Give Californians the Freedom to Walk

A campaign to eliminate unjust ‘jaywalking’ laws.

It‘s time to legalize safe street crossings

In 2021, CalBike sponsored AB 1238 (Ting), the Freedom to Walk Act, to repeal California ‘jaywalking’ laws. This crucial legislation would have protected vulnerable pedestrians against arbitrary, racially biased, pretextual policing, as well as burdensome fees and fines, and unnecessary, and potentially lethal, interactions with law enforcement.

The Freedom to Walk Act has passed the Assembly and the Senate but was vetoed by Governor Newsom.

If a police officer cites you for jaywalking under CVC 21955, crossing the road outside a designated crosswalk, you may face a fine as high as $250. That amount can get higher as additional violations are added. This jaywalking fine is higher than most parking tickets and some common traffic citations. A jaywalking ticket may also cost you $1,000+ in insurance hikes and penalties.

The Freedom to Walk Act would not change existing law that already requires pedestrians to avoid potentially hazardous situations on the roadway. It would merely legalize what people are already doing: finding the best routes to safely walk in their neighborhoods.

The Freedom to Walk Act, AB 1238, would have:

  • Legalize safe, commonsense street crossing, when traffic permits, whether or not a pedestrian is within a marked/unmarked crosswalk or the walk cycle of a traffic signal.
  • Remove a pretext for over-policing that has disproportionately hurt Black and Latinx Californians.
  • End a traffic enforcement practice that places an undue financial burden on low-income residents through fines, fees, and penalties.
  • Recognize the rights of pedestrians to fair and equitable use of our public roadways.
Legalize safe street crossings

NEWSOM VETOES FREEDOM TO WALK IN CALIFORNIA

Movement to End Unjust Jaywalking Laws Will Continue

SACRAMENTO – In a setback for the movement for more equitable streets, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the Freedom to Walk Act (AB 1238, Ting). The law would have ended penalties for safe mid-block pedestrian crossings. CalBike and a coalition of more than 90 groups and individuals supported the repeal of ‘jaywalking’ laws.

“The governor’s veto rests on the belief that police enforcement or the threat of jaywalking tickets will somehow prevent pedestrian fatalities in the future when that has consistently failed in the past. Continuing to criminalize people’s rational, predictable responses to poor infrastructure is simply unjust,” said Jared Sanchez, CalBike Senior Policy Advocate.

Inequities in neighborhood design and street infrastructure leave many lower-income California neighborhoods less than pedestrian-friendly. Because of this, policing jaywalking often amounts to punishing people for the lack of government services in their community.

Legalizing mid-block crossings would have helped protect vulnerable pedestrians against racially biased, pretextual policing, inequitable fees and fines, and unnecessary and potentially lethal interactions with law enforcement.

John Yi, Executive Director of Los Angeles Walks, said, “The Governor’s recent veto represents continued condescension of pedestrians. To think we can penalize our parents, seniors, and students to bow to high-speed traffic at the cost of their own dignity, ease, and safety is draconian and deeply misunderstands the needs of those walking every day. We cannot begin to ask why it is we jaywalk if we are already criminals in the eyes of the state.”

“This is a tremendous loss not only for racial justice across California but also for active transportation as a whole as Governor Newsom failed to recognize the importance of non-automobile modes of travel,” said CalBike’s Sanchez. “But the Freedom to Walk Act has helped spark a national conversation about unjust jaywalking laws that can’t be stopped by one misguided veto.”

Jaywalking laws are not enforced fairly.

Across California, police departments are stopping Black pedestrians more often than others. From 2018-2020, data from the California Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA) shows that Black Californians are severely overrepresented in being stopped for jaywalking.

Police department data also show that police are almost four and half times more likely to stop Black Californians than whites for jaywalking, in some cities (right chart).

jaywalking data 1
jaywalking data 2

Read about CalBike’s campaign to decriminalize safe pedestrian behavior

‘Jaywalking’ was created by car clubs and manufacturers in the 1930s to shift the blame for traffic fatalies from drivers to pedestrians. It’s time to decriminalize walking.

The very concept of jaywalking creates and reinforces the belief that public roadways belong exclusively to people in motor vehicles. Drivers, believing they are asserting their right-of-way, may threaten pedestrians with their vehicles, whether pedestrians are ‘jaywalking’ or not. Decriminalizing safe street crossings will discourage vehicular aggression towards pedestrians.

The criminalization of jaywalking encourages dangerous behavior by people in motor vehicles.

