Jaywalking Laws – Safer for Whom?

By Emma Vinella-Brusher

Daunte Wright’s death, and the immense pain and unrest felt across the nation resulting from the never-ending trend of police violence against Black and Brown people, could and should have been avoided. In the wake of yet another murder of a Black man at the hands of the police, the inequities of our racist traffic enforcement laws are once again on full display. On the surface, this was simply a routine traffic stop gone wrong, and one could argue the race of the driver had nothing to do with it. But none of this is routine, and race had everything to do with it.

Across the U.S., Black people are more likely to be pulled over and far more likely to be searched during a traffic stop [1]. In the vast majority of cases, the stop is for something as simple as having a broken tail light or failing to signal a lane change. Or, in the case of Daunte Wright, hanging an air freshener from your rear view mirror.

Beyond traffic stops, racial targeting can also be seen in the enforcement of jaywalking laws. The history of policing and pedestrians traces back to the early 20th century, when people began to look at street space as belonging to cars rather than pedestrians. The shift in perspective became more notable with the introduction and conceptualization of jaywalking laws. In 1912, Kansas City passed the first U.S. ordinance related to jaywalking. The new ordinance led to the rise of victim blaming, placing fault on the pedestrians who were injured or killed on the streets [2]. Criminalizing jaywalking also increased opportunities to enforce other policies such as stop and frisk and search and seizure. Stopping someone for jaywalking allowed police to identify other criminal activities.

Source: National Safety Council/Library of Congress

A simple Google search for police brutality during jaywalking-related arrests yields dozens and dozens of results. One of the most well-known cases is that of 18-year-old Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, who was fatally shot after being stopped for jaywalking. If you are Black and lucky enough to survive an interaction with the police, our jaywalking laws are still inequitably enforced with far-reaching consequences. This can be seen across the U.S.:

  • New York City, NY: 89.5% of jaywalking tickets went to Blacks or Hispanics in the first 9 months of 2019 [3]
  • Jacksonville, FL: Blacks are 3 times more likely to be ticketed for pedestrian infractions than whites [4]
  • Urbana, IL: From 2007-2015, Blacks received 91% of jaywalking tickets despite only making up 16% of the population [5]

The policing of jaywalking also disadvantages those who rely on walking as their primary mode of transportation, with an especially distilled impact on those who live in areas without reliable pedestrian infrastructure. The infrastructure issue begs the question: how can you avoid jaywalking when the crosswalk doesn’t exist? Criminalizing jaywalking can further exacerbate the cycle of poverty. Jaywalking fines can be very steep, with charges up to $250 in some areas. Failure to pay may result in a loss of one’s driver’s license or damage to one’s credit score [6].

Enforcing minor infractions such as jaywalking provides yet another mechanism for further criminalization of targeted groups. Eliminating jaywalking and other minor traffic enforcement laws leads to fewer interactions between police and Black and Brown communities, and allows us to focus on actual safety concerns such as speeding instead. Traffic enforcement should be about saving lives, not endangering them.

Going forward, we must ask ourselves – what role do we want policing to play in traffic enforcement?

Should the police have a role in our transportation system at all?  

Emma Vinella-Brusher is a first-year dual degree Master’s student in City and Regional Planning and Public Health interested in equity, mobility, and food security. Born and raised in Oakland, CA, she received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies from Carleton College before spending four years at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Cambridge, MA. In her free time, Emma enjoys running, bike rides, live music, and laughing at her own jokes.

Edited by Ruby Brinkerhoff

Works Cited

[1] https://www.sc.edu/uofsc/posts/2020/06/racial_disparities_traffic_stops.php#.YHea-BRKjt1

[2] https://www.vox.com/2015/1/15/7551873/jaywalking-history

[3] https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2020/01/08/nypd-targets-blacks-and-latinos-for-jaywalking-tickets/

[4] https://usa.streetsblog.org/2017/11/16/jacksonvilles-jaywalking-enforcement-is-very-very-racist/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/03/opinion/jaywalking-while-black-jacksonville-florida.html

[6] https://features.propublica.org/walking-while-black/jacksonville-pedestrian-violations-racial-profiling/