Greater City Providence

Joyriders vs. Jaywalkers: U.Va.’s Peter Norton Examines a Collision of Cultures

In 1909, “jaywalker” was an obscure Midwestern colloquial term that referred to a country hick in the city who got in the way of other pedestrians. But with the rise of the automobile, people connected with the auto industry used “jaywalker” to mean a pedestrian who crosses the street against regulations.

“Most people living in cities didn’t think fast cars belonged in streets,” Norton said. “So when cars hit pedestrians, it was always the driver’s fault. Angry city residents wrote letters to their newspapers denouncing ‘joy riders’ and ‘speed demons.’ But some people wanted to give cars a rightful claim to street space. The word ‘jaywalker’ was one way to do this. By casting doubt on pedestrians’ place in the street, it strengthened cars’ claim to street space. Making streets places for cars took not just regulations and devices such as traffic lights — language was also part of the struggle.”

Related to the discussion here.

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  • One of the stranger extensions of this idea that I’ve read is that bicyclists were also seen as speed demons of a sort in their beginnings. Carts and carriages were suppposed to go 5 mph or less in cities, and cyclists suddenly were able to go 15-20 mph. Whoa! People thought that that was way to fast for any normal person to go when around pedestrians.

  • Nope, nothing strange about seeing bicycles as speed demons when around pedestrians. I’ve been nearly hit by bicycles. If you’re a pedestrian and you get hit by one going 15-20 mph, you’re gonna be in a lot of pain and there’s a good chance you may end up in the hospital. I’m of the opinion that bicycles do not belong on sidewalks, at least not ridden on sidewalks. I know people who disagree with me because there are times when it’s not safe to ride them on a street (like if you’re moving north/south on the west side and wanna take Dean St). But it’s not safe for pedestrians to have people riding bicycles on sidewalks. Unfortunately, the law allows bicycles to be ridden on sidewalks.

  • Jim,
    I’m not sure the law actually bicycles to be ridden on the sidewalk. I don’t have a specific law citation for you, but in most or all states, bicycles are considered ‘vehicles’ and thus must be ridden in the street in the same direction as auto traffic. I would be VERY surprised to learn that riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is legal in Rhode Island. I would agree with you that sidewalk riders are annoying and should definitely stop. And that’s precisely why we should be encouraging safe biking infrastructure on the street, since I’d be willing to bet that a large majority of sidewalk riders simply don’t feel safe on the street (and it’s hard to contest this point).

  • TITLE 31 – Motor and Other vehicles • CHAPTER 31-19 – Operation of Bicycles • SECTION 31-19-11

    § 31-19-11 Bicycles and motorized wheelchairs on sidewalks and crosswalks. – A person may ride any vehicle operated by human power or may operate a motorized wheelchair or an electric personal assistive mobility device (“EPAMD”) as defined in § 31-1-3 upon and along a sidewalk, a bicycle lane, a bicycle route or across a roadway upon and along a crosswalk, unless prohibited by official traffic-control devices (signs).

  • Agreed in terms of people being aggressive towards pedestrians.

    Maybe ‘strange’ was the wrong word to use. Incongruous given our attitude towards cars speeding, would be a better way to put it. If we imposed 15 mph speed limits on roads for cars, I think there’d be a lot of howling about how slow that is. Not how people felt 100 years ago. . .

  • It is essential that bicyclists can occasionally use sidewalks. We sometimes really need to do that here in No Prov on arteries like Mineral Spring, Fruit Hill where there are no shoulders. Of course bicylists must give right of way to pedestians there.
    In 2011, the last year for which I’ve seen data, of the 66 roadway fatalities in RI, 14 were pedestrians, 21%, none killed by bicyclists. In testimony yesterday at the State Senate on a related bill, a recent case was noted whereby a motorist who killed a pedestrian in a crosswalk faced only a $85 fine under current law. That reflects what the real problem is around here.

  • But Barry, that is car-centric thinking. The streets are too dangerous for bikes, so instead of making the roads safer for bikes, we put the bikes on the sidewalks making it more dangerous for pedestrians, and not particularly better for cyclists, leaving the auto drivers’ perceived rights intact.

    Bikes should not be on sidewalks and if the road is too dangerous for bikes, it should be fixed.

  • It is essential that bicyclists can occasionally use sidewalks. We sometimes really need to do that here in No Prov on arteries like Mineral Spring, Fruit Hill where there are no shoulders. Of course bicylists must give right of way to pedestians there.

    Wrong. It’s essential that roads like Mineral Spring Avenue and Fruit Hill Avenue be reconfigured to provide shoulders and the right of a bicyclist to use the road be reinforced through signage.

    I agree completely with Jef – putting bicyclists on the sidewalks doesn’t actually solve the problem and is a very pro-car but anti-pedestrian solution. I would go as far as to say that demanding the right to ride on sidewalks is a great way to engender hatred of bicycle riders by pedestrians, which is the absolute last thing we need.

  • I’m pretty sure that what Barry is saying is don’t put the cart before the horse.

    The streets should be changed to make them more bike-friendly, but until they are, the first people to crack down on should be cars speeding or breaking traffic laws, not bicyclists on the sidewalk. There’s a kind of blame-the-victim mentality that goes on.

    Also, I would say we should fix roads like Mineral Spring by providing segregated facilities. Those roads are entirely too fast for just having a shoulder to be sufficient.

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