Pedestrians are Fine, Don’t Fine Pedestrians

Pedestrian crossing in Artarmon, reminding pedestrians to look at the ground at message asking if they are distracted, rather than the environment around them. Pedestrian crossing in Artarmon, reminding pedestrians to look at the ground at message asking if they are distracted, rather than the environment around them.

The Sydney Morning Herald presents an opinion that It’s futile and yet police persist in fining jaywalkers. This is our sad reality, pedestrians, who cannot of themselves do much damage, are fined, while cars, which can kill in the blink of an eye, proceed unscathed.

The stated argument for criminalising “jaywalking” (not an actual crime, but rather a slander on people crossing spaces that used to be free to cross) is that in an environment where automobile drivers only pay attention to lightbulbs, rather than the environment around them, people would be at risk for crossing against said lightbulbs. And so to prevent such risk, jaywalking must be made illegal. While actual pedestrians are the first to recognise that drivers pay less attention to the world around them than they should, this is not despite lightbulbs, it is because of them. The traffic signs, signals, and markings are themselves a distraction from human-to-human interaction, the eyelock we engage in before crossing paths in humane environments.


Similar arguments have been made by the so-called Pedestrian Council which eagerly endorses fining ‘distracted pedestrians’ for going about their daily business.

To be clear, pedestrians paying attention to the screen in front of them aren’t paying as much attention to the road in front of them. They are walking slower, and presumably have a slower reaction time. This delays other pedestrians, but so what? Are distracted pedestrians on city streets the real problem? Or is it perhaps the distracted drivers who have a much more serious obligation?

So what actually kills and maims pedestrians on our roads? Let’s review some headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald from April 2019:

These are sad individual stories. Sometimes they involve drugs or alcohol, usually involve poor road design, often feature distracted drivers, and inevitably combine several points of failure. They are not the result of clear-headed people making rational choices walking on streets with headphones, who the fining strategies target. None feature drivers killed by pedestrians.

Crashes require not only one person being where they were not expected, but another not reacting quickly enough. Pedestrian fines of course increase rates of compliance, but crashes are not about the average, instead they feature an extreme event. Do rates of pedestrian signal compliance increase pedestrian safety? The literature is silent. We just assume it does. We don’t actually know if all the safety rules we enforce increase safety. Some do, to at least a limited extent (seat belts, airbags). The evidence for bikes in New South Wales indicates increasing fines decreases bicycling and increases the rate of bicycle-vehicle crashes.

The problems pedestrians face in our cities are not going to be solved by fining pedestrians. There is no evidence that fining pedestrians reduces vehicle-pedestrian crashes by any means other than reducing the number of pedestrians (which undoubtedly increases the number of vehicle-vehicle crashes). In contrast with fines, for road safety campaigns there is evidence of efficacy.

Whether intentional pedestrian violations of the law are actual safety problems is another matter. Most people knowingly violating pedestrian crossing laws pay far more attention to their environment than those relying on light bulbs, and I suspect are less likely to be hit. People accidentally violating those laws weren’t paying attention to the light bulbs to begin with, showing their ineffectiveness.

Should people pay attention to their environment? Of course. This is achieved not by burning out their amygdala in an orgy of over-vigilance. Rather it is achieved by reducing the number of distractions authorities put in place. These are the excess of signs, signals, and markings pedestrians and drivers are expected to obey. Instead focus people on the cars around them (and vice versa). This is the theory of shared spaces. We do this all the time in some places, like laneways, and the reconstructed George Street in Sydney is in part a Shared Space. Such places require careful designs that organise people and vehicles to minimise problems; drivers remain a danger amidst crowds of pedestrians.

There is a well-known phenonmenon of safety in numbers. Pedestrian crash rates decrease where there are many pedestrians, because drivers are expecting them and reminded by every other pedestrian they see to be looking for them. Crowds themselves are not the problem from a pedestrian safety concern, it is vehicles interacting with them.

In reality, violating walk signals is criminalised because pedestrians must behave so that cars and their occupants are not inconvenienced by those not in cars. On the other hand, if you simply want to maximise vehicular throughput on your urban road, enforcing signalisation may be the correct answer.

The failure in our urban environment is not people being people, walking to where they want to go, at the speed they want to go. It is the light bulbs adding some 20-30% to walking travel times within cities. It is the two tons of metal carrying 100 kg of meat at high speed who have seized for themselves  the vast majority of urban street space. “Jaywalking” is just taking it back.

If you want more pedestrians, raising the cost of being a pedestrian is not the way to get them. Rather, we should lower the cost of walking, make it easier, safer, and faster. This means restricting and removing automobiles from places originally designed for people, not removing people from places designed for people.