Jaywalking Town

by Garrison Frost

San Francisco is a jaywalking town. So is Philadelphia. So is Boston. I haven't spent a lot of time as a pedestrian in New York City, but my impression is that it's a jaywalking town, too.

Los Angeles is not a jaywalking town.

In a jaywalking town, you can cross the street whenever you want without worrying about getting a ticket. Sure, you might get run down by a truck, but whether or not you take that risk is up to you. There are Walk and Don't Walk signs and crosswalks to give you something to fall back on, but one should really consider the distinction between the sidewalk and the road as a little fuzzier than in other places. In other words, if you think it's safe to cross the street, you're more than welcomed to in a jaywalking town.

In Los Angeles, we just don't do things that way. At a lighted intersection, pedestrians wait their turn whether or not there is any vehicular traffic in the road. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that jaywalking is strictly enforced in Los Angeles, but part of it also has to do with the fact that we're just trained that way. Perhaps it has something to do with our car culture; as drivers we feel the road should belong to the trucks and automobiles, so as pedestrians we do our part to keep it that way. It's not as though we Angelenos are particularly law abiding. Given our recreational drug use, sketchy income tax deductions, speeding and the porn industry, we can skirt the law as well as anyone. It's just that when it comes to walking, we stay above board.

There are lots of ways to spot a person from Los Angeles who is away from home: clothing, manner of speech, an uncanny ability to parallel park. But one of the easiest is to simply watch how he or she crosses the street. The tourist from Los Angeles will be the one just standing there at the curb spacing out while the throngs of locals shoulder by into the street.

And as someone from Los Angeles, I can tell you that few moments are as embarrassing as that instant when a local crossing the street glances back inquisitively at you standing there on the curb.

And that's just the beginning of your troubles as an Angeleno visiting Jaywalking Town. A much bigger problem is just figuring out how to blend in and join in the jaywalking. Do you run? Do you watch out for cops? Or do you walk casually across as if your vulnerability doesn't make you even the slightest bit nervous?

One thing about Los Angeles is that its streets are pretty understandable. With notable exceptions, everything is laid out in a sensible grid. Streets are wide and lines-of-sight are pretty clear. Really, if you were going to jaywalk in any town, Los Angeles would be the perfect one because it would be much easier to figure out if the coast is clear.

In some of these jaywalking towns, though, that's just not the case. In a town like Boston, it can be darn near impossible to figure out from where the traffic might come. Streets built centuries ago weren't made for cars, so you get lots of odd one-way avenues, blind corners and outlets that can sneak up on you. One second you're strolling across a quiet cobblestone alley and the next you're diving out of the way of a delivery truck. Sure, a local townie might know when to be careful, but heaven help the guy from Burbank visiting on business.

And then there's this problem for Angelenos: If the rules of the road no longer apply to pedestrians, then how can we expect drivers to abide by them? Really, what good is a red light in a place like this if it only applies to cars and not people? For the person from Los Angeles, these questions become real trouble. Can you really count on cars to stop when they're supposed to? If the Don't Walk signal means nothing, is it smart to trust the Walk signal? Very quickly, visitors to Jaywalking Town begin to view traffic as a lawless survival challenge, something out of Mad Max. You're very much on your own.

Which is probably why we like things the way they are in Los Angeles. When society expects its pedestrians to observe the rules of the road, then it also can expect its drivers to do so as well. And this knowledge makes it much easier to walk around.

Certainly, the residents of Jaywalking Town know what they're doing. They know the terrain, and they have gained the experience to know when it's OK to cross a busy street. In Los Angeles, we take a certain lazy pleasure in not having to think so much.

(Nov. 15, 2006)

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