Commentaries Government Transportation

Downtown View: Jaywalking is Safest

It gladdened my heart last week to read that state Senator Harriette Chandler, a Democrat from Worcester and the Senate Majority Leader, proposed raising the fine for jaywalking from $1 to $25 for a first offense up to $75 for third offenses and more. She thinks this will save lives.

I was delighted for two reasons. First, it’s fun to watch when people try to solve a problem with an ineffective solution.

Also, the senator’s proposal gives me the chance to celebrate jaywalking as the Boston pedestrians’ only way to get across a street.

Let’s look at facts. Massachusetts saw 11 pedestrian deaths between January 4 and January 26, according to WalkBoston. Eight were caused by drivers, not pedestrians. Four of the victims were in a crosswalk, but the drivers hit them anyway. One driver was drunk. Three drivers hit and ran. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board of WalkBoston because I care about this stuff.)

Eight fatalities occurred after dark. Older pedestrians were more at risk: seven were over 60.

The irony is that Sen. Chandler would be increasing the fine on the best way to stay safe. Studies in San Francisco, New York City and Florida have determined that jaywalking is safer than crossing in a crosswalk.

In May, 2010, the New York Times columnist David Brooks vindicated Boston pedestrians when he wrote that people take more risks when they believe systems or devices are in place to protect them. “[Pedestrians] have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways,” he wrote.

Despite the recent tragedies, Boston’s jaywalkers still make this city the second safest for pedestrians in America. Transportation for America, an organization devoted to expanding transportation options, quantified the most dangerous places for pedestrians. In 50 metro areas of more than 1 million, Minneapolis-St. Paul was safest, but Boston was second.

This is despite the fact that more Boston-area residents (4.6 percent) walk to work than in any American city except New York (6 percent). New York was also safer for pedestrians, with a ranking just under Boston’s.

Putting safety aside, jaywalking is the reasonable option when pedestrians face the challenges the city’s transportation officials put in their way.

The city has installed push buttons at every crosswalk so cars are not inconvenienced if no one is waiting to cross. We doubt that the buttons work since we know how badly the city maintains anything. So we are forced to take matters into our own hands.

Most cities use buttons at crosswalks where few pedestrians turn up. Here, at all times of day, there are as many pedestrians as cars at most intersections. We always need a walk cycle. Take out the buttons, and spend the savings on pre-kindergarten.

Another problem is that even if we get a walk cycle, it is not concurrent with traffic going in the same direction, as it is in every other American city. Maybe those officials don’t want us to slow down the drivers who are turning.

Law-abiding tourists are stuck and confused. You watch them stand on a corner, waiting and waiting for the little white man, wondering why Bostonians are paying no attention.

The next problem is the time walkers are given to cross a street. We might get 18 seconds at a Cambridge Street intersection, while Washington D.C. pedestrians get 47 seconds on a street of a comparable size. (It is nerdy to measure such things, but I do it.)

It is ironic in “America’s Walking City” that city officials are so behind the times in making it more convenient and safer for walkers.

Cambridge and Chicago have instituted a “leading pedestrian interval” at some intersections. Pedestrians get a few seconds head start in crossing the street before the light turns green for cars heading in the same direction. Turning cars are more likely to see pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk.

Finally, drivers should be fined for blasting through un-signaled crosswalks when a person has already started to cross. California drivers on even the busiest roads stop if a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. In Boston, where drivers seem oblivious, a sign helps.

Mayor Walsh has a plan for making our streets safer with his Vision Zero Task Force. It has identified some of the most dangerous locations and made plans to make them safer. His plea for drivers to slow down won’t make a difference. But his plan for speed bumps and raised crosswalks in some neighborhoods is an excellent start, since high speed is the greatest factor in pedestrian deaths.

Making laws and the right of way tougher on cars is the way to go, not blaming the victims.

Meanwhile, I called Ms. Chandler’s office to see how things are going. Haven’t heard back yet.

Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

10 Replies to “Downtown View: Jaywalking is Safest

  1. Interesting article.
    Are pedestrians daredevils? Considering the often long-timing of the signals, people want/need to jaywalk. The pedestrians have the same go, go,go impulse as the motorists, hence what will temper the pace of the sidewalk traffic? There is always a fear of hitting someone, and I’m aghast at seeing a mother pushing a carriage on the crosswalk, without looking either way, trusting drivers will come to a stop. It is a walking city and it is a challenge to drive it, without hitting someone, and it is a challenge to walk it, without getting hit !

