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Fix the Law That Criminalizes Pedestrians in California

3:53 PM PDT on April 30, 2015

Don't assume that you actually have 19 seconds to cross this intersection. Pedestrian countdown signal via Systemic Failure
Don't assume that you actually have 19 seconds to cross this intersection. Pedestrian countdown signal via Systemic Failure

In his insightful article "Struggling student a victim of high fines and misdemeanors," Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez clearly lays out the human cost of so-called "jaywalking" tickets. SBLA includes "jaywalking" in quotes because the term was invented by the auto lobby nearly a century ago to re-frame how people think about how streets should be used.

The column profiles Eduardo Lopez, a 22-year-old striving to get from work to community college class. Running to make a rail to bus connection in downtown L.A., Lopez received a $197 ticket. From the article:

It's the equivalent of an added tax for the crime of being poor.

Eduardo had to take time out of another busy day to go to court and ask if he could pay off his debt by doing community work. No, he was told. He has until April 27 to pay up, unless he tries to fight it, with no guarantees except that he'd eat up more of his valuable time.

The LAPD's crosswalk sting operations, which the Times calls "a fish-in-a-barrel opportunity for cops", are not just downtown, but include MacArthur Park and Koreatown. LAPD targets pedestrians at various high-foot-traffic Metro subway portals, including 7th and Flower, Wilshire and Alvarado, Wilshire and Vermont. Targeting pedestrians at these Metro locations targets the low-income communities of color who predominantly use L.A.'s transit system. Jaywalking tickets, like truancy tickets and fare evasion tickets, are one part of a system that criminalizes the poor, especially youth of color.

There are a lot of things that need fixing in this system, but it turns out that pedestrian countdown signals are part of the problem. At least in the way they interact with outdated state laws.

The city of L.A.'s countdown signals began widespread implementation as part of a 2008 pedestrian safety initiative. The countdown is supposed to be a boon to people on foot, letting them know how long they have to cross in relative safety.

Unfortunately, many pedestrians assume that their countdown phase is analogous to a yellow traffic light. Drivers can still legally enter the intersection while the yellow warning light is displayed. Not so for peds. Once the remaining crossing time is displayed, sometimes more than 20 seconds in L.A., it is too late to legally set foot in the crosswalk.

In a recent post titled "California's Broken Jaywalking Law," the Systemic Failure blog explains:

California law has not kept up with this new technology. CVC 21456, the “jaywalking” law, was enacted back in 1981. In those days, there was no countdown, just a flashing hand.

[...] This is ridiculous, and it has been going on for years. The Legislature needs to eliminate this ambiguity from CVC 21456. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a countdown signal?

The city Transportation Department (LADOT) is implementing scramble intersections and leading pedestrian "head start" intervals.

Mayor Eric Garcetti's sustainability pLAn calls for "adoption of Vision Zero policy and establishment of a multi-agency safety task force" which may help align LAPD practices with proven safety goals, similar to NYPD's Vision Zero enforcement.

Perhaps another early step in supporting L.A. health and sustainability would be to work with state legislators to fix the state's outdated crosswalk laws.

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