The Psychology of Jaywalking

by Martha Rowen

(Originally posted to ebikes, the New York cyclists' Internet mailing list.)

Recent discussions among bicycling acquaintances on the subject of jaywalking and the problems it poses for cyclists have led me to think about the issue, especially since, at least in Manhattan, I am even more often a pedestrian than a cyclist and I can jaywalk with the best of them. This little essay is a modest attempt to defend and explain the behavior of jaywalkers.

Anybody who has spent time negotiating the sidewalks in New York knows that they are extremely crowded and not nearly wide enough. Cars appropriate a huge amount of space, leaving pedestrians only narrow sidewalks which they must share with street vendors, outdoor cafes, street signs, garbage cans, newspaper stands and large numbers of other pedestrians, often making it difficult to avoid spilling over into the street as they negotiate all these obstacles. This situation certainly contributes to jaywalking, but I think that it is not actually the main reason New Yorkers are so prone to stepping off curbs at mid-block. There are psychological factors in play here as well. I think that jaywalking is often an unconscious -- or even conscious -- act of rebellion against relentless and rigid conformity demanded by the tyranny automotive traffic, a tyranny which requires that normal human patterns be suppressed in order to make it possible for cars to move at unnatural and excessive speeds.

The natural thing for an animate, sentient being (e.g., a human being) to do when it wants to go someplace that is, for example, slightly ahead but mainly to the left, is to move slightly ahead and mainly to the left, in order to get there most efficiently. It is neither natural nor convenient to walk to a corner, wait for a light to change, jammed together with countless other impatient human beings, and then make a mad effort to get across before the light changes (and in some parts of Midtown, thanks to Il Duce, to have to do the same thing all over again) simply in order to arrive at a location just a few feet away from where one was several minutes before. To do so takes a great deal of self-discipline and is a source of constant frustration, especially for those who are in a hurry--and what percentage of pedestrians in New York City can we conjecture are likely to be in a hurry at any given moment? And here I'm only talking about adults. Just think what unreasonable demands for self-control we make upon children in this regard. I think back to the times I've seen a distraught parent spank a very young child who has just run into the street. Think about it; if the child had been hit by a car, the driver would almost certainly have been considered free of blame, but the child's parents would have been blamed for letting him stray into traffic and the toddler is punished for acting normally. In such a situation as this, shouldn't we be asking ourselves, "What's wrong with this picture?"

I am not even taking into account here rebellion at the stress and anxiety provoked by the noise, pollution and danger that cars impart to our daily lives, although that is certainly a factor in the equation. I think that a good deal of the time, most pedestrians are repressing a lot of rage at the conditions imposed by being marginalized by cars, at being forced into a frustrating lockstep to further the convenience of drivers, a rage which is largely displaced and focused onto other pedestrians (and cyclists) because there is too high a social and psychological price in our society for feeling, much less expressing, such fury at automated vehicles (not to mention the ultimate price that could be paid at any second as a consequence of "crossing" one of these vehicular monsters).

In my opinion, in an ideal (or even fairly reasonable) city, pedestrians should be given priority over all vehicles, and this includes bicycles (and skates). Now I realize that we do not ride our bicycles in anything approaching reasonable conditions and that jaywalking pedestrians constitute a threat to our very lives on many occasions as we are forced to swerve into moving traffic to avoid them, but the fact is that the fault is in the conditions both pedestrians and cyclists operate under, not in the pedestrians. Most of us as cyclists engage in much the same kind of behavior as pedestrians do when we (occasionally or often) go through red lights, sometimes ride (even if slowly and carefully) onto a small portion of the sidewalk to avoid being mowed down between double parked cars and an oversized truck bearing down on us at breakneck speed, or go the wrong way for a block when we would otherwise have to ride several blocks out of our way in dangerous traffic--and we are blamed for it by pedestrians, and seen as the enemy.

The fact is that cars set a standard of speed that forces everyone to move at an extremely stress-producing pace -- pedestrians to get to the corner in order to be there before the light changes, to get across before the "walk" sign disappears; cyclists to keep up with the pace of traffic so as not to be honked at, harassed or mowed down. With cars eliminated (except for absolutely necessary vehicles and those under strict controls), and due allowances made for the needs of public transportation, it seems to me that bicycles (and skaters) and pedestrians could probably negotiate, ad hoc, the issues of street crossing. If a group of pedestrians were deciding to cross mid-block, then any cyclists/skaters would have to slow down, possibly stop, to let them across.

If that were to slow us cyclists down, so be it. I believe that without speeding cars to set the pace, we cyclists would not feel so compelled to ride unreasonably fast anyway. I know it's fun to ride fast, but a city street filled with people is not the place for a speed trial. I realize that I've wandered into my fantasy realm here imagining an ideal city with streets belonging to pedestrians, cyclists and skaters, but I think it is important to keep the ideal in mind in order not to make judgments blaming human beings for not being able to conform to a wildly distorted, unnatural, dehumanizing situation.

Essays and refections -- contents