplants to that ridiculous notion. Letter writers with New York roots were particularly dismissive. "I'm an ex–New Yorker," one wrote. "If New York City enforced jaywalking codes, the city would collapse....Jaywalking tickets? I don't need your stinking jaywalking tickets."

Any visitor to this city is apt to marvel at the way locals navigate the streets. Even a hundred years on, New York remains a city of Esther Harveys. Teenagers, elderly folks with wire grocery carts, finance guys dressed in suits, small children, dogs — probably — all blithely ignore those sad, powerless illuminated figures on the crossing signals. It's an orgy of lawlessness that might be called gleeful if it weren't so unthinkingly routine. For most people, those signals might as well be switched off to save a few kilowatts of energy. In New York, never send to know for whom the "don't walk" sign flashes, because it's definitely not thee.

But despite that reputation, New York is not the jaywalker's utopia it might seem, at least not the whole city. True, we don't live in a pedestrian police state like L.A., where cops write tens of thousands of tickets every year for crossing midblock or against the signal. But the NYPD has doled out an average of 450 jaywalking summonses per year since 2008, even excluding a well-publicized crackdown in 2014 when nearly 2,000 were issued in the wake of a series of deadly pedestrian accidents.

Compared to L.A., that's virtually nothing. But compare those numbers to cities like Boston and Philadelphia — similar in age and in the density of their urban cores — and New York looks less accommodating. The Boston Police Department told the Voice that jaywalking tickets are so rare they don't keep track of them. While a law banning the practice is officially on the books, the BPD officer who answered our questions had never heard of a single instance in which a ticket was issued. They're vanishingly rare in Philly, too. Since 2010, the Philadelphia police have written a grand total of 34 tickets. In two of those years, 2010 and 2014, not a single one was issued. Zero. None. "I'm not even sure I'd know how to do that," one Philadelphia police officer told the Voice when asked about busting a jaywalker. She didn't even know, off the top of her head, what paperwork she'd need to fill out. In fact, she said, she couldn't even say what section of the legal code jaywalking would fall under.

She did not know how, Dear Reader, to write a jaywalking summons.

***

As far as petty, victimless crimes go, New York is still a much better place to jaywalk than it is to, say, drink a beer on the street, or even — more to the point — exceed the speed limit. While New York may ticket jaywalkers more than other East Coast cities, you're still relatively unlikely to get nabbed doing it — especially if you live, or work, in the right neighborhoods. A look at the precincts that report comparatively significant numbers of jaywalking citations over the past few years reveals a pattern: the South Bronx, Harlem, north Brooklyn. They're the neighborhoods that experience otherwise high levels of police enforcement under Commissioner Bill Bratton's "broken windows" enforcement strategy.

Last year, the NYPD engaged in what seemed to be a crackdown on jaywalking, under the auspices of Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative, designed to reduce traffic deaths in the city. Enforcement focused overwhelmingly on drivers, with speed limits lowered all throughout the five boroughs, and more aggressive ticketing of speeders.

But the increase in jaywalking tickets was also evident. By the end of the year, according to NYPD statistics, jaywalking summonses had nearly quadrupled the average for the previous six years.

The increase was met with the same incredulity it would have been in the early twentieth century. And it became particularly controversial after 84-year-old Kang Chun Wong was roughed up by police in January. Cops had tried to ticket him after he crossed, against the signal, an intersection at 96th Street and Broadway. When the officer who stopped him reportedly walked away with his ID, Kang, who spoke limited English, argued and then tussled with him. The encounter ended with Wong being pushed against a wall, where he struck his head; he'd end up in the hospital. Images captured by a Post photographer, which showed an elderly man with blood streaming down his face — and which were splashed on the front page the following day — were not particularly flattering to the police.

The de Blasio administration expressed sympathy for Wong, but insisted that Vision Zero was not going to include a wholesale war on jaywalking. "There is no larger policy in terms of jaywalking, and ticketing and jaywalking," de Blasio said at a press conference on January 20, a day after Wong's arrest, according to a report in the New York Observer. "That's not part of our plan. But it is something a local precinct commander can act on, if they perceive there to be a real danger." He went on to acknowledge the long, rich history of dodging cars in New York City, while also implying that working against the jaywalking tide was one way to keep pedestrians safe. "We have to educate people to the dangers. There's a lot more vehicles in this town than there used to be. That's something people need to recognize, and education's a part of the solution, more enforcement is a part of the solution." A burst of jaywalking coverage followed. The Post scored another photo coup in February when they caught de Blasio himself crossing against the signal (while talking on his cellphone, no less).

