Brain Pickings

The Four Types of Jaywalkers: An Illustrated Morphology of Bad Pedestrians circa 1924

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“The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian.”

Walkability might be the key to what makes a great city, but it comes with an inevitable double edge: More walkers means more bad walkers. But while the advent of smartphones has certainly exacerbated the epidemic, the history of pedestrian nuisances is a long and colorful one. The very term “jaywalker” — after jay, a silly person — was coined on August 3, 1924, in a New York Times editorial about the proliferation of pedestrian menaces — something I learned from a passing mention that Alexandra Horowitz, who knows a thing or two about the art-science of urban walking, makes in her unspeakably fantastic meditation on learning to see the familiar city with new eyes. Alexandra was kind enough to help me track down the original archival article, and I was immediately taken with the marvelous morphology of bad walkers that it paints. So I teamed up with my friend Wendy MacNaughton — brilliant visual storyteller and frequent Brain Pickings contributor — and asked her to do for the taxonomy of pedestrian perils what she did for Gay Talese’s taxonomy of street cats, illustrating the archetypes of walkers described in the New York Times article. Please enjoy.

Titled “The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian,” the original 1924 article by M. B. Levick presages the urban density of our present and examines it through the eyes of an imagined Uncle Jay Walker, a sort of patron saint of sidewalk orderliness and pedestrian manners. Levick writes:

The speeding and erratic pedestrian is a problem of the present but nothing is but thinking makes it so and the town has not come to realize it yet. Envisage the Manhattan of distant aeons — say 1926, after the fashion of popular prophecy — and the picture shows motors by the million, of bizarre design, closely packed but orderly and docile to semaphores on roadways, sunken, raised, suspended or maintained by radio. In this picture the pedestrians file as orderly as a column of troops along Utopian footways. But what of reality then — and now? The question is not of the jaywalker, but of the master anarchist in all his varieties (and hers), who is creating new and ineluctable hazards in the process of getting from place to place. Here is a problem that has been only touched upon by the “Keep Moving” signs along Fifth Avenue.

Does the world offer worse sidewalk manners than those of Manhattan? Savages in distant isles stroll more urbanely through nine-mile streets like the jungle trail of Typee and never elbow their way with a war club. Medieval streets two feet wide, with the rooftops over hanging, give the Old World traffic cop nothing to do save to help the occasional plump pedestrian who sticks between the walls. Look at the Bund and you see benighted Chipamen trailing single file, and if for them the right side is the wrong side, as for the Englishman, at any rate, the sides are recognized. But New York, orientation smitten from it, rushes in where angels fear, and if there is anything in the transmission of acquired characteristics it bodes ill for the future.

Levick then outlines the types of bad walkers:

There are the veerers who come up sharply in the wind and give no signal. The runners who dash to a goal and then dash back again without even tagging another “it.” The retroactive, moving crabwise. Those who flee and turn swiftly to victory, making a commonplace of the ruse that gave Joe Choynski his fame in the ring. Left-ends and butters, the people who never met the Marquis of Queensberry and to whom Greco-Roman is more foreign than jiu-jitsu.

As mad as the satellite particles of an atom and amid each group, like a nucleus, a static type. The plodder, trudging through Times Square as o’er the lee and knowing neither near side nor off side. The inferiority complexes whose only sense of power is to make the world walk around them. Children of the cigar store Indians standing stock still, so that a couple passing must say “Bread and butter!” Others who are to movement what the color blind are to light and the swaggerers who in an earlier age would take the wall, but in this present confusion must take wall and gutter and all between to assert their precedence.

Conceding that punishment is not enough, Levick — who laments that New York can’t afford the Southern disposition that “the woman pedestrian is a concern of gallantry and not of self-defense” — proposes some solutions:

Control is Uncle Jay Walker’s real work. Perhaps he should devise a speed law and a minimum speed law. Or traffic lights on every house front. If you believe that Western delegate, New Yorkers never knew the rules of the road. Is it too late now? They could be taught in school in rhymes like the doggerel which helps sailors on pathed waters:

From three short blasts ‘tis yours to learn
That she is going full-speed astern.

The verse has a hint; remember it when a determined stout woman comes at you like a skittish battleship. Horns and sirens, to be supplemented with side lights and range lights and a masthead light “at a height above the hull not less than the breadth of the vessel.” All this would have a practical value, and think, too, of the aesthetic appeal. The sober, hurrying crowd would become as gay as a convention of fireflies: the dandy could spend on matching the lights of lapel and coat tail what time he now give to his tie, and mankind, like taxicabs decorated in the latest manner, would burgeon like a Christmas tree, red, green, yellow and blue.

What would be the effect on the traffic accident rate if pedestrians bore false arms for warning, like the grotesque red hands that truck drivers work with strings? It would be a training whose results would be apparent in the roadways no less than on the sidewalks. He who has learned to jaywalk on the sidewalk would be less apt to jaywalk in the street and Special Deputy Policy Commissioner Baron Collier could doubtless point to an even greater saving of life that the street fatality ration between the first half of last year and the same period in 1924. Last year’s rate for the six months was fifteen persons killed to each 10,000 registered vehicles, while the rate to July 1 of the present year was twelve. Of this year’s deaths 82 occurred at crossings and 130 away from crossing, from which Commissioner Collier draws a moral for the jaywalker, at the same time wishing for a law that would give the police regulation over pedestrians as well as vehicles.

And yet, Horowitz tells us in On Looking, though jaywalking may be a civic traffic violation, it could actually be safer because it relies on shared attention rather than mindlessly following traffic signals, which means you’re making judgments based on eye contact rather than autopilot — which, of course, is no reason to plod or veer across city streets.

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