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An argument for jaywalking

October 26, 2012, at 9:49 PM

I was having a conversation the other day with my friend Brigham Yen, proprietor of the blog DTLA Rising, and the unofficial ambassador to the renaissance that downtown Los Angeles is currently experiencing.  

Yen, who has no power to grant tax breaks, has an uncanny gift that's even more potent: He is relentless. He finds vacant properties and just charms people into buying them. I once met him for what I thought was a 30-minute walking tour; four hours later, he had almost convinced me to buy an apartment there. When you walk with him, barkeeps will welcome you in for free drinks; you'll get great seats at busy restaurants; bodega owners will walk out of theirs shops to shake his hand. Usually, this was because he had some role in persuading them to open up downtown. It's like he's a mafia boss... or mayor. 

Yen can be found downtown most days.

When we chatted, though, he was steaming. He had spent an hour watching Los Angeles Police Department officers give tickets for jaywalking. And it pissed him off. In Yen's vision of a revitalized urban center, pedestrian traffic ought to take precedence over cars. That means, in practice, wider sidewalks and plazas, yes. But it also means a rebalancing in the relationship between car and pedestrian, he thinks. Yen and his partner Lawrence had just returned from a visit to the east coast, where he spent time in several cities which treat jaywalking with benign neglect.

I pointed out to him that jaywalking is against the law. And auto versus pedestrian accidents are quite common in L.A. So it seemed reasonable for police to write tickets.

"They say they are enforcing the law. The real reason I believe is money. $$$$. $175 a pop. You can get 'em like flies."

Ten years ago, there were no pedestrians at all in downtown L.A. Now, the city is starting to become more active with pedestrians. And maybe the police see dollar signs when they see pedestrians.

This, Yen texted, "is so beyond backward. And it really makes people afraid to walk. Crossing the street is like walking on egg shells." 

Didn't cops care about safety in NYC or Washington or Philadelphia?

"On the east coast I would NEVER be afraid that a cop was nearby if I were crossing the street, even jaywalking. Here a cop will actually reverse traffic to get you. I saw it with my own eyes tonight. Absolutely shameful. It makes me so embarrassed to be an Angeleno. Because it's not a real city."

I told Yen that I didn't quite understand his point. It's not legal, I reminded him again.

"It's not enforced. People there do it all the time. They like to do it. They love it. They know the risks. And the police let them."

Pedestrians, he said, "feel empowered. It's a sign that pedestrians rule. Cars take the back seat."

Ahh. The rub. L.A. is unquestionably a car city, a series of culturally separate neighborhoods connected by highways. There is an ambitious light rail project underway now, one that would like just about every major neighborhood center in the L.A. basin with downtown. Even the economic downturn isn't stopping construction. More people, more movement, fewer cars. 

Yen asked an LAPD officer why he was writing so many jaywalking tickets. 

"He explained to me that cars need to be able to turn right."

That sounds reasonable, I texted.

"..and that pedestrians shouldn't have free reign. As a driver, I still feel like pedestrians should get first priority."

Yeah, but Brigham, pedestrians have to be mindful of cars. Because, you know, they're big angry machines.

"I will support anything that elevates the pedestrians over me as a driver even when I'm driving."

That's pretty radical.

"I guess. I think pedestrians should be able to jaywalk if they feel it's safe. If they make a wrong call, that is their own fault."

The bigger picture, I suggested, is that a city that prioritized walking would prioritize pedestrians over cars in the enforcement of its laws; even drivers would recognize that it's in the best interest of their communities. Still, wasn't it kind of weird to be watching cops giving people jaywalking tickets and stewing about it?

"I guess it's a subject that isn't much discussed when it come to urbanism," he said. "But there is a tremendous difference in how east coast cities and west coast cities operate when it comes to this. it's ingrained in the culture. My biggest bet is that the LAPD will get you even when you're not in danger. The street could be empty. No cars coming. But if you cross, you get a ticket."

And that, he said, "is stupid."

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