On a recent Wednesday evening at Columbus Circle,
thousands of New Yorkers were engaged in their
favorite urban sport, jaywalking. Rush-hour events
included the mad dash against the light, the taxi
slalom and the always thrilling pedestrian-oncoming
Petros Panayiotou, a student at New York Institute
of Technology, sprinted across Central Park South, his
knapsack bobbing as he dodged traffic. Arriving safely
on the other side of the street, Mr. Panayiotou
admitted that the experience made him nervous. He had
recently seen a minivan hit a woman at Fifth Avenue
and 42nd Street. Still, he had no intention of
changing his ways.
"Jaywalking is part of this city," he
The city's Department of Transportation hopes to
challenge that attitude in the coming months with a
public service campaign aimed at pedestrians. While
the number of pedestrian fatalities has remained
stable since 1998 at about 200 a year, 11,000
pedestrians are still injured by cars annually. Iris
Weinshall, transportation commissioner, believes that
these numbers could drop further if New Yorkers
To that end, she is working with City Hall on a
public service campaign that will try to change the
famously brazen mentality of the New York pedestrian.
Although Mayor Bloomberg, a supporter of continuing
the post-Sept. 11 weekday driving restrictions, is
gaining a reputation as an anti-car mayor, his
campaign platform also states that walking should be
made "safer, easier and faster."
But in a city in which pedestrians view jaywalking
not only as a cultural prerogative, but also as their
best weapon in a longstanding battle against motorists
for control of the streets, the antijaywalking message
is a hard sell.
In 1998, Mayor Giuliani took aim at jaywalkers by
increasing enforcement and raising fines from $2 to
$50. New Yorkers derided these efforts and kept
crossing illegally. This time, the city plans to use a
stick instead of a carrot.
"If we can win the hearts and minds of people with
advertising," said James McShane, commander of the
Police Department's Traffic Control Division, "that's
what this country is based on."
Last year, the Department of Transportation asked
Bozell, a Manhattan advertising agency, to create
awareness about the problem of jaywalking in the city.
To show city administrators what they were up against,
the Bozell team taped interviews with pedestrians at
troublesome intersections like Columbus Circle,
Broadway and 23rd Street, Madison Square Park and
Queens Boulevard. The answers were not exactly what
the city expected.
Asked if jaywalking made him nervous, one
pedestrian said, "I feel like a seasoned veteran."
Asked who should not jaywalk, another said,
The pedestrians interviewed not only refused to see
jaywalking as a problem, they also played any danger
for laughs. as a ambulance siren wailed behind him,
one New Yorker announced with a grin, "No doubt a
At another point, a pedestrian offered the New York
translation of the "don't walk" sign. "It really means
`Don't walk, but. . . .' "
"There's city pride associated with jaywalking,"
said Justin Harrington, a senior partner at Bozell.
"We view people who don't do it as rubes."
Not so in other American cities like Los Angeles
and Milwaukee, where jaywalking laws are strictly
enforced and pedestrians often wait to cross with the
signal, even when there's no traffic. An NBC news
segment broadcast during the Olympics about
street-crossing habits in Salt Lake City showed that
pedestrians not only wait for the signal, but also
wave orange Day-Glo flags provided at each
intersection as they cross. (The New York newscaster
who delivered the report found this irresistibly funny
and in fact could not help smirking during the
Charles Komanoff, founder of Right of Way, a
pedestrian rights group, thinks the city has it
backward. He says drivers, not pedestrians, are the
culprits. In an analysis of police accident reports
from 1997, Mr. Komanoff and his group determined that
in 71 percent of the cases, drivers were largely or
partly to blame. Mr. Komanoff believes that motorists,
not jaywalkers, cause the majority of accidents by
blocking the box, running lights and plowing into
pedestrians at crossings.
Regardless of who or what is exactly to blame,
changing the habits of headphone-wearing,
cell-phone-gabbing pedestrians is a considerable
The same instincts that make New Yorkers lively and
independent-minded also make them distrust anyone who
tries to tell them how or when to cross the street.
There is also a deeply ingrained suspicion of the car
that makes New Yorkers want to put it in its place by
leaping in front of it.
The aggressive mentality of the New York pedestrian
evolved over the last century as a way to compete for
limited space, particularly with cars. In the period
between the world wars, the new profession of traffic
engineers started altering the city for the benefit of
drivers, widening streets, narrowing sidewalks and
converting right-angle curbs to arcs so cars could
Auto worship reached an apex in the late 1950's,
when Robert Moses introduced highways into the heart
of the city, noticeably the Cross Bronx Expressway,
gutting neighborhoods and increasing the volume of
THE turning point arrived in 1961, when the
pioneering urbanist Jane Jacobs, who lived on Hudson
Street, in the heart of the pedestrian-friendly little
streets of Greenwich Village, called on New Yorkers to
take back the streets as their primary social space
rather than allowing them to be the domain of the
"Part of being a New Yorker is having authority on
the street," said Fred Kent, director of the Project
for Public Spaces, a Manhattan organization dedicated
to creating community spaces. "The street is more
yours than theirs."
Ken Greenberg, an urban designer who has worked on
several New York projects, feels that New York has
been slower than its European counterparts to use
pedestrian-friendly design, like changing the phasing
of traffic signals to give pedestrians more time to
cross and making curbs more angular to slow down
"The aggressive behavior of New York pedestrians
may be a way of compensating for design that doesn't
Greenberg said. "Changing some of this, rather than
coming down on pedestrians, would take away the sense
Commissioner Weinshall has been working on ways to
declare a cease-fire. The Department of
Transportation's pedestrian concessions have included
widening sidewalks at Times Square, adding midblock
crossings at locations like 57th Street West of Fifth
Avenue and changing signal times along Queens
Boulevard to give pedestrians more time to cross.
Still, Ms. Weinshall believes that pedestrians must
take some responsibility for their own safety.
"In any large urban setting, people rush through
the streets, but New Yorkers are notorious," she said.
"When the light turns green, they play chicken. We
need to make them understand the risks."
On Columbus Circle, as pedestrians in business
suits and stiletto heels, accompanied by dogs and
strollers, and sometimes even romantically in pairs,
race willy-nilly into traffic, the prospect of an
antijaywalking revolution looks dim.
"Maybe it would work in someplace like Japan or
Korea, where people are more disciplined," Mr.
Panayiotou said. "But not here."