I wonder why Seattleites don’t jaywalk?
By Jennifer Wing
Fear of a ticket from paternalistic police? Group angst? Peer pressure?
Whatever the reason, even if a car is not in sight, Seattleites will often wait patiently for the light to change rather than … jaywalk.
Pedestrians in this city are unlike their fellow walkers in San Francisco, Boston and even Portland, Ore., and the culture of waiting at the light goes back decades.
In 1978 it was one the first things Patrick Fitzsimons notice when he came to interview for the police chief job. Seattle Police officer John Abraham says the story has become stuff of legend.
“Chief Patrick Fitzsimons and his wife were in a hotel in Belltown and Fitzsimons is looking out the window and he calls his wife over, ‘Ogla you gotta see this! It’s pouring rain. It’s Sunday morning, and they are waiting for the light to cross. We are staying here.’”
And he did for 15 years.
(In the video below, a researcher shows how the expansion of bike lanes in New York City exposed a clash of long-standing bad habits involving pedestrians jaywalking, cyclists running red lights and more)
The leading theories
So what is it that compels Seattleites to wait, sometimes without a car in site?
Officer Abraham suspects people know what might happen if they step off the curb, when it’s not their turn.
“You walk across the street and you get hit by a 4,000 pound car and you’re gonna lose.”
Nathaniel Strauss, a transplant from the jaywalking paradise of Boston, says it’s all about “crowd” mentality.
“I think a large part of it is peer pressure.”
In other words, if you’re standing at the intersection and everyone else is waiting, you are more likely to stay with the pack. It feels safer. It’s the same psychology that keeps cows and sheep close together.
One day, last Spring, Strauss broke from the herd. It happened at Union Street downtown at 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Strauss was parked at a garage across the street. He saw some cars coming.
“They weren’t super close and I kind of hoofed it across the street. And right as I stepped onto the curb on the other side there was a cop.”
The law won
The officer had a look of disbelief on his face.
“He said, didn’t you see the cars? And I said yes. Well, did you see me? No, I didn’t see you. Well you did it right in front of me. If you didn’t see me, how did you see the cars?”
And so it went … Strauss became one of the more than 1,500 people each year who get slapped with a $56 ticket for jaywalking. He’s a lawyer and even took the case to trial.
How it ended isn’t a surprise to John Morgan, who heads the city’s pedestrian advisory board. Morgan got his own Jaywalking ticket on Capitol Hill.
“And I thought it was ridiculous, and I think most people do.”
He is right that at least some people do. In fact, there is currently a petition to decriminalize jaywalking: “City of Seattle, Seattle City Council: Make jaywalking legal unless it obstructs vehicular movement.” This petition sets out to make jaywalking LEGAL unless it interferes with the movement of cars. The petition’s creator doesn’t think the city should spend time and money pursuing people who walk against the light.
In addition, a 2010 story in The Seattle Times looked at several reports concerning how jaywalking stops have led to violent conflicts between police and pedestrian. In one case, a 17 year old girl was punched by an officer, after she shoved him.
Morgan also thinks there is very a strange fixation at the Seattle Police Department with jaywalking. He says Seattle police are overly paternalistic in that they think pedestrians really have no idea what they are doing when they jaywalk.
Morgan’s theory taps into where the word “jay walk” came from almost 100 years ago. A “jay” meaning a country bumpkin unfamiliar with the modern automobile and always in its way.
(The following comical, old film looks at how annoying jaywalkers can be. )
Morgan says in places where jaywalking is allowed the roads are safer for walkers.
“You create more uncertainty. People drive more slowly. And when people are paying attention and communicating, everyone ends up being more safe.”
As long as it’s the law, police officer Abraham says citing jaywalkers will continue to be a top priority.
“Jaywalking can cost your life; smoking marijuana can just give you a buzz. So, I’ll be after a jaywalker rather than someone with a joint. Unless that person starts to jaywalk, then they’ll really be in trouble.”
If you are going to do it, here is some Jaywalking Advice: