What About The Pedestrians?

Written by Boston Biker on May 29

I have spent a lot of time on this site talking about motorists, and cyclists and how they can better follow the law. With the exception of one post however I have largely left pedestrians un-wagged at by my finger of reproach.

There is a discussion started on the forum with the point of trying to figure out the absolute worst intersection when it comes to jaywalkers, but in this article I want to posit a few reasons for why I think J-walking is so bad in this city.

Let me start with a strange tale from a city far away. I was in the far off land of San Jose, stranded with no bicycle, I was forced to walk (don’t feel too bad for me, I eventually found some wheels). So I am strolling around enjoying the fine weather, and I come to an intersection. The walk signal was on the little hand, and waiting on one side of the street was a large group of people. I look left….look right…no cars for MILES.

They have wide streets, a grid pattern, and it was clear nothing with an engine was anywhere near this intersection. Being a good Bostonian, I begin to walk into the street, and I shit you not, someone tells me to wait. I hear “the walk signal is not on.” It was told to me in the way a parent would explain to a child that a stove is hot or perhaps the way some people talk to really old people…all wrapped in a veil of contempt. I stopped dead in my tracks and waited.

For the next day or two I payed special attention to these west coast’ians, and damn if not every single one of them dutifully waited, even when no cars where coming, even when the signal time seemed like ages, to cross the street. It was as if they were all children of Hamelin, and the little walk guy was the pied piper leading them around. Frankly I was dumbfounded.

You return to Boston and you get shit like this.

We all know that this is not an isolated incident, this is the norm in this town.

I mean look at all that mess. People crossing in front of oncoming cars, people crossing behind oncoming cars, people crossing when the red hand is clearly visible. It is truly chaotic. These people seem to have no concept of just how bad it is going to hurt if they get hit by these cars. They also seem to have no sense of taking turns. The people in cars for the most part waited patiently at each red light, and when it turned green they were forced to deal with a sea of random pedestrians blocking their way.

I sat at this intersection for a good 5 minutes, long enough to wait through about 3-4 cycles. This walk signal turns over very quickly, if you got their just as the red hand went up, you might have to wait a minute tops to get the next walk sign (although it might be nice to leave the walk guy up a bit longer at this particular intersection).

So jaywalking in this fashion is dangerous, rude, and the pedestrians didn’t even have to wait that long to get a walk signal…so why do they do it? Why do the people in Boston jaywalk in droves, and the people in San Jose publicly scold you when you even think about jaywalking?

I think it boils down to two reasons, these two reasons sort of wrap around each other and fit into the reasons why bikers and motorists break the law.


Simply put, people feel fine about jaywalking in Boston, because no one says peep about it. You walk around long enough in this town and you might get shoulder bumped as others file past you. I mean if everyone else is doing it..why not do it too? In San Jose they self enforce, they hiss at the outsiders (like me) who deem to cross when the red hand is up. I wonder what would happen if I sat on the corner and pointed out to people that they were jaywalking…probably nothing good.

Law Enforcement:

You might not believe this, but I assure you it is true…you can get a ticket for jaywalking on the west coast. A cop can be like “you crossed the street in the middle,” boom ticket. In theory you could get one here as well, but you wont. I actually asked a cop to give a ticket to a jaywalker who had caused an accident by walking out into (moving) traffic, and was told “this isn’t California, we don’t ticket for jaywalking here.”

So in essence, the exact same things that lead bikers and drivers to break the law rampantly lead pedestrians to do the same. What I would really like people to realize is that Boston doesn’t have a driver/biker/walker law breaking problem, it has a law breaking problem.

Every user class is breaking the law in a myriad of ways, and doing so in massive numbers. I am really sick of hearing the drivers blame it on the cyclists who blame it on the pedestrians who blame it on the drivers…etc etc.

I have also come to realize that law breaking (of any user class) is not random. The law breaking is not spread out at every intersection, it is concentrated on several intersections. Because it is so concentrated, it is easily targeted with enforcement.

You stick a couple cops at the intersection I filmed above, (much in the way Cambridge tickets cyclists that run reds near MIT) you could spread the word very quickly about what the law is, and what happens when you break it.

This targeted enforcement is unlikely to happen, but it must. As more and more people walk and bike it is going to be vital to make sure these growing user classes are following the rules. It will also be crucial for safety that drivers are operating safely around these growing user classes, so they too much follow the rules.

If we truly want a cyclist/walker friendly city we must get every user class to start following the rules, and not simply spread the blame in a never ending circular firing squad.

(and before anyone chimes in, I realize this must also come with education and infrastructure improvements)

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Posted in advocacy, infrastructure | 21 Comments »

21 Responses to “What About The Pedestrians?”

  1. By Mike on May 29, 2010 | Reply

    Wow.. this is an awesome blog post. I love it!! Yeah, the culture of Boston pretty much supports near total anarchy. Some part of me fears it.. another loves it. lol

    To be honest, I have probably had more close calls due to pedestrians popping out and just causing general mayhem in the street (miles from a crosswalk) than I have with cars, taxis or buses. They are like freaking squirrels at times.. or in herds like cattle.

    Good luck changing that kind of runaway behavior. :-p

  2. By Biker Boy on May 29, 2010 | Reply

    worse than people jaywalking on a crosswalk are people who jump out between two parked cars. I have had some close encounters with pedestrians that just appear out of no where.

  3. By Herzog on May 29, 2010 | Reply

    I don’t have any problems with jaywalkers.

    I slow down and give my bell a little ring if I think they don’t see me. Same thing when I’m in a car (minus the bell).

  4. By Eric Jay on May 29, 2010 | Reply

    UGH, this is SUCH a huge pet peeve for me. I walk, bike, and drive, and T this city, and have come to hate pedestrians more than any other group using the street.

    Whether I’m on my bike or in my car, I absolutely HATE when I am turning left on a green arrow and pedestrians just step right out in front of me. The most recent time this happened, I came skidding to a stop just in time to barely avoid a collision, while the car turning left behind/beside me ended up stranded in the intersection. The car behind him ended up blocking the Green Line. It was a giant cluster all because the pedestrians decided that they were ready to cross. Definitely one of the few times when I as a rider exchanged a commiserating “WTF?” look with a driver.

    What sucks is that some road users encourage this behavior. Drivers will stop on green to wave reluctant pedestrians on. I’ve seen people who should know better (shuttle bus drivers, delivery drivers, police officers, etc.) do this.

    It’s insane how many believe that a pedestrian in a crosswalk ALWAYS has the right of way. Ask around… you’ll be shocked. Otherwise normal, rational, thinking will tell you that the law gives them the right to cross the street anytime they please, so long as they’re in a crosswalk, traffic lights or a “Don’t Walk” signal be damned! They’ll cite state and/or federal laws, their driver-ed teacher, their mothers, and be completely oblivious to the fact that the crosswalk right-of-way only applies when traffic controls aren’t present.

  5. By mtalinm on May 29, 2010 | Reply

    Boston is to jaywalking as Greece is to retiring at age 53. There would be massive backlash if the police started to ticket jaywalkers, which might be why they don’t do it.

    it’s a shame, because it would be an easy to to generate revenue. Just put a couple of the Cambridge meter-maids on it; they have ice in their veins.

    wish I could agree with Herzog, but I find that many jaywalkers are listening to music and ignore my bell or voice. that’s why I got an Airzound 🙂

  6. By Paul Schimek on May 29, 2010 | Reply

    @Eric Jay – one of those who had the crosswalk rules wrong was a Boston Police Commissioner, quoted in the Boston Globe, back in 1998, after a law-abiding bicyclist hit a jaywalking pedestrian, after which the city decided to crack down hard on those no-good bike messengers.

    @BB — Boston and some other Mass. cities are unique in using “exclusive” walk phases as a default. This means that you have to wait an unreasonably long time to get a walk signal — and often only after pressing the button — and during much of this time it is safe to cross. Turning drivers are required to yield to pedestrians crossing with the flow of traffic. This is one of the other secret rules that no one is taught. Cambridge has changed many of the exclusive phases to Leading Pedestrian Interval — the WALK sign comes up for 3 seconds before the concurrent green, giving walkers a head start in the crosswalk ahead of turning vehicles. WalkBoston favors this approach, and has tried desperately but without success to get Boston to adopt it, even after $150,000 in Boston Foundation grant funding. (And even when the WALK is concurrent, BTD generally gives only a 5-7 walk, and DONT WALK for all the rest of the concurrent green).

    Another reason there is no enforcement AT ALL of ped laws in Mass. is that state law mandates a fine of $1. But watch out, the fine goes up to $2 for the third offense in a calendar year.

  7. By Ron Newman on May 29, 2010 | Reply

    To me, the Boston attitude is healthy and the West Coast one strange. Boston was built for pedestrians, since 1630. Wheeled traffic, whether bicycles or motor vehicles, came much later and has been shoehorned into the existing pedestrian street pattern.

  8. By Herzog on May 30, 2010 | Reply

    Ron makes a good point. Prior to automobile dependence/urban renewals/the death of the streetcar/etc streets were shared space — shared between cars, pedestrians, cyclists, buses.

    My problem is with people who don’t want to slow down to the pace of others in a shared space, basically aggressive motorists, aggressive cyclists, aggressive runners, etc. I think that pedestrians should “be king” in a dense urban center.

  9. By Jason F on May 30, 2010 | Reply

    Yeah, I’ve dumped a motorcycle because some asshole jaywalked in front of me. I was still in experienced and I was test riding a bike from a guy whos street went one way straight into Davis, and I looked down to make sure I was signaling and downshifting etc and one asshole walked in front of me and I braked on a motorcycle I had never been on before, through a patch of sand and dumped it.

    But as was said before, the fine is a buck, it won’t be enforced until the fine goes up.

  10. By Conrad Halling on May 30, 2010 | Reply

    I walk or bicycle everywhere because I don’t own a car. As a pedestrian, I resent that pedestrians have to push a button to get a signal to cross the street at many intersections. And in Cambridge, even when I’m crossing with a walk signal, I have to keep an eye out for law-flouting bicyclists who ride through red lights, ride the wrong way on the street, or ride on the sidewalk in business districts. And I should include cars that make a right turn on a red light when a right turn is prohibited by a “No turn on red” sign.

    As Paul mentions, Cambridge has some walk signals that come on a few seconds before the traffic lights turn green. This should be the general practice everywhere. (Are you listening, Somerville?)

    In general, traffic lights and pedestrian signals seem to be designed to encourage jaywalking because they force pedestrians to wait even when it is safe to cross.

  11. By patrick on May 30, 2010 | Reply

    i actually remember my driver’s ed teacher saying there is no jaywalking law in MA. but maybe what she meant was they never ever ever ticket for it?

  12. By J on May 30, 2010 | Reply

    Jaywalking signals a pedestrian friendly city. I actually was in downtown San Jose last week, which is pedestrian friendly, and I saw many people jaywalking, including myself.

    Of course youre not going to jaywalk across a 6 lane road with a 50mph speed limit. Instead, you must push the button (extremely pedestrian unfriendly) and wait for the entire light cycle to finish to get a chance to cross. Its complete BS.

    People dont jaywalk because they fear for their lives. Thats not a good situation to be in. Do we really want a city where nobody jaywalks because cars are coming at 60mph and will not stop?

    You claim that everyone must follow the rules, but thats not fair if the rules are badly written (or written strictly for the automobile). If the rules say you must walk 2 miles to cross a 2 lane road at the designated place, would you do it?

    In your videos, is anybody getting hurt? No. Everybody is moving at a human speed, everyone is looking around.

  13. By Marcus on May 31, 2010 | Reply

    I don’t understand why “J”, Conrad and Ron are arguing in favor of ignoring (flouting?) the existing laws against jaywalking (aka *lawbreaking*). If cars (and cyclists) did the same, many (more) pedestrians would be seriously injured if not killed. The existing laws were created by your elected representatives to govern the safe and shared use of our public resources–in this case, public roads.

    If you don’t like it, then argue for changing the laws, not ignoring them. I am 100% behind strict enforcement of all of our existing traffic laws, whether they apply to pedestrians, automobiles or my self-identified group–cyclists!

    To be clear–I don’t blame anyone other than the police and their chain of command for creating the anarchy of the Boston roads. The central, root problem is law enforcement (or lack thereof!). A quick P.R. campaign about a new crackdown on law-flouters and a slew of $100+ traffic tickets later, and I guarantee everyone in Boston would respect the existing laws a bit more. Too bad the cops are too busy standing around construction sites zoning out to do something useful.

    If we had some competent law enforcement everyone would swiftly become more interested in changing the laws to fit their particular viewpoint better! I think that would be a big improvement since it would foster public debate, compromise and agreement instead of the current confusion and frustration about the ambiguity of whether anyone is actually obligated to respect any traffic laws at all! Who’s with me?

  14. By J on May 31, 2010 | Reply

    “If cars (and cyclists) did the same, many (more) pedestrians would be seriously injured if not killed.”

    But see, the whole traffic signaling system was invented because cars are big, heavy and fast, and can do serious damage. Further, the driver is inside an enclosed space, with limited visibility, and the lack of sound information. A pedestrian can be 100% aware of their surroundings in a way a driver cannot.

    Fighting jaywalking is sort of like making pedestrian bridges. At first, it sounds like a great idea, but examine it closely and what it really is, is favoring the automobile over the person.