But if jaywalking enforcement is driven, at least in part, by the desire to reduce pedestrian injuries and deaths, it's hard to see any logic at all in the numbers. Most of the areas with the highest pedestrian fatalities are in Manhattan. But of the five most heavily targeted precincts, none are in Manhattan, and only two are listed in the highest danger category on the city's Vision Zero map, which codes various precincts by the frequency of traffic accident fatalities and injuries per square mile. Some precincts listed in the highest danger category, like the 19th, on the Upper East Side, don't even crack the top 50 for jaywalking enforcement.

The precinct that issued the most summonses in 2014, for example, was the 46th, in the South Bronx, which issued 242 tickets. That makes some sense, since that precinct has relatively high rates of pedestrian deaths. The next most common area was the 44th Precinct, also in the South Bronx, where 193 tickets were issued. That precinct wasn't considered among the most dangerous. The 69th Precinct, which includes Canarsie, Brooklyn, was third for the highest number of summonses. That's also an area with relatively high pedestrian fatalities. But two other relatively low-risk South Bronx precincts, the 48th and the 40th, rounded out the top five.

Even Manhattan's 24th Precinct, home to the 96th Street intersection where Wong was arrested, didn't see a significant crackdown as part of Vision Zero. Only 15 of the 1,979 jaywalking tickets issued in 2014 came from the 24th. Even in precincts where police have explicitly blamed pedestrians for accidents, there's been no corresponding crackdown.

The precincts considered high-risk for accidents don’t generally correspond with areas with high jaywalking enforcement.
The precincts considered high-risk for accidents don’t generally correspond with areas with high jaywalking enforcement.
Source: Vision Zero

Take the Upper West Side's 20th Precinct. At a January 2014 precinct Community Council meeting, a commanding officer pointedly laid the problem of pedestrian fatalities at the feet of careless walkers. "You see people with babies and there's two seconds [on the countdown clock] and they're going," Captain Michael Falcon reportedly told the group. "It's mind-boggling, the things that people do." But the 20th issued a grand total of two jaywalking summonses in 2014.

The numbers suggest that de Blasio is being truthful when he insists that there is "no larger policy" on jaywalking, as he said after Wong's arrest. They don't seem to make any sense at all — except as an extension of the other kinds of low-level police enforcement that have become so controversial in recent years.

The crackdown also doesn't appear to be over. If trends from the first part of this year hold, the number of summonses in 2015 will be significantly higher than the average since 2008. Through August 31, the NYPD has issued 715 citations, which, when projected over the remaining months, would suggest about 1,072 summonses for the year. That's certainly fewer than the 1,979 issued last year, but it's still more than twice the annual average of about 450 racked up between 2008 and 2013.

A spokesman for the mayor's office, Wiley Norvell, who agreed to speak to the Voice but declined to be quoted directly during a telephone interview, said the numbers don't represent a crackdown on jaywalking. If the NYPD were really interested in moving aggressively on jaywalking, he pointed out, far more people would be cited for the very common crime. He acknowledged that the number of summonses had increased, but attributed the rise to a new NYPD focus on traffic crimes in general; when the police target problem areas, Norvell said, they'll naturally enforce all kinds of traffic violations, jaywalking included.

A busy Manhattan street in the 1970s, teeming with jaywalkers
A busy Manhattan street in the 1970s, teeming with jaywalkers

Norvell pointed in particular to two types of motor vehicle enforcement — tickets for speeding and for failure to yield to a pedestrian — which present, perhaps, the biggest risks to pedestrian safety. Data for 2015, provided by the NYPD through Norvell, is only available through the end of August, but projecting those numbers out for the rest of the year does show that citations are up for those two offenses. The NYPD did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. So far this year the city has issued 87,993 speeding tickets, compared with 83,202 in all of 2013, the year before Vision Zero was implemented (it's worth mentioning that in November 2014, the city reduced the legal speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour on most city streets). If the current rate continues, 2015 should see a 58 percent increase. Citations for failure to yield surged even more, with 26,340 issued so far in 2015, compared to just 14,888 in all of 2013. At that rate, there will be a 165 percent increase this year.

The increase in jaywalking summonses falls somewhere between those two: Compared to the 533 issued in 2013, the 1,072 we can expect by the end of this year amounts to a 102 percent increase — significantly lower than the uptick in failure-to-yield citations, but significantly higher than the increase in speeding tickets.

Addressing the distribution of the summonses, Norvell said individual precinct commanders are free to pursue whatever strategy they like, but in general, enforcement is targeted to need. If there was a jump in citations in a given precinct, for example, it's because a precinct commander was responding to injuries or fatalities, Norvell said.

"Look at the numbers and our priorities are clear," he wrote in an emailed statement. "NYPD traffic enforcement is targeting the most dangerous violations on our streets like speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians. When it comes to jaywalking, the City has also focused its efforts on education and safer street design, which are more effective at shaping behavior."

