Origin of the Term Jaywalking

Background Reading


1937 Works Progress Administration (WPA) Jaywalking Poster

1937 Works Progress Administration (WPA) Jaywalking Poster

In the article cited above this explanation appears:

Thus, to “Jay walk” was to be stupid by crossing the street in an unsafe place or way, or some country person visiting the city who wasn’t used to the rules of the road for pedestrians in an urban environment, so would attempt to cross or walk in the streets anywhere.  As it stated in the January 25, 1937 New York Times, “In many streets like Oxford Street, for instance, the jaywalker wanders complacently in the very middle of the roadway as if it was a country lane.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary states that the first known use of the term “jaywalking/jaywalker” was in the June of 1917 edition of Harper’s Magazine, “The Bostonian … has reduced ‘a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals’ to the compact jaywalker.”  In fact, the first actual known reference was from a 1909 Chicago Tribune where it stated, “Chauffeurs assert with some bitterness that their `joyriding’ would harm nobody if there were not so much jaywalking.

The term was also mentioned in a 1915 New York Times article where they stated they found the term “jay walking” “highly shocking” and “truly opprobrious” (shameful). This was in reference to the way it was used at the time, akin to a racial slur, but in this case more of a pejorative “class” term.  Specifically, a derogatory term against poor people by people who were wealthy enough to drive. Automobile related companies popularly used this term in various anti-pedestrian campaigns.  For instance, John Hertz, president of Yellow Cab, even went so far as to say, “We fear the `jay walker’ worse than the anarchist, and Chicago is his native home.”  Chicago is still noted today for rampant jaywalking among the populace.

In order to counter the automobile interests who were trying to get pedestrians off the road, for a time the term “jay drivers” was used as a derogatory term for people who drive cars in such a way as to hog the road or pose a danger to pedestrians.  This obviously didn’t catch on and, in the end, the automobile companies won the fight for use of roads.

Cyclists Are Now Carrying On The ‘War on Pedestrians’

Cyclists must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

Cyclists must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

All you have to do is read some of the words written by ‘real cyclists‘ who inhabit the ChainLink Forum to understand that they too have a disinclination to yield to pedestrians. This most often erupts when pedestrians are attempting to get across the span of streets like Dearborn which lacks a true island for them to stand on while waiting for the light to change.

This is one of those instances in which the vaunted bicycle infrastructure improvements really are not. In fact the bike lanes have offered an already frazzled pedestrian population with yet another menace, namely cyclists who are more than willing to ‘split the walkers‘ while hurrying to ‘amber gamble‘.

So evidently the sides of the streets belong to the cyclists and the middle to the motorists and who the hell cares about the pedestrians, they do not count!