    Take the original example of waiting at a light when not a soul was coming. What does this accomplish? Nothing. Its a complete waste for a pedestrian to stand there like an idiot waiting for the magic white hand to appear.

    So why ask cars to do it? Because a driver sits further back in the intersection, is slower to accelerate and decelerate, and cannot hear the traffic. If a pedestrian starts to cross and notices a car he didnt see, he can stop on a dime and step (or jump) back. A car cannot, by the time you shift into reverse and move backwards, youve been hit, especially because the car makes it faster across the intersection.

    Now, Im not saying I approve of people darting out between cars, because that’s dumb, but instead, making a slow, informed decision to cross at a corner when no one is coming, or at midblock when the coast is clear.

    Also, note the language those opposed to pedestrians use:

    “Pedestrians DARTING from between parking cars”
    sounds eerily similar to
    “Cyclists BLOWING past red light”

    IE: taking a rare situation caused by a jackass and applying it to an entire transportation mode.

    Further, how many pedestrians are killed a year in Boston? Very, very few. Compare to the number of pedestrians killed in a city like LA (obviously adjust for population). The jaywalking culture makes things SAFER. Drivers proceed slower, constantly scan for pedestrians and generally behave in a safer manner in the city. The drivers may not be courteous, but at least they’re ready to hit the brakes.

    “If you don’t like it, then argue for changing the laws, not ignoring them.”

    Theres no need to change the law, the current status is good enough, in which there is zero enforcement.

    Now, this is a bike blog, so lets turn the conversation to that:

    Cyclists having to swerve or stop due to pedestrians crossing illegally and not yielding to the bike that has the right of way. As a cyclist….deal with it. Peddle slower, scan, do the same thing car drivers do, be prepared to slow and stop. What’s the rush? You’re going to get their pretty fast anyway. Dont we always complain that drivers honk when we slow them down? Why then turn around and complain that a pedestrian is slowing us down?

    And as for the rare situation of a pedestrian darting from between parked cars….you shouldnt be riding so close to the cars that this is an issue.

    Car drivers are sitting on a comfortable leather seat, have temperature control, radio, and are insulated from the elements. I think its fair to ask them to slow down and watch for jaywalkers.

    Bikes arent as comfortable, but youre still seated and can proceed quickly. I dont think its too much to ask to slow down.

  15. By Marcus on May 31, 2010 | Reply


    Have a little imagination. It sounds like you are just looking at the situation as it exists, throwing your hands up and deciding to be an unrepentant lawbreaker.

    Take a cue from cycling advocates who have diligently worked to change the laws, put down more bike lanes, and educate the public about the benefits of cycling. The things you are upset at could be changed:

    “Its a complete waste for a pedestrian to stand there like an idiot waiting for the magic white hand to appear.” — This could be fixed with smarter traffic signaling and more operational road crossing buttons. When’s the last time you saw someone press one? It’s because they mostly don’t do anything–the buttons at busy intersections are programmed to work only at night, when traffic is light. Let’s fix that.

    “Favoring the automobile over the person” — in certain sitations, yes. In others, a cyclist is favored (i.e. taking the entire lane where there no safe bike lane). And pedestrians are favored in the countless non signal-controlled intersections. So no single mode of transportation is king, we all need to safely share the road.

    You say pedestrians are OK “making a slow, informed decision to cross at a corner when no one is coming” — good idea in theory, but in practice not so much. Pedestrians are just as distracted (more so with their iPods, cell phones, dogs, kids, elderly, physically or mobility challenged…) I welcome the day when cyclists, pedestrians and drivers make slow informed decisions. Until then, we need laws and traffic lights! Or perhaps you’d like to create some laws enforcing hands-free phone use while crossing roads, or age-limits and sobriety checkpoints for people walking about? Or perhaps you are a true Darwinist?

    “Further, how many pedestrians are [injured] a year in Boston? Very, very few.” — in 2008, 13 pedestrians were killed in Suffolk County, and nearly 1200 were injured. Adjusting for population, that’s 55% more than New York City, 116% more than Seattle, 153% more than London. Are those less walkable cities? By the way, it’s 270% more than Los Angeles County.

    Arguing that jaywalking and the other types of lawbreaking by cars and cyclists is *safer* is clearly misguided trolling, so I know you weren’t being serious. But the ultimate question is–what can we do to improve the situation and make things safer? I’ll stick with my assertion that if we enforce the existing traffic laws that 1) people will stop breaking the laws and be more safe, and 2) people will care enough about the laws to advocate for changing them where necessary. How could you disagree with that?

