It’s a bit pedestrian-hostile out here, folks. Credit: Kate Abbey-Lambertz
Iâ€™ll come clean: Despite the warnings, the last few days Iâ€™ve been jaywalking all over town, walking in the street and crossing between intersections and against lights. All this during the Michigan State Police Pedestrian Enforcement Week in Detroit, Warren and Kalamazoo, a campaign thatÂ at least four outlets framed as a call for jaywalkers to beware of a crackdownÂ on their reckless behavior.
Itâ€™s unclear how Detroit is enforcing this initiative. The Detroit Police Department hasnâ€™t answered my questions about how theyâ€™re implementing Pedestrian Enforcement Week and how many citations they give out to pedestrians. A spokeswoman for MSP stressed that the enforcement week also applies to motorists and infractions like not stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks. Anecdotally, I havenâ€™t yet gotten a ticket, though if I do I could be on the hook for more than $100.
WHATâ€™S SO WRONG WITH JAYWALKING?
Critical drivers accuse jaywalkers of being careless and endangering themselves, darting into traffic with little regard for the speeding cars around them. Pedestrians are often blamed for crashes, with focus onwhether they were using a crosswalk or wearing bright enough clothing.
Iâ€™d argue that most walkers in Detroit are all too aware of the drivers barreling down empty roads and busier streets, and some studies have suggested that distracted pedestrians arenâ€™t common phenomena. Iâ€™d also point out that in many places, streets force you to engage in risky behavior — sidewalks disappear without warning, or you have to walk several blocks to get to a crosswalk (where drivers often ignore pedestrian right-of-way, but thatâ€™s another story.)
Others, like Detroit Greenways Coalition Executive Director Todd Scott, believe that going after jaywalkers ignores the larger problem — that they have a right to the road, too, and changing walking behavior isnâ€™t the way to improve pedestrian safety.
“What MSP should be focusing on more is on speeding and how do we reduce speeding,” Scott told Detour, “because that is a major determinant to whether a pedestrian, when they’re hit, is going to live or die.”
Itâ€™s not just about illegal speeding, either — Scott questions whether many roadways have legal speed limits that are dangerously high. He thinks MSPâ€™s ideas around safety overall are â€œmotorist driven,â€ what he calls a â€œwindshield bias.â€
â€œThey see pedestrians as being more of a problem getting in the way of cars moving quickly and so a lot of their messaging is framed around that,â€ he said.
HOW TO ACTUALLY PROTECT PEDESTRIANS
Of course pedestrian safety isnâ€™t something to dismiss. Between 2010 and 2016, Detroit was the most deadly places for pedestrians compared to other major cities, with 29 pedestrian deaths in 2016.
Separate from this crackdown, Detroit is actually making the kinds of improvements that Scott advocates for. Planners have started developing â€œcomplete streetâ€ designs in certain neighborhoods, which force drivers to slow down and take non-car users into account. In Grandmont Rosedale, residentsâ€™ concerns about people crossing safely on busy Grand River led to a proposal to enhance the streetscape with features like mid-block crosswalks.
Whatâ€™s more, Scott noted, pedestrian fatalities have gone down in 2016 and 2017, since the cityâ€™s streetlight system was overhauled (most pedestrian deaths occur at night).
â€œIt shows that the built environment can have a dramatic effect on pedestrian safety,â€ he said. â€œPedestrians are so vulnerableâ€¦ they donâ€™t want to get hit but they also need to get on with their lives. So how can we work with them to improve the environment so that they can cross the road safely?”
HOW TO CROSS THE STREET
Sure, you know â€œlook both ways,â€ and there are plenty of tips for safe walking, but the jaywalking rules are kind of confusing and not standardized across the state. You canâ€™t cross in the middle of a block, and if youâ€™re at an intersection with a light and a crosswalk, you have to use it and cross with the light. You canâ€™t cross diagonally, either.
But youâ€™re allowed to cross at many intersections without a crosswalk, though the driving traffic has the right of way. However, if the intersection is in a business district, you must use a crosswalk. Hereâ€™s where it gets complicated: a business district is defined as â€œan area contiguous to a highway where the total widths of the adjacent buildings in use for commercial business open to the general public on both sides occupy 50% or more of the total frontage on both sides for a distance of 600 feet or more.â€
So… before crossing, look both ways and determine if half the buildings 600 feet in each direction are open businesses? Seems tricky, but thatâ€™s what weâ€™ve got. In plainer, but not definitive language, if youâ€™re someplace like downtown or Midtown, youâ€™re more likely to be required to use a crosswalk than if youâ€™re on a less commercial street.
â€œJaywalkingâ€ started a pejorative term, meaning something like a hick who doesnâ€™t know how to walk in a city. The idea to criminalize it was cooked up by the auto industry in the 1920s as part of an effort to combat lower speed limits and put the onus on pedestrians to avoid drivers, in contrast to the previous tendency for courts and the public to side with walkers. Auto groups got jaywalking laws passed all over the country and conducted shaming campaigns. Hereâ€™s one example, from historian Peter D. Nortonâ€™s 2007 article â€œStreet Rivals Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Streetâ€:
â€œIn 1925 1,300 Detroit school children gathered to witness the public trial of a twelve-year-old accused of â€˜jay walkingâ€™; the student jury convicted the defendant, sentencing him to wash school blackboards for a week.â€
I’ll be jaywalking in honor of that poor middle school kid, lost to history and shamed onto the sidewalk, for the rest of the week.