Confessions of a jaywalker

It’s a bit pedestrian-hostile out here, folks. Credit: Kate Abbey-Lambertz

I’ll come clean: Despite the warnings, the last few days I’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 that at least four outlets framed as a call for jaywalkers to beware of a crackdown on their reckless behavior.

It’s unclear how Detroit is enforcing this initiative. The Detroit Police Department hasn’t answered my questions about how they’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 haven’t yet gotten a ticket, though if I do I could be on the hook for more than $100.

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.

I’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 aren’t common phenomena. I’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 that’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 isn’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.”

It’s not just about illegal speeding, either — Scott questions whether many roadways have legal speed limits that are dangerously high. He thinks MSP’s ideas around safety overall are “motorist driven,” what he calls a “windshield bias.”

“They 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,” he said.

Of course pedestrian safety isn’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 “complete street” designs in certain neighborhoods, which force drivers to slow down and take non-car users into account. In Grandmont Rosedale, residents’ concerns about people crossing safely on busy Grand River led to a proposal to enhance the streetscape with features like mid-block crosswalks.  

Via Detroit Planning and Development Department’s Grand River Northwest Neighborhood Framework plan from 2018.

What’s more, Scott noted, pedestrian fatalities have gone down in 2016 and 2017, since the city’s streetlight system was overhauled (most pedestrian deaths occur at night).

“It shows that the built environment can have a dramatic effect on pedestrian safety,” he said. “Pedestrians are so vulnerable… they don’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?”

Sure, you know “look both ways,” and there are plenty of tips for safe walking, but the jaywalking rules are kind of confusing and not standardized across the state. You can’t cross in the middle of a block, and if you’re at an intersection with a light and a crosswalk, you have to use it and cross with the light. You can’t cross diagonally, either.

But you’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. Here’s where it gets complicated: a business district is defined as “an 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.”

So… before crossing, look both ways and determine if half the buildings 600 feet in each direction are open businesses? Seems tricky, but that’s what we’ve got. In plainer, but not definitive language, if you’re someplace like downtown or Midtown, you’re more likely to be required to use a crosswalk than if you’re on a less commercial street.

“Jaywalking” started a pejorative term, meaning something like a hick who doesn’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. Here’s one example, from historian Peter D. Norton’s 2007 article “Street Rivals Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street”:

“In 1925 1,300 Detroit school children gathered to witness the public trial of a twelve-year-old accused of ‘jay walking’; the student jury convicted the defendant, sentencing him to wash school blackboards for a week.”

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. 

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl