With the recent conversation about jaywalking enforcement in New York City and Los Angeles as a back-drop, Aidan lewis provides a sweeping history of how the term “jaywalking” came to be a cultural signifier for “ignorant” and then, finally, a crime.
Lewis quotes Peter Norton, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic - The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City throughout the article, first to describe the origins of the term “jaywalking”: “The word was first used to describe ‘someone from the countryside who goes to the city and is so dazzled by the lights and the show windows that they keep stopping and getting in the way of other pedestrians’.”
Of course, the incredibly powerful auto industry lobby has a lot to do with the prohibition of jaywalking: “A key moment, says Norton, was a petition signed by 42,000 people in Cincinnati in 1923 to limit the speed of cars mechanically to 25mph (40kph). Though the petition failed, an alarmed auto industry scrambled to shift the blame for pedestrian casualties from drivers to walkers.”
Then clowns were employed to “portray jaywalkers as a throwback to rural, ignorant, pre-motor age ways,” and Boy Scouts handed out fliers to pedestrians to inform them of the rightful position on the street (i.e., the sidewalk).
The anti-jaywalking agenda also infiltrated newspapers and education, et voilà: “Anti-jaywalking laws were adopted in many cities in the late 1920s, and became the norm by the 1930s.”