In California the law is that pedestrians have right of way, but it’s also the law that you can cross only at designated places at designated times. It would be interesting to try arranging this exact rule in different places and see the responses. I believe that in Wellington you would see people casually drifting across the road at any time that suited them – because that’s basically what you see now. I guess cars might be a little more cautious though.
In California, it looked to me like pedestrians were very much more cautious and respectful of the rules, and there are doubtless systematic effects in play here – the fining of J-walkers, for example. There may also be a perception of a different level of safety. In Wellington you hear about people being killed by buses periodically – but in a city the size of LA, I imagine it’d be daily news, simply because of the scale of it all.
The risk to pedestrians for crossing a street is very high in comparison to the risk for a driver, and yet some pedestrians still “risk it”. In London, at one particularly dangerous and nastily busy stretch of road near Imperial College, the town planners decided to take a novel approach to fixing it – they removed all the zebra crossings, all the parking indicators, and all of the centrelines. I’m not sure how that experiment turned out, but what is important here is the psychology they wished to create: uncertainty. They wanted each movement through that area to be a conscious negotiation, they didn’t want anyone to feel entitled or comfortable and perhaps most importantly, they wanted it to be a shared space, where cars and pedestrians had equal rights. A similar experiment is going on in Wellington, on Blair and Allan, and at the bottom of Cuba.
That London example helped me to form one quite plausible theory about the reticence of J-Walkers, despite their “right of way” – the psychology that the road was for Cars, not People. People move from island to island, separated by this dangerous and Other space, intended for Cars. If you want to leave an Island you generally take a boat; in this analogy, a Car. Cars are how you get around, not feet, unless you are within an island.
The relative absence of J-walking is a little thing that points to a big thing. In NZ, certainly inside the cities, I think that people regard the road as theirs, sometimes to their detriment. As a friend of mine blithely commented when I casually asked about his J-walk across the road to meet me “the cars will stop.”