  2. Has anyone ever heard of a person getting a ticket for jaywalking in this city? We now have distracted drivers, distracted bicyclists & throw in distracted walkers who cross a street staring at a smart phone and it’s a recipe for disaster.

  3. Ugh, don’t get me started on this topic! The thing as a pedestrian that absolutely drives me crazy is that at many large intersections in Boston, I get a walk signal at the same time cars that can make right turns into the crosswalk where I’m walking get a green light. It’s clear from the drivers’ faces and sometimes their hand gestures, that they don’t realize the pedestrians have a walk light. Unless they drive through such intersections on a regular basis, why would they? I think this is incredibly unsafe.

  4. Karen, Loved your article. One thing I heard is that the walk buttons on major streets are not connected to anything and the lights are on an automated cycle. I have watched the walk signal come on when no one is waiting to walk and it always comes at the same time in the cycle. ( I am retired and have time to do things like that) Also I agree that the crossing time is too short at many lights. ( I think the number marks 1/2 seconds not seconds.) I sometimes feel like one of those ducks at a carnival shooting gallery. While I think Sen. Chandler maybe well intentioned, her proposal would just increase costs and administrative burden for our police and courts. Also I think the proposed fines are excessive and might weigh heaviest on those who can least afford them.

  5. A parking meter running out poses NO danger, yet a $25 or more ticket is issued, so pedestrians endangering themselves is at least as important to deter. How did you determine fault? How many of the pedestrians were drunk or on drugs? How many were wearing dark clothing at night? A major problem is that pedestrians and cyclists failed kindergarten lessons of fairness, sharing and taking turns – they ignore red lights for them not being their turn and make others wait for them like royalty.

  6. I recently moved to Everett and the walk cycle at Everett Square only comes on for 15 seconds, which is not enough time to cross two streets. When I get to the intersection and see my bus coming down Broadway, I either have to hope I caught the button with enough time to get a walk signal before my bus gets the green light, or dart through traffic to avoid missing my bus, because if that button is pushed too late all the traffic gets to go before pedestrians are given a walk signal. The next bus could be 12-20 minutes away, which is pretty good incentive to jaywalk so I’m not late for work. Plus drivers there are very aggressive; they are impatient and block the intersection, and they speed to beat the lights. Even with the walk signal working for me, I’ve almost been hit half a dozen times. Don’t punish pedestrians unless they are truly a danger. Go after distracted, aggressive drivers.

  7. As someone who has lived and walked in five big cities, jay walking is safest. The biggest risk people take when crossing where recommended is not looking left. Trust me on this one, ALWAYS look left.

  8. This reminds me of a funny experience I had recently at a five points style intersection. The driver ran a red light, turned onto the crosswalk, swerved to miss me while I was obeying a walk signal. I am super careful as a runner and walker. To my surprise, his response was to give me the finger and tell me to get the eff out of the effen street you effen ______. What made art of this unscientific request was the two kids in the back seat enjoying blaring music and the sweet smell of pot. What I typically do in these situations is walk down the quieter two of the five streets and cross inward about 5+ car lengths. This was the ONE exception I made to my normal jay walk. And only ’cause I was late to get my hairs did. And I’m bald. But seriously, I used the cross walk, something I perceived to be a risk, because I was in a hurry to get shaved and coiffed. I could have lost the ability to have either done had I been struck. Any less agile fellow would have been nailed, flown up and landed hard, which typically results in secondary trauma, meaning a the landing of the head to pavement, often followed by its first thud. Ah, brainzz. I took a considerable krav maga jump to avoid the swerving car, landed in front of another, who greeted me with the i and m words. It was a great day to be me. defensive jay walking is the way to go.

  9. A mom jaywalking across Humbolt Street tonight carrying her infant daughter wasn’t safer. Its likely she was also dressed in dark clothing. Jaywalking fines are needed to educate people so fewer will get hurt. Jaywalking fines need to be a cornerstone of Vision Zero initiatives.

  10. Jaywalking is no different than walking across a designated cross walk or crossing at the light. You need to be just as careful crossing with a light as without the light. There are so many poor drivers on the road, you have to be wary when crossing a city street at any time.

Comments are closed.