Things Noticed in America (part 2) – J-Walking

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.”

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7 Responses to Things Noticed in America (part 2) – J-Walking

  1. nishatalitha says:

    What street around Imperial College? I’m in that area every so often for the Science Museum lates, and am going to a small con at the College mid-Feb. I could have a look and tell you what I think (assuming I remember).

    • mashugenah says:

      I read about this almost 10 years ago in one of the engineering news rags. I just remember it was in that vicinity. Anyway, by now it may all be back to traditional traffic management strategies.

      • nishatalitha says:

        Fair enough.

        I was wondering if it was Exhibition Road? I think cars can go along the section south of Thurloe Road after certain times now, and there’s not usually much traffic on the rest of it. Cromwell Road, on the other hand, is always busy.

        EDIT: Sorry, it can’t be: the changes to Exhibition Road were completed late 2011 (to time and to budget).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Your comments about risk for drivers in the States is missing one important factor – the right to sue. My uncle’s friend did not like driving his classic car in San Francisco because he was always worried that he wouldn’t see someone (in particular someone already in a wheelchair, because they’re too low for him to see over his high bonnet), hit them accidentally, and then end up having to pay all of their medical bills :-S

  3. Not really relevant, but you reminded me of this compilation of driving incidents in Russia: http://kottke.org/12/12/driving-in-russia

    A followup explains just why it’s so bad in Russia (and why everyone has a camera on their dashboard): http://www.animalnewyork.com/2012/russian-dashcam/

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hmm, late comment, but… I’ve often seen Melbourne cited by annoyed Wellington drivers as a place where people don’t jaywalk and jaywalkers get heavy fines. Now that I’ve lived here a couple of years, I think that’s rubbish. Melbourne’s covered in gangs of young recently-trained cops who roam around in groups of 4, and they’ll occasionally have theme days where they decide to fine jaywalkers, which is where those stories come from. People jaywalk all the time, though, especially on the narrower one-way streets between the big streets. A difference, however, is that people also spend a lot of time waiting at crossing points, which is probably where short-term visitors get the idea that there’s little jaywalking. I think this has very little to do with the fines, and a *lot* to do with the fact that Melbourne’s CBD is a rectangular grid of straight line routes, made up of wide streets that usually have at least 4 lanes of vehicle traffic plus 2 tram lines. ie. They’re very wide streets full of fast, noisy, impatient, multiply-laned traffic. Consider Wellington if every main street through town was like Jervois Quay at 5.15pm on a weekday. When there are gaps, however, plenty of people will simply wander across the road.

    The designed grid pattern here means that pedestrians can almost never walk diagonally, which means that no matter where you want to go, you’re always needing to cross several of these horribly wide arterial streets. To reach a diagonal destination it’s always necessary to walk X blocks north and Y blocks west, and the route you take nearly always lines you up with the crossings at intersections so jaywalking is less relevant at the expense of a horribly inefficient walking route. I much prefer Wellington’s walk-ability because its layout doesn’t force you to walk in stupid routes.. The streets are narrow enough that pedestrians aren’t isolated from the other side. The city’s structure has grown organically and geography’s also meant that a horrid vehicle-centric grid design hasn’t been possible. A result is that if you want to walk from point A to B there’s often a mostly-direct line for walking. It does mean, however, that the most efficient walking routes in Wellington often end up crossing streets in places where there aren’t crossings available, but the streets in the CBD are mostly narrow and there are often gaps in traffic or stopped traffic. Fining people for crossing unsafely (like stepping out without looking), is a different issue, though.

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