“Jaywalking” and Situationist Theory

“[The] present abundance of private cars is nothing but the result of the constant propaganda by which capitalist production persuades the masses […] that the possession of a car is one of the privileges our society reserves for its privileged members.” – Guy Debord, 1955

“We fear the ‘jay walker’ worse than the anarchist.” – John Hertz, president of the Yellow Cab Company, 1922

Capitalism is a constantly adaptive, flexible system. It expertly shapes social, political, and economic forces to achieve its own ends, particularly in the development of cities. One of the challenges of the Situationists is to reclaim a space of authenticity in this world of