'Jaywalking' wasn't always a crime, but Cincinnati helped it become one

Posted at 6:00 AM, Aug 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-13 11:41:32-04

CINCINNATI -- If you've ever crossed the street outside of a crosswalk and felt bad about it, you might have the Queen City to thank.

Well, at least in part.

It might surprise some today that the term "jaywalking" actually developed from the term "jay driver," because back in the 1920s -- when automobiles were still somewhat an oddity -- it was a term often used to describe a motorist who struck a pedestrian crossing the street. "Jay" was a term used to describe someone as "not in the know."

Being the heavily car-reliant city it is today, it might also surprise some that Cincinnati was the first U.S. city to try to protect pedestrians on the street. In the early 1920s, the city attempted to pass a law that would have required automobiles to be outfitted with a device that would shut off the engine if it reached a speed greater than 25 miles per hour.

That law didn't pass, due in most part to efforts from the auto industry -- efforts that expanded nationwide eventually to claim the street as the dominion of the car.

Down with the 'governors'

The term "jaywalking" didn't originate in Cincinnati, but we might have made it more familiar.

History professor Peter Norton, author of the book "Fighting Traffic," traced the term's first use back to December 1913 in Syracuse, New York, when a department store hired a Santa Claus who would stand near the street with a megaphone and yell at people crossing the street outside designated areas.

As automobiles became more common, so did incidents involving pedestrians being struck. This prompted a coalition in Cincinnati to push for legislation requiring automobiles using city streets be equipped with governors. These devices would cause the engine to shut down at speeds higher than 25 miles per hour.

Despite the measure's failure at City Hall, it caused local auto dealers -- and the auto industry at large -- to panic, Norton said.

Thus began an extended campaign warning pedestrians against the dangers of being in the street, combined with heavy promotion of the automobile as an essential part of American life, according to Norton. City after city, including Cincinnati, began passing anti-jaywalking laws. Schools began teaching children that streets are for cars only.

It didn't take long for the "look both ways" mentality to become ubiquitous across America.

Social stigma, difficult to enforce

The numbers suggest that enforcing anti-jaywalking ordinances is extremely difficult, and Cincinnati could be considered ground zero in the tension between pedestrians and automobiles. 

Since 2014, for instance, there have only been 74 citations issued for crossing outside a crosswalk in Cincinnati, according to data provided by the Cincinnati Police Department.

This spot on Gilbert Avenue near Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive is one of the multiple, busy locations where citations were issued. (WCPO)

Many of the roads where multiple citations were issued are busy, multi-lane thoroughfares: William Howard Taft Road, Gilbert Avenue, Glenway Avenue, Beechmont Avenue, Victory Parkway, Montgomery Road, Eastern Avenue, to name a few.

CPD Traffic Unit Commander Lt. Brian Norris said incidents of illegal crossing are difficult to enforce because an officer must witness the offense in order to issue a citation.

The department will often send an officer to patrol in areas where police get complaints of repeated jaywalking.

"Usually the presence of the officer is enough to deter," he said. "Now, once the officer leaves, then things might go back to the way they were."

Last fall saw an uptick in traffic incidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists that then-Traffic Unit Commander Lt. Brian Hoffbauer called "unusual." He attributed the uptick to an increase in local neighborhoods that are redesigning to become more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

It's led law officers and government leaders to think more about streets as places for bicycles, automobiles and pedestrians.

"Everybody needs to be good neighbors and share the road, be respectful of the cars, be respectful of the bikes and the pedestrians," Hoffbauer said. 

Pedestrian safety push

As more neighborhoods are re-thinking their street designs, more pedestrians and bicyclists are coming into closer proximity with automobiles, Norris said.

The Central Parkway protected bike lane was installed in 2014. (WCPO)

Addressing it comes at a cost -- both in dollars and, sometimes, in lives.

"Sometimes people don't really pay attention to how the roadways have changed," he said, referring to all road users -- motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike. "Sometimes you'll have a pedestrian walking in the bike lane on Central Parkway."

2016's uptick in pedestrians and bicyclists struck spurred City Council members P.G. Sittenfeld and Chris Seelbach to secure a half-million dollars devoted to improving pedestrian safety in the wake of two high-profile pedestrian deaths last year.

Sarah Cole, owner of Tickle Pickle in Northside, was struck and killed while crossing Hamilton Avenue to get to work. Three-year-old Khloe White was fatally struck while crossing the street with her parents just outside the Cincinnati Zoo. Her mother, Joy, was also hurt while crossing.

In both of these cases, the pedestrians were found to be crossing legally, but the growing attention to pedestrian safety generally across the region can be traced back to the concept of jaywalking's birth. 

It goes beyond health and public safety, too. Developers are beginning to notice the benefits of pedestrian-oriented street design, according to David Ginsburg, CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc.

"We've learned this in many cities," Ginsburg said. "Walkable urbanity is just an interesting pedestrian environment where people would be more likely to walk rather than drive. It's where storefronts are interesting. It's where there's a lot of sidewalk seating.

"It's just more eyes and ears and people at the ground level," he said.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).