Bruce Feirstein is a writer at large for Air Mail and a screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.
Rather, after almost 90 years, with laws dating from the 1930s, the state has finally decided to legalize jaywalking. No more tickets that, with various surcharges, could run to almost $200.
Which means that as of Jan. 1, we Californians will be able to jaywalk to a film audition, jaywalk to buy pot, jaywalk to meet an angel investor for a start-up, jaywalk for hot baby yoga classes, jaywalk for the benefit of paparazzi alerted earlier about where and when the jaywalking will occur, and jaywalk to any of the countless California-centric pastimes that the rest of the country finds so amusing. Or we might jaywalk across the street just to get to the other side.
In the grand scheme of things, all this might seem rather pedestrian. Especially when you consider how much of what passes for everyday behavior in California probably should be outlawed, such as spending tens of millions of dollars on tear-down homes, hundreds of millions on reality-TV production and billions on the L.A.-to-San Francisco high-speed rail slo-mo disaster.
And if grand theft government-style doesn’t bug you, there’s also the fact that an enterprising individual can shoplift goods worth up to $950 without worrying about being tagged with a felony. Parking in L.A. is always a pain; if you’re hotfooting it out of a Macy’s or Target with an armful of pilfered goods, your ability to jaywalk worry-free to your getaway car is a cultural advantage right up there with being able to make a right turn on a red light.
On a more serious note, the Freedom to Walk Act is a social-justice victory. As the bill’s author, state Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) told CBS Bay Area news, jaywalking laws “are arbitrarily enforced and tickets are disproportionately given to people of color and in low-income communities.” Writing for Southern California Public Radio’s LAist.com, Ryan Fonseca reported that Los Angeles police cite Black pedestrians for jaywalking at a rate “over three times their population share in the city,” according to his analysis of LAPD data.
The bill has one loophole that is probably sensible but unfortunately vulnerable to exploitation by law enforcement: You can cross against a traffic light, or outside crosswalks, but police still have discretion to issue a citation for crossing in the face of an immediate danger or hazard.
Still, the new law is a big step in the right direction. And in that regard, California doesn’t walk alone. Virginia decriminalized jaywalking in March 2021, followed soon after by Kansas City Mo., and Nevada.
I bring my own strictly anecdotal man-on-the-street perspective to this matter, having lived in several cities. In Boston, jaywalking never seemed much of an issue, perhaps because pedestrians recognized that the traffic contract there means cars are bigger than you, a green light means “go,” yellow means “go faster” and red means “pump the brakes for a second and pray you don’t get caught.”
Jaywalking was similarly uncommon in Beijing and Shanghai, but for an unsimilar reason: All it took was a look at the literally dozens of security cameras arrayed like pigeons across the mast arm of a typical traffic light, and you think: “No, I’m good. I’ll wait for the light to change.”
New York, of course, is the jaywalking capital of the world and the inspiration for the greatest jaywalking movie dialogue of all time: In “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), when Dustin Hoffman, walking into traffic, bangs on a taxi’s hood and yells, “Hey! I’m walking here!”
Rudy Giuliani was a crime-fighting marvel as mayor — murder dropped dramatically under his watch, but even he was defeated by New Yorkers’ insistence on their inalienable right to roam among heavy, fast-moving machinery.
With much fanfare, Giuliani declared in 1998 that the city would begin rigorously enforcing anti-jaywalking laws, and fines would increase from $2 (yes, two bucks) to $50. “Police Balk At Crackdown On Jaywalking By Giuliani,” a New York Times headline reported. Balk — it rhymes with walk. “This is just taking hard-earned money from people who can’t afford it,” a police officer told the Times. “And I’m not going to prostitute myself for the Mayor or anybody else.”
Giuliani, clearly furious about the noncompliance by cops and pedestrians alike, threatened to raise the automatic fine to $100 before the campaign was quietly kicked to the curb.
New Yorkers who are new to L.A. are invariably surprised first by the scarcity of pedestrians in this car-centric city. And then they’re surprised to see the few people on the streets waiting obediently for traffic lights to change. As of Jan. 1, when Freedom to Walk kicks in, transplanted and forever impatient New Yorkers might need to show them how it’s done.