The problem with jaywalking laws

  • Ongoing criminalization of low-income Black and Brown communities. Jaywalking is categorized with other low-level ‘quality of life’ infractions. This refers to a practice of heavily policing a number of normally non-criminal activities and everyday behavior such as standing, sleeping, and congregating in public spaces, as well as minor offenses such as public urination, panhandling, littering, and unlicensed street vending because, the argument goes, if left unchecked, these minor offenses will lead to an explosion of serious crime. Police officers rarely if ever issue citations for these infractions in white, wealthy neighborhoods. This ongoing form of police harassment of Black and Latinx communities, people experiencing homelessness, and people with disabilities can cause trauma, and enforcement of minor infractions has led to police violence. 
  • California is in the process of reforming its laws regarding the use of public spaces. Several categories of infractions have already been eliminated in recent years at the state level, including vending without a permit and possession of marijuana. It’s time to add jaywalking to this list.
  • The criminalization of crossing the street mid-block often results in hundreds of dollars in fines and fees people cannot afford to pay. In some counties, outstanding jaywalking tickets can be the pretext for warrants and arrests for people who either do not pay or fail to appear in court. Low-income people who commit minor offenses such as jaywalking can end up saddled with fines, fees and penalties that drive them deeper into poverty. This is part of a long history of police departments overly enforcing such minor infractions because of government dependence on the criminal justice system to raise revenue. California has been moving away from these kinds of regressive approaches to revenue-raising. Fines for jaywalking, an infraction that causes no injury to the community, should be considered in the same category and should likewise be eliminated.
  • Our streets are not designed to make walking safe or convenient, particularly in our most disadvantaged communities. In the absence of safe and accessible pedestrian infrastructure,  residents do their best to navigate across major roads with high-speed traffic and inadequate crossings. Dangerous roads, which lack adequate crossings, lighting, and sidewalks, are typically concentrated in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Because of this, law enforcement often polices communities for their lack of governmental services and improper land use planning; issues that white affluent neighborhoods do not similarly face.
  • Jaywalking laws were originally created by auto industry-aligned special interest groups in the 1930s during the rise of mass automobile ownership. Prior to the emergence of cars in cities, no such concept existed; pedestrians had free run of the public right-of-way. But, as city streets became sites of increasing carnage in the early days of America’s auto era (about 200,000 Americans (many of them children) were killed by cars in the 1920s), towns and cities began to enact low-speed limits to protect other street users. Automakers and owners sought regulations that would shift responsibility away from drivers and onto pedestrians. Jaywalking laws effectively fence in people traveling on foot so that cars can travel at unsafe speeds, endangering children, seniors, and other vulnerable road users. It’s time to take back our streets.
  • Jaywalking represents a rational adaptation to an unfriendly built environment: Signal timing that prioritizes vehicular traffic, lack of crossings between common destinations, long distances between crosswalks are all characteristics of an unfriendly built environment. In some cases, jaywalking is driven by the fear of crime, particularly in low-income communities. Jaywalking is often the most rational choice among bad options. For example, an investigation into the nation-leading pedestrian deaths in Arizona by the Arizona Republic last year found only about a third of the pedestrians killed in Phoenix were near (within 500 feet of) a crosswalk. The reporters concluded there was a need for more crosswalks, not a crackdown on jaywalkers. Criminalizing a rational, predictable response to poor infrastructure is unjust. 

More about unjust jaywalking laws

Millions of California residents every day find themselves breaking the law as they walk our public streets. Crossing the street in the middle of the block or against the traffic light are harmless, common behaviors that are nevertheless illegal. AB 1238 would make it legal to cross the street outside a designated marked/unmarked crosswalk or crossing time, so long as it’s safe to do so.

Jaywalking laws do more than turn an ordinary and logical behavior into a crime; they also create opportunities for police to racially profile. A jaywalking ticket can turn into a potentially life-threatening police encounter, especially for Black people, who are disproportionately targeted and suffer the most severe consequences of inequitable law enforcement. With national attention on Black Lives Matter protests and calls to transform the role of law enforcement, there is new energy and increased political will to eliminate harmful police functions. Now is the time for California to address the decriminalization of harmless pedestrian actions across California to answer the demand for racial justice. 

Black people suffer disproportionate and unequal treatment at the hands of the police. California has a long history of over-policing, criminalization, and incarceration that imposes disparate impacts on Black Californians. One major contributor to the disparity is “pretextual policing,” which is the practice of stopping someone for a minor traffic violation in order to conduct investigations unrelated to the reason for the stop. Mid-block pedestrian crossing (i.e. ‘jaywalking’) is an important example that has continuously proved tragic, especially for people racialized as Black, in confrontation with the police.

In addition to racial profiling, there are two other core issues with criminalizing common pedestrian behavior:

  • The fees associated with jaywalking tickets place an undue burden on the people least able to afford them. Many low-income people rely on walking to meet their essential needs.
  • Beyond inequitable enforcement, the prevalence of jaywalking in certain neighborhoods reflects inequities in street design. Poorer neighborhoods are more likely to have larger distances between designated marked or unmarked crosswalks, malfunctioning pedestrian crossing buttons, and gaps in sidewalks. People who need to walk in their neighborhoods should not be penalized for decades of infrastructure neglect and auto-first street design that fails to consider the needs of users who aren’t in cars.

California must join efforts across the country to remove penalties for commonsense pedestrian behavior and go further by legalizing mid-block crossings between signalized intersections and walking against the light, which currently qualify as traffic infractions. 

Further Justification

Local Context

Out-of-State Efforts

Studies

Data Sources