A century ago, crossing the street was a straightforward task – just step across. But today, with traffic regulations in place, finding a crosswalk and waiting for that green signal is the norm if you want to obey the law. Jaywalking, or crossing outside designated areas, can now lead to hefty fines in any major city where the car has become the streets' apex predator.
This change in street dynamics is not random. It can be traced back to a forgotten, aggressive campaign in the 1920s led by auto groups and manufacturers that redefined the ownership of city streets. In those days, streets were public spaces shared by pedestrians, vendors, horse-drawn vehicles, streetcars, and playing children. Pedestrians wandered freely, with few marked crosswalks, and cars were considered a random oddity.
Then in the 1920s, the rise of automobiles brought with it an alarming increase in pedestrian deaths, mainly among the elderly and children who had once freely roamed the streets. Public outrage ensued, and anti-car activists pushed for safer streets. In 1923, Cincinnati residents attempted to limit car speeds to 25 miles per hour, but auto dealers fought back and defeated the measure, prompting auto groups nationwide to safeguard their interests.
To shift the blame from cars to pedestrians, auto industry groups worked to redefine streets legally. They influenced the creation of a model traffic law in 1928, emphasizing that pedestrians must cross only at crosswalks and at right angles – a principle still followed today. To ensure compliance, the industry aimed to control media narratives, sponsored safety campaigns, and shamed pedestrians who didn't follow the rules. They used terms like "jaywalker" to ridicule those who crossed illegally, and the word eventually stuck. The successful campaign changed the perception of streets and who they belonged to.
The term jaywalking was invented.
What we now see as the norm for street behavior, with strict rules and jaywalking penalties, was shaped by a concerted effort by auto groups in the 1920s, which transformed the way we navigate our urban landscape.
If you want to learn more about the invention of jaywalking, I recommend the always amazing 99% Invisible podcast: