Just what exactly will the Freedom to Walk Act do?

Decriminalizing jaywalking is fine, but pedestrian safety remains an issue

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Once, when I visited India in the late 1990s, I recall having to cross a busy street with all manner of wheeled vehicles — two, three, four, five, six — racing past. I stood for a bit, waiting for a break in the traffic. Then, closely shadowing a group of nimble pedestrians, I made it to the median and waited again with others before making it to the other side. Besides wishing that the country had crosswalks, I realized that, when in doubt, pedestrians generally model their behavior after other pedestrians.

So upon hearing of “The Freedom to Walk Act” — Assembly Bill 1238 — which would decriminalize jaywalking, introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), I immediately conjured up scenes of adults, seniors, children and dogs maneuvering across streets and through traffic, relying on the performance of a vehicle’s braking system.

AB 1238 is aimed at “legalizing crossings, when safe, outside of a crosswalk or against a traffic light,” Assemblyman Ting’s press release stated. And perhaps most importantly, the bill takes a stand against the fines levied against jaywalkers, mostly people of color, and against police behavior in targeting this same demographic.

Presently, pedestrian’s rights and duties, as per California code 21955, states that between adjacent intersections controlled by traffic signal devices or by police officers, pedestrians shall not cross the roadway at any place except in a crosswalk. In California, jaywalking is an infraction and can cost more than $196.

There are a number of reports that show that jaywalking has historically been used by the police as a pretext for racial profiling and unjust policing. According to one analysis by the Lawyer’s Committee for the Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, between July 2018 and December 2019, the 15 largest law enforcement agencies stopped 5,792,245 individuals for a number of reasons, and among those who were issued citations on non-traffic stops, “Black adults were up to 9.7 times more likely to receive citations than white adults in the same jurisdiction, and Latinx adults were up to 5.8 times more likely to receive citations than white adults in the same jurisdiction.”

Given these findings, the motivations behind Assemblyman Ting’s bill are indeed worthy; however, the words “when safe” are dangerously vague. Who determines safety? Pedestrians? Is safety enforceable then? What would be the nature of police involvement? What would happen in the case of a pedestrian calamity?

It all began about a hundred years ago, when American streets were unlike what they are today. It was common to find horse-drawn vehicles, push-cart vendors, pedestrians and children sharing street space. As the number of automobiles increased, and the number of casualties rose, an all-out feud ensued between pedestrians and motorists, according to “Street Rivals — Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street,” a paper by Peter D. Norton, associate professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia.

The term jaywalking evolved as an epithet. “A jay was a country hayseed out of place in the city. By extension, a jaywalker was someone who did not know how to walk in the city,” wrote Norton. The aim of jaywalking laws was to reduce pedestrian deaths, but it also resulted in automobiles taking over our streets.

It is true, citing people for pedestrian offenses like jaywalking is ridiculous and a waste of police time and resources. Most people are able to calculate the risks of street crossings, with or without laws. Observing others do the same, I have often crossed a narrow stretch on Mission Street without using the crosswalk. And when behind the wheel, I have, on a number of occasions, had to brake suddenly to allow a heedless stream of pedestrians step on to the street even before the light turns red.

The thing is, though, at least in San Francisco, police have begun to realize that it’s not worth their effort to cite jaywalkers.

Analyzing the yearly traffic violations report in The City, it’s evident that the number of pedestrian infractions that show up on the report have come down significantly. While in 2017, there were 1,134 pedestrians pulled up and cited for offenses, in 2018, that number dropped to 420 and in 2019 it plummeted down to 30.

Yes, AB 1238 would reduce the number of jaywalking citations to zero. A worthy goal, but it’s not the end of the story. Ultimately, this bill will make little impact if our city streets are less safe for pedestrians.

According to a Walk San Francisco report, “Citywide, around 30 people are killed and nearly 600 severely injured each year on San Francisco streets. Each year, pedestrians make up the largest share of the victims. Seniors typically make up 40-50% of pedestrian fatalities, even though they are only 15% of the population.” Of the four pedestrian fatalities that occurred in San Francisco since the start of the year, two have been seniors, one a 12-year-old child and one 26-year-old.

Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, said that the organization supports Assemblyman Ting’s bill. “There is no evidence that jaywalking laws make streets safer, especially for the most vulnerable pedestrians: children and seniors. Limited resources for traffic enforcement should focus on reckless and deadly driving behavior, not ticketing pedestrians.”

If jaywalking laws are intended for pedestrian safety, then perhaps the right way of approaching this bill is to remove police involvement, find the capital to make our streets safer, and drop the speed limit for cars within city limits. The last thing we want to see is a child or an elderly person failing to keep up behind a nimble footed street-crosser, even on streets with light traffic.

Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.

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