Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Stepping Off

Reflections on jaywalking

The first jaywalkers were idiots. They dribbled haplessly onto the streets of Boston in the early nineteen-hundreds. “Jay” was slang for hick. The jay knew about storm clouds and cotton, but he didn’t know jack about the modern city street, which was suddenly horseless and thick with cars. The urban, industrial gentleman understood his place in this new world. He paused deferentially at the curb when the spectacular machines zipped by. The jay, not knowing any better, stepped off.

These days you find just the opposite: the out-of-towners standing stock-still at the sewer while the street-savvy go wherever and whenever they want. What was stupid is now hip, and this says something about our changing opinion of what makes a chump: once it was the guy who didn’t know the rules; now that everybody does, it’s the guy who still obeys them.

Adam Lampton spent the summer photographing jaywalkers in Boston, a city of asymmetrical streets and eccentric traffic-light timing. For Bostonians, like many North American city-dwellers, jaywalking is not only a way of life, it’s considered a civil right. That’s why crackdowns on the behaviour are usually losing propositions. In the late nineties, finding only 12 percent of its residents crossing legally, Boston launched “Walk This Way,” a largely ineffective series of public-service announcements based on the Aerosmith song. In 1998, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani enacted his own ridiculed war on jaywalkers—which cast jaywalking, sanctimoniously, as a “quality of life” issue: fines were upped from us$2 to us$50 and barricades were strategically plunked down along certain curbs. Just last January, the mayor of greater Manila—a megalopolis of some 13 million people—dispatched a fleet of patrol trucks with orders to slap any jaywalkers over the head or face with a wet rag. But within weeks, jaywalking Filipinos had learned to wait for the trucks to pass first before crossing illicitly. So vans began trailing the trucks, swooping up stragglers for a short seminar on traffic safety while circling the block.

Curbing jaywalking may protect people, but it’s really meant to clear the way for cars. As early as the thirties, traffic engineers began seeing pedestrians—those infuriatingly fleet and wilful little blips—as complications to their otherwise elegant models. (Even a recent US government pamphlet on road design still describes walkers as “unpredictable, obstinate, ignorant, inattentive or defiant.”) Initially, the idea that actual people should be herded and managed with traffic lights—mechanized, in other words—seemed ridiculous. But now, even the word “pedestrian” has come to mean lacking in imagination and void of surprises.

Adam Lampton’s photos show just how jaywalking upsets all of this; how jaywalkers, trickling in on the diagonal, skirting a corner, repopulate the streets and frustrate traffic models. We live alongside so many privileged machines, jaywalking is a chance to put them in their place—a modest, humanist rebellion captured on the same city streets where a bigger one once started. Surely when Paul Revere rode frantically through Boston warning, “The Redcoats are coming!” he assumed, at every intersection, the right of way.