***

Before the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept of jaywalking was alien to anyone living in an urban environment. While today we've mostly ceded city streets to automobile traffic, back then, streets were a city's common areas, as Peter Norton, an associate professor at the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Virginia, explained to the Voice. Urban streets weren't open thoroughfares so much as gathering places, thronged with pedestrians but also with peddlers, preachers, rabble-rousers, children at play, and the occasional horse or horse-drawn cart threading its way through the chaos. The roadways certainly weren't designed for speed, functioning more like Union Square than the BQE. And everyone more or less tried to accommodate everyone else. Streets were "like a hallway, or a corridor in a busy building," Norton says, "where there aren't any explicit rules and there's no explicit enforcement...you just try to keep out of everyone's way."

It was only after the mass production of automobiles in the early years of the twentieth century that there came to be significant friction between pedestrians and cars. And given the automobile's relative speed and heft — and the dangers they presented — the original function of urban streets was in direct conflict with the new motorized age.

As cars became more common, primarily among the wealthy, clashes were inevitable, and human "vehicles" were not likely to win in a direct showdown with the metal kind. Fatalities climbed, prompting a backlash against cars and their drivers. In 1924, the Times used the phrase "homicidal orgy" to refer to the toll of auto-related deaths, pegging the rate at 70 per day, with 70 percent of them people "on foot."

"From the point of view of the people then," Norton says, "it was the people driving vehicles that were causing the problem." For city dwellers in New York and other big urban areas, cars were seen as frivolous toys of the elite, interlopers in an environment that had evolved for foot traffic.

Obviously, something had to give. But the solutions that gained popular support early on, which included placing mandatory governors on cars to mechanically limit their speed, were not so palatable to drivers. The threat of tighter regulation led automobile manufacturers, along with newly emerging auto clubs and related groups, to search for ways to change the relationship between pedestrians and drivers. If the problem was fatal crashes, it could be solved from two directions: Either make cars less dangerous to people, or just get people out of the way. Hence, "jay walking" was born.

Norton gives a good deal of credit for the popularity of jaywalking laws to E.B. Lefferts, who headed up an auto club in Southern California in the Twenties. As Norton describes in a 2007 paper, "Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street," Lefferts saw, maybe presciently, that people were unlikely to respond to legislative remedies. Laws that made it illegal for pedestrians to travel where they pleased would simply be ignored. So Lefferts came up with a much better idea: public shaming.

Lefferts explained his logic at a convention in Chicago in 1925: "We have recognized that in controlling traffic we must take into consideration the study of human psychology, rather than approach it solely as an engineering problem." He urged others who were concerned about safety — or about ensuring coexistence between pedestrians and drivers, and tempering calls for greater regulation of cars — to find ways to make automobile supremacy the cool thing to do. Even the name of the new offense — "jay walking" — was meant to ridicule, Norton explains.

" 'Jay' was slang for a hick," Norton says. "It was maybe even a little harsher, like a rube."

The idea was that only some backwoods yokel would just wander out into the street. Sophisticated urbanites knew better. "You're not some goddamn bumpkin, are you?" these wealthy motorists were expected to yell at their intellectual — and financial — inferiors. "Then use the damn crosswalk!"

This tactic, along with the growing popularity and sheer number of automobiles on the road, effected a profound change in how city streets were perceived, Norton says. "By 1930, people are still walking where they want to. But there's a clear sense that the street belongs to automobiles."

That shift was inherently political, and it was controversial. Jaywalking martyrs like Esther Harvey were expressing a particular kind of populism. Why should the streets be turned over to cars, these playthings of the rich? And it's harder to find a purer distillation of the proper role of government. After all, the risk of jaywalking accrues mostly to the jaywalker. Don't I have a right to take my own safety into my hands, relying on my eyes and ears to get by? Or are we obliged to accept the dictates of the state, here in the form of a tiny backlit tyrant?

There was a clear class element involved, too, Norton says. Drivers at the time, in what might be seen as an answer to aggressive anti-jaywalking efforts, were sometimes referred to with the pejorative "joy riders." The term was meant to imply a certain vapid, privileged carelessness; joy riders were aristocrats speeding through the people's territory, mowing down decent working folk.

That image, and the counteroffensive against jaywalking laws, began to lose steam as the Ford company began manufacturing much more affordable cars. It became harder to caricature the average driver as a jerk with an expensive cigar. By the Forties, spurred by model ordinances distributed to cities all over the country, jaywalking was largely the law of the land.

Norton sees that legacy in the way cities in various parts of the country still approach jaywalking. In a place like Los Angeles, which only developed in earnest in the automobile age, it might still be seen as a legitimate thing to police. Cars and pedestrians have always been on more or less equal footing there. (Although plenty of Angelenos still loudly object to jaywalking tickets.) But in pre-automobile cities like New York, the ghosts of the populist scofflaws of old — or maybe it's the soul of Esther Harvey — live on.

