May 3, 2021

Jaywalking in Canada: How Street Shaming Tamed Pedestrians

“If one lives in the Canadian Pacific port and has not heard the term “jaywalker” then he or she can claim a particular merit as a law abiding citizen” the 1918 Vancouver Sun proclaimed.

The word Jaywalker appears to have originated in Kansas around 1907 where a newspaper article talked about jay walkers and jay drivers, with the word jay meaning a “greenhorn or a rube’, someone who was unsophisticated, poor, or a simpleton”.  

A jaywalker described someone who was “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”. You can take a look a this work by Peter Norton that outlines the history behind making vehicle drivers more important than pedestrians in the United States.

In Canada the term “jaywalker” first appears in the 1913 Ottawa Citizen and is described as being “invented for the pedestrian who steps out carelessly to cross the street without looking for approaching vehicles. It is jay-walker and is a fit companion for “joy-rider”. 

It is a disparaging definition, assigning guilt and lawlessness to the most vulnerable road user, the person without a vehicle.

In Canada it appears that  Vancouver is the place where jaywalking  is  first identified and scorned. The Montreal Gazette in August 1918  had an article entitled “The Jaywalker”, and identified that  a “peculiar expression that had arisen in Vancouver”.  The article then describes a jaywalker as someone who crosses the street but not at the intersection and that rules to make persons cross at intersections had fallen into “innocuous desuetude”. The article then points out that in the United States not crossing the street correctly proclaims “himself to be a foreigner”.

As most of these historic newspaper articles are behind a paywall, I have posted them on my twitter feed if you want to read them as they were written.

In doing a deep dive into jaywalking, there are over 40 references to jaywalking in Vancouver papers before 1920. When you think of that time, vehicles could be driven on streets without insurance and a licence, and were seen as an example of a new age of industrious progress.

Early Vancouver newspapers describe crashes with pedestrians as  “collided” incidents, and then usually listed all of the fractures resulting for the victim. Vehicles had long blind spots in front of them, could not brake well, and there was no conformity of all to travel, signal, or behave on the road.

It was truly the wild west, and thousands of people, many who were children were dying on city streets. In 1928 28 pedestrians died in Vancouver,  72 were injured, and there were 10,500 crashes.

In 1930  40 people died on Vancouver roads.

Car manufacturers needed to sell vehicles and conformity was needed to ensure that vehicles could be operated on the street without pedestrian interruption.

Pedestrians were used to doing mid-block crossings, where traffic could be looked for in two directions, left and right. Vehicle culture preferred treating pedestrians the same way as vehicles, and having pedestrians cross at intersections, where there were four different direction of vehicular movement to be aware of instead of two.

The campaign to shame and blame pedestrians was on.

It was the Vancouver Automobile Club that in 1918 worked with City of Vancouver staff towards “fencing off” pedestrians on the street, by painting white  “jaywalking lines” for pedestrians to cross within. To ensure conformity, the Vancouver Sun notes that if pedestrians did not cross in the straight and narrow “jaywalking lines”  the automobile driver would not exactly be allowed to regard them as fair game, but might be entitled to plead contributory negligence on their part”. 

That’s a pretty direct way to get pedestrians to conform.

The City of Vancouver agreed to pay $50.00 to paint  white “jaywalking lines” at several intersections at Hastings, Main, and Cambie Streets downtown. Perhaps more telling, the City also installed “silent policemen” or bollards on the curb of corners, to keep vehicles from wildly steering up the curb towards any pedestrian on the corner.

While cities like London and Paris were trialling glass lights that were green or red to indicate when to cross the road, Vancouver used policemen to direct early traffic, with another officer on the busy street corners to enforce pedestrian behaviour to the new rules. The Vancouver Archives image below is that of Constable Duncan McTavish operating the hand traffic signal at Abbott and Hastings Street around 1925.

Of course some people still insisted on crossing mid-block by foot, most notably Vancouver writer and botanist Julia Henshaw.  Michael Kluckner has written a graphic novel about Mrs. Henshaw, who wrote in the Vancouver Sun that it did not matter what they fined her, she would darn well be crossing mid-block where traffic was only in two directions and was therefore much safer.

An article in the Vancouver Sun in 1918 wished that Vancouver had the “degree of civilization prevailing in Paris” where under the Civil Law Code  if a pedestrian was struck by an automobile, the victim could be placed under arrest. The Vancouver Sun decided that enforcing people to walk within the painted  white “jaywalking lines” were the best alternative. The newspaper wrote out the locations of all of the jaywalking lines on downtown street corners so that motorists knew where they were and pedestrians could conform.

It would be another five years before Paris installed the first traffic light in 1923,  with Berlin following in 1924 and London in 1927. In Vancouver “Stop and Go” Signs were activated by a policeman and were implemented in 1923, with the officer using a whistle for “go” and another whistle for “stop”.

Finally in  1937  pillar type traffic lights would be installed in Vancouver, as shown in the prototype below.

From 1939, here’s a YouTube video that demonstrates a British device designed to catch jaywalkers that stray onto the street.



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