OPINION: Here’s Why We Should Decriminalize ‘Jaywalking’

Racially biased enforcement against Black and Latinx people renders the law arbitrary and unfair.

Everyone jaywalks but mostly only Blacks and Latinos are charged. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Everyone jaywalks but mostly only Blacks and Latinos are charged. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

We all do it, sometimes multiple times a day, often without realizing it. Chances are you’ve done it, too.

Because what New Yorker doesn’t cross in the middle of the block or go against the signal if a car isn’t coming? It’s as much a Big Apple tradition as Nathan’s on the Fourth of July or never having been to the Statue of Liberty.

Costa Constantinides
Costa Constantinides

Sadly, if you’re Black and Latinx, such crossings will at times cost you as much as $250 if a cop is around. Indeed, the city’s backward “jaywalking” laws are both historically, arbitrarily enforced against people of color and present a major roadblock in creating holistic streets. These statistics have been illustrated by some grueling incidents in the last few years — ones that underscored just how deep NYPD reforms need to go.

That is, until now.

On Tuesday, I introduced a City Council bill [read it here] to clear the red tape that’s allowed for racially biased, anti-pedestrian policies. The bill will effectively decriminalize “jaywalking,” which, it should be noted, was a term invented by the auto industry to shame pedestrians. [Click here to watch a must-see TV explainer on that dark history.]

Right now, New York State traffic laws reflect how people get around today: You can cross anywhere in the street, even if the signal says no, so long as a car isn’t coming. The City of New York’s ancient rules demand you have to stick within the marked — though often fading — crosswalks and only when the light says so.

How Streetsblog covered the jaywalking issue.
How Streetsblog covered the jaywalking issue.

Laws are meant to reflect the needs and will of the people. The city rules don’t fall under that category, which is why we seek to bring our local codes more in line with the state.

Legislation like this couldn’t have come any sooner, as we seek to rethink the breadth of the NYPD’s responsibilities. Streetsblog’s own reporting found almost 90 percent of the department’s 397 illegal crossing tickets last year went to Black and Latinx people.

Naturally, you’d see that and think, Well a lot of those are probably spread throughout the City, because people do this everywhere. Wrong. More than a quarter were issued in three Bronx police precincts — almost exclusively to Black and Latinx pedestrians.

So, if a white person crosses Claremont Parkway, in the middle of the block with the “Don’t Walk” sign up, statistically they won’t get a ticket. But should a person of color step out at the same spot at the same moment, the likelihood of being penalized skyrockets.

Sadly, this is true for many precincts, with Black and Latinx pedestrians accounting for the majority of tickets when the area is predominantly white.

This arbitrary enforcement goes back years but it doesn’t have to continue. Unless we do something, we’ll never have truly safe streets that prioritize pedestrians or cyclists as much as they do cars. As we investigate past instances of bias, we must make sure the rules change to prevent future targeting of Black and Latinx New Yorkers simply for walking the streets.

It’s time we make our streets fairer for everyone. That starts with decriminalizing jaywalking.

Costa Constantinides represents Astoria in the City Council.