Hamilton police have once again kicked off an enforcement blitz downtown against “pedestrian noncompliance”. For us normal folks – that means jaywalking, crossing against the light or other “crimes”. This follows in the rich tradition in recent years of similar campaigns against cyclists and others downtown, as well as enormous increases in the last year in officer street presence through the ACTION Team.
The reasoning behind this blitz, we’re told, is “safety”, but with a sneer. Not only is this approach steeped in law-and-order rhetoric, but it also reinforces government support for automobiles as transportation and users of space. It reinforces the idea that roads are for cars only, and people should only ever be permitted on them where lights or painted crossings permit it. And most of all, it not only shifts blame toward pedestrians, but also directly targets us for enforcement.
Police forces all over the world, from Montreal to Los Angeles and Brunei, have launched similar campaigns in recent years. It’s a very familiar type of train and blame strategy. By maintaining that people just aren’t being careful enough, we can rationalize away the truly massive number of people killed or injured by automobiles each year without actually having to change anything. Because pedestrians break “the law”, we can simply blame people for all their faults, and avoid asking any questions about why we give cars such free reign over our cities.
Jaywalking and other pedestrian “crimes” are a natural and expected part of urban life. When originally proposed, both the laws and term were considered mildly offensive, and even the New York Times found these laws laughable. Pedestrians refused to follow new laws and people fought back physically against cops who attempted to enforce them, even ladies with their parasols. Even around the time of the First WOrld War, many judges still maintained that pedestrians had equal rights to the street. But by the 1920s, the term “jay walker” was becoming more accepted, and the efforts of pro-automobile groups like the AAA and various manufacturers, laws were being changed. This was now accompanied by a massive press and public “education” campaign for “road safety” which placed the blame for traffic deaths on “jaywalkers”. They not only took out ads to this effect, but participated in “safety weeks”, and the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce even launched an “accident news service” which placed the blame on careless pedestrians in 80-90% of cases, whatever the facts. Through the efforts of industry, lobbyists and government, roads were redefined as spaces which only belonged to cars, and enforcement followed that lead. (See Peter Norton’s Article “Street Rivals” for a detailed description, or Tom Vanderbilt’s article in Slate).
The inherent dangers of cars lead many to warn that “in collisions, cars always win”. And as a practical safety concern, that’s something wise to keep in mind. But practical concerns aren’t moral ones, and legality isn’t safety. The fact that cars are dangerous doesn’t prove that everyone else needs to take great care to avoid them, it proves that we all need to take much more care when driving them. And more importantly, much more care when planning urban highways through densely populated areas.
It’s common to hear about the “rights” of drivers, and how pedestrians and cyclists are getting a “free ride” from the fees and enforcement which drivers must endure. But there is a reason drivers need licenses and registrations – cars are not only insanely dangerous but also very expensive. And the fees we pay for our licenses barely cover a fraction of what this road network costs to build and maintain. The costs of this network are widespread, and enormous amounts of government control is required to keep it working. Our city will reject developments which don’t provide “enough” parking spaces. And then there’s the Mid-Pen Expressway, yet another case where homes and farms will be expropriated by the state, and the Red Hill, where people had to be removed forcibly by police so construction could start. The very fact that this blitz is happening goes to show how much constant police effort is required to simply clear the pavement of people downtown so that urban freeways like King and Main are possible.
All of this says a lot about the way that blame and responsibility are always shifted down social heirarchies. It’s very similar to the way cops blame victims of rapists for dressing like “sluts”, or victims of police brutality. Victims are always to blame, because they’re not careful or obedient enough to avoid their nasty fates. The role of automobiles in our society is too important to question. Cars provide enormous numbers of manufacturing and construction jobs, and keep millions of others employed struggling to pay off the enormous expenses of owning one. If the city instead tried to make downtown safer by traffic calming, they’d run the risk that people might find another way to get around, and possibly stop driving altogether.
Jaywalking is an immediate personal form of direct action against the constant regulation of urban life and movement imposed by our road system. It’s like a one-person, 10-second protest march, slowing traffic and reclaiming streetspace. Every pesky aggressive jaywalker is a reminder to drivers downtown that they need to keep their eyes peeled and be prepared to stop. It’s a statement that our cities belong to people and not machines. And no amount of police enforcement or “public education” will ever stop it.