Jay Walking | Outlawing Desire Lines

“Jay walking” is a politically loaded phrase. A century-old invention—a derogatory term implying the target is an empty-headed yokel—a term latched onto by the motor industry in a co-ordinated, boy-scout-endorsed rebuttal of a campaign to mechanically limit motor speeds—and a highly successful attempt to put the responsibility for increasing pedestrian deaths squarely on the shoulders of those pedestrians.

With the ascendancy of the private motor car, the goal of urban planners and engineers became to allow traffic to circulate unhindered. Streets were for cars, not people. Anti-jaywalking laws were the norm in most US states by the 1930s and have been intermittently and rigorously enforced since. Even New York’s new mayor has been hoist with his own petard, called to account by the press for jaywalking, counter to his own attempts to reinforce the city’s jaywalking laws.

Other parts of the world are beginning to adopt a very different approach to road safety and pedestrian desire.

Instead of punishing jay walking, urban planners in Copenhagen have observed pedestrian and cyclist behaviour to understand why desire lines exist where they do. In doing so, they have radically reduced the number of accidents. Instead of handing out tickets to jaywalkers and jay-cyclists at popular infringement points, they accepted that there must be a good reason why people consistently and continuously tried to create paths where none existed. Instead of obstructing natural paths, they made them accessible. They took the time to assess and to understand and changed the city to suit its people.

In London, new diagonal crossings at Oxford Circus have increased pedestrian flow by 70% and been credited for a 7% rise in annual retail sales—while around South Kensington’s museums, pavements have been lowered to road height and criss-cross paving designed to calm drivers added. In such shared space schemes—without barriers, road markings, pedestrian crossings, or signage, road users all rely less on instruction and take greater responsibility for their own safety.

Successful schemes automatically reduce traffic speeds. In Coventry, average speeds in the city centre had fallen to 18mph—below the 20mph point at which the chances of a pedestrian being severely injured in a road accident drops rapidly. Although, not every one is keen on the scheme. Do road users buy into the belief that they don’t know their own minds? Or that they have been too well trained by the road and motor lobby that have ruled the roads for so long?

The Dutch town of Friesland, the original home of urban shared space schemes, is now a Mecca for urban planners and engineers hoping to learn from the natural inclinations and desires of all road users—to design cities around people—not manipulate people to fit a city master-plan.

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