***

Like the noble cicada, the urge to enforce jaywalking laws in New York City seems to re-emerge every fifteen years or so, only to get squashed in pretty short order, extending the metaphor.

In the earliest accounts, one gets the feeling that New York's jaywalking ordinance, passed in 1956, was being mocked before it even went into effect. After the traffic commissioner, T.T. Wiley, considered banning cars in midtown entirely, the city instead opted for a dual approach: using unmarked cars to catch traffic violators and also enacting a jaywalking ban. In 1955, the Times said that both Wiley and the New York police commissioner acknowledged the difficulty of enforcing such a ban, given the "uncooperative attitude" of the city's pedestrians. And announcing the forthcoming ban in 1956, even the Times itself seemed to treat the issue with something less than the gravity that might be expected: "The New York Pedestrian who considers jaywalking an inalienable right is to be educated out of this frame of mind," the paper proclaimed.

The enforcement of the law seems to have been comparatively draconian in its first decade. In 1961, the paper reported that 566 tickets were issued in a single day on 42nd Street. But by the 1970s, officials seemed to have learned their lesson, and jaywalking was again talked about with breezy nonchalance, as an unassailable element of a New Yorker's freedom.

The most recent pre–de Blasio crackdown occurred in 1997, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided to take his turn at the jaywalking plate. He vowed to tackle pedestrian deaths partly by erecting barriers on street medians — physically blocking people from crossing over — and issuing more tickets to those damned hicks in our midst.

Like de Blasio, Giuliani was met with the strong objections of 8 million people who have to catch a train. The papers saw him as a bit desperate when, in 1998, he trumpeted the arrest of a robbery suspect who had originally been stopped for jaywalking.

Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD officer and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that in his time, the rank and file never treated jaywalking with any seriousness.

"Obviously, for cops," O'Donnell says, "it's your worst nightmare." No one takes kindly to that kind of enforcement, he says, "broken windows" or otherwise. He tells the Voice that the cops he served with would probably have been embarrassed to bring a collar like jaywalking back to the station house. In 1998, the Times quoted an unnamed police officer offering similar thoughts. "I'm not going to prostitute myself for the mayor or anybody else," the officer said.

Regardless of New Yorkers' cultural attitudes, the more important question is whether putting a stop to jaywalking would actually help reduce deaths.

Paul Steely White, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, said it's pretty unlikely. Most pedestrians killed or injured by cars are struck in crosswalks while making their way across the street legally, he says. The city's Vision Zero "action plan" says that about 20 percent of pedestrians killed citywide were crossing against the signal, and about 31 percent were crossing midblock. Those numbers are slightly higher in Manhattan. Steely White acknowledges that pedestrian choices have some impact on fatalities, but he thinks there are other, much more effective ways to combat the problem, like enforcing speed limits. And while it's perhaps the least politically exciting approach, redesigning streets — a significant part of the Vision Zero plan — is most effective of all.

Policing and cycling safety advocate Keegan Stephan agrees, adding that he finds it disconcerting that jaywalking enforcement doesn't seem closely aligned with pedestrian safety. He worries that it will become another tool for racially disproportionate enforcement. While it's impossible to get a precise picture of the racial breakdown from the numbers released publicly by the NYPD, given some of the precincts that issue lots of jaywalking summonses, it seems likely that the racial disparity seen in other kinds of enforcement would hold true with jaywalking as well.

"It's not getting us any closer to Vision Zero," Stephan says, "and it really seems like part of a general practice of over- policing."

It's also important to note that while the city is moving aggressively on a lot of fronts to make roadways safer, it's not a terribly dangerous city to begin with. A Transportation Alternatives ranking of metro areas of more than a million people ranks New York among the four safest cities in the country for pedestrians. Comparatively speaking, we're doing pretty well.

There are even some experts who argue that jaywalking is good; that some chaos in the streets makes everyone more aware. Sam Schwartz, who served as New York City traffic commissioner in the mid-Eighties and now works as a consultant and a writer on transportation issues, says crossing signals may give pedestrians a false sense of security.

"Maybe those pedestrians who see the 'walk' signal assume that they're protected," Schwartz says. "And maybe drivers who see the green light assume they have the right-of-way...I think the safest city is one where everyone is on the lookout for the other to make a mistake, or to be careless, or, frankly, to be drunk behind the wheel or drunk while walking."

And Schwartz, whose forthcoming book Street Smart contemplates an urban future without any cars at all, has seen enough jaywalking crackdowns in New York over the years to know that they're most likely futile anyway.

"Probably in 1957 or so, when I was ten years old, I remember watching the news, and they were talking about a crackdown on jaywalkers," Schwartz recalls. "The TV camera showed a jaywalker, and it was my aunt Dora crossing Delancey Street against the light.

"It's really in our DNA."

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