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Blitz on Jaywalking sidesteps ongoing questions about the car in the city

Police in Melbourne stage their periodic blitz on jaywalkers. Police have issued over 600 $72 on-the-spot fines. These always elicit the common response of “haven’t they got anything better to do and why aren’t they out there catching the real criminals”. The era of the mobile phone may have added an extra dimension to the problem of pedestrian distraction, but this is an age old contest. The car has been king since the 1920s, but not all countries fine jaywalkers—Jo Moran wrote an interesting piece in 2006 about the history of crossing the road in Britain.

Governments have often appealed to good sense and civic duty rather than the threat of punishment, in response to public fears about the excessive coercion of pedestrians or motorists. One consequence is that there are few legal constraints on walking across the road in Britain – unlike large parts of North America and western Europe, where red lights and ‘don’t walk’ signs are legally binding, and there are fines for jaywalkers. [Moran, 477-478]

VicRoads has an info page on pedestrian rules:

Fines apply to pedestrians who commit the following offences:

cross against an amber or red traffic light

cross against an amber or red pedestrian light

cross the road within 20 metres of a pedestrian crossing

fail to cross to the nearest edge of the road after getting off a tram

fail to obey a traffic instruction from a police officer

fail to use the shortest or most direct route across a road

get out of from a moving vehicle

walk along or fail to give way when crossing a bicycle path

walk improperly on a road (by not keeping to the far side facing oncoming traffic when walking along a road where it is not practicable to use the footpath or nature strip)

cross a level crossing when not permitted

disobey a ‘no pedestrian’ sign.

cause a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a driver

The term “Jaywalking” is not mentioned in any rules or regulations, and technically it seems that crossing the road beyond 20 metres of a pedestrian crossing is fine, as long as care is taken and no other rules are infringed.

It might be argued that reactive measures like fining jaywalkers have some role in educating the citizen about road safety, but they also sidestep ongoing discussions about the role of the motor car in our cities (and such issues as pedestrian malls, traffic calming, the battle between car and bicycle etc).

And we need to remember that ideologies behind the standardised and unobstructed spaces of the city street are never politically neutral, and have a history, as I explored in Melbourne Street Life.

Pedestrians waiting at traffic lights corner of Swanston and Collins Streets, Melbourne [Mark Strizic, photographer] ca.1950-ca.1980, State Library of Victoria

Pedestrians waiting at traffic lights corner of Swanston and Collins Streets, Melbourne [Mark Strizic, photographer] ca.1950-ca.1980, State Library of Victoria

In 1863 suggestions were made that pedestrians should keep to certain sides of some city streets on account of the footpaths being insufficiently wide to cater for Saturday night traffic, and on the occasion of the royal marriage celebrations in May, a public notice was issued regulating pedestrian and traffic arrangements. A suggestion was again put forward for the 1867 royal visit that Melbourne pedestrians should adopt the English practice of keeping to the right hand side of footways. A decade later the system was again put before the mcc: ‘It must be obvious to all traversing the streets the inconvenience of walking all over the path way there being no system laid down to guide foot passengers similar to that in London & other large towns.’

Regulations in 1879 advised pedestrians to keep to the right on footways. By the late 1880s the rule of the road was not only defied by vehicles on the carriageway, but the rule of the footway was being totally ignored by pedestrians.

Any one keeping to his right in going down Collins-street will have to pause before bevies of ladies, who pursue the even tenor of their way, never dreaming that they obstruct the path by walking on the left side … But Swanston-street is worse … The people straggle over the whole pavement, and he will have to thread his way through them as if he were playing a game of blind-man’s buff … Pedestrian traffic forms a confusion that may be picturesque, but is certainly uncomfortable.

The suggestion was put to the MCC in 1888 that placards be set up as in London, requiring pedestrians to keep to the right. As many as 100 plates were erected by the MCC at this time, but many were soon defaced or torn down. In 1889 calls were again made for the erection of signs to facilitate footpath locomotion as ‘a majority of our fellow citizens and visitors wander at their own sweet will all over the paths’. By 1902 the need for signs was again noted, but by 1912 the Argus observed that pedestrians had ‘now got pretty well into the way of keeping to the right’. Only two years later, however, the Age reported that the ‘legend “Keep to the right” finds no more obedience than the injunction not to spit on the footpaths’ (Age, 30 April 1914).

In 1910 suggestions to alleviate the pedestrian congestion at Melbourne’s busiest corner, at the intersection of Swanston and Flinders streets, included the excavation of a subway (dismissed on the grounds that few people would care to go up and down steps for such a short distance), the erection of an overhead gangway (ridiculed as unsightly and expensive), and the replacement of verandahs with high-level footways. By 1912 vehicular traffic had become so congested, even when stopped at intersections, that pedestrians were forced to ‘dodge across through as best they can’. Police recommended that drivers be instructed to keep their horses’ heads behind the building line so that pedestrians had room to cross the street. Drivers of heavy vehicles complained that as the streets were often watered up to the building line, they were forced to bring their horses onto the dry foot crossing in order to get a footing to start again without slipping. In 1913 a trial was made of painting white lines at the intersection of Swanston and Flinders streets. Despite a 1914 suggestion that pedestrians should, like the vehicular street traffic, keep to the left-hand side of the footways,by-law still required them in 1917 to keep to the right and to cross streets only at intersections. Disregard for the regulation led to conflict: one irate observer noted that in a fifteen-minute period

there were four collisions (one serious), three arguments and one fight. One of the victims was a four-year-old child, who, led by a stupid mother or aunt on the wrong side of the footway, tripped up a half-blind old buffer, who literally fell on it. (Age, 28 February 1920)

In 1921 it was considered that pedestrians should no longer have their backs to the traffic, since during busy traffic periods they inevitably and dangerously spilled onto the roadway. In 1922, while authorities in London and Perth felt that it would be difficult to alter traditional habits, the system of keeping to the left was working in Sydney. Victoria police supported the change:

The traffic in Melbourne has “speeded up” and will “get faster” to such a degree that it will not be safe for pedestrians to step off footpaths on to roadways with their backs to the traffic as in times past.

In the early 1920s safety zones were constructed at central intersections, while jay-walking (noted as an American term), and the habit of pedestrians standing on the roadway waiting for trams, were formally discouraged. Mechanical traffic lights were already in use in some American cities, but in Melbourne the white-gloved hand signals of the traffic police were favoured for their ability to react to the contingencies of street traffic flow. By 1925 the rule of the footpath had been changed to ‘keep to the left’, with white lines painted down the middle of footpaths.


Large group of pedestrians crossing over Bourke Street, Melbourne, near the main entrance of Buckley and Nunn, ca. 1948 (Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria)

Large group of pedestrians crossing over Bourke Street, Melbourne, near the main entrance of Buckley and Nunn, ca. 1948 (Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria)



One comment on “Blitz on Jaywalking sidesteps ongoing questions about the car in the city

  1. John May
    May 14, 2014


    I can remember being advised by dad not to J walk – particularly in King William Street.

    I presume the term comes from the fact that one’s path starts directly across the road and then veers to one side or other, tracing a path much like a J.


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This entry was posted on May 12, 2014 by in Home, Melbourne, Uncategorized and tagged , .
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