  16. By John_in-NH on May 31, 2010 | Reply

    I tend to agree with the idea that jaywalking signals a pedestrian friendly environment… or at least one where they are in the majority. Do I agree with pedestrians on ipods or cell phones not looking when stepping into the street? not one bit, I hate it when cyclists do it and when car drivers do it, but thats not the point. The center of Boston should be designed for pedestrians and cyclists and cars Should be inconvenienced. If you need to use one great, you can, but it should always be faster not to use one in the dense core. Look to Denmark with cyclist lights as well as pedestrians lights, that go all at once every car light. I also like the diagonal crossing options, this allows better use of time pedestrians as they get clear dedicated time with little waiting, and the same with cyclists. Cars which can move faster and thus make up time faster get to wait a bit more.

    This is my personal view, it does not make the best policy per say, but in the ideal world I feel that is where we should be. In the meantime going slow both by bike and by car is best, paying attention when crossing streets as a pedestrian, and having everybody be more aware is the best option. Handing out fines for jaywalking is not the best idea, we should be encouraging more people to walk and bike and making it safe for them to do so, not discouraging them by fining for walking across a street against the red…

  17. By John_in-NH on May 31, 2010 | Reply

    Agreed Marcus. Infrastructure is the solution, with good quality design comes compliance, when all users feel they are being taken seriously and the design is fair comes compliance. We have laws, they are not the best but they are there, Some information would be better than nothing I think, even if enforcement is not to the full letter of the law…

  18. By Tim Pierce on Jun 1, 2010 | Reply

    I don’t think this is so puzzling. It’s always seemed clear to me that a big reason why jaywalking is so common here is that the intersections are not designed to keep pedestrians moving. A lot of the big intersections in busy parts of the city are built around crazy angles, five-way intersections, diagonals, and so on. Combine that with the exclusive-walk modality that Paul mentioned and it often takes a minute just to cross one intersection. It can take, no joke or exaggeration, five minutes to get from one corner of Davis Square to the opposite corner if you obey all walk signals. It’s maddening, and not surprising that so many people buckle under and become habitual jaywalkers.

    That doesn’t explain how many jaywalkers seem to lack any kind of common sense, though. I have lost count of the number of people who have *started* to cross an intersection in front of me just as their light turned red and mine turned green. It’s stunning, and I don’t quite know how to explain that.

  19. By J on Jun 2, 2010 | Reply

    Marcus, instead of calling me a troll, why not do some research?

    You said:

    “Arguing that jaywalking and the other types of lawbreaking by cars and cyclists is *safer* is clearly misguided trolling”.

    Read up on shared streets and chaos for safety. Why do so few people die in parking lots? Because everyone drives at 7mph. Why do people drive slow, even with the absence of speed limit signs? Chaos.

  20. By Erica on Jun 18, 2010 | Reply

    First, I’d like to say that I’m impressed with the quality of the dialogue here as well as with the politeness the posters are showing each other. Its not something I’m used to seeing in comment threads and its very refreshing.

    As for the issue, I tend to agree that jaywalking is harmless, as long as people are paying attention – not just the pedestrian but the cyclist and driver. I was shocked to hear about the recent incident in Seattle when a cop punched a teenage girl who was resisting an arrest for jaywalking. Partly for the punch, but mostly because the charge was jaywalking! Until recently, I wasn’t aware that jaywalking isn’t common on the West coast as it is on the East.

    I obviously also support a better designed transportation structure that encourage less driving and more shared roadways. I also think the pedestrians came first defense is valid and overlooked. But I don’t see anything wrong with the practical expedient of ignoring do not walk signs as a pedestrian and even red lights as a cyclist when it is not going to disrupt any other person.

    Before anyone reading this who disagrees blows a gasket, I’m not defending all the distracted folks and self-centered assholes who think they own the road. I can only speak for myself in these situations, but if my action is going to force any drivers to even consider tapping the brakes, I don’t do it. As J said, making an informed decision. I think I have a right to make that decision.

  21. By Charlie on Sep 28, 2010 | Reply

    Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach is a good example. No one and I mean no one walks against the light. Why, they actually write tickets. The tickets come with a $130 price tag. Makes you stand up and take notice. Locals warn visitors and soon everyone is warning everyone else. No one wants a $130 ticket.

    Oh yeah, they also ticket bikes that are locked to signs and other locations where they should not be.

    A combination of enforcement and REAL fines make a big difference, we should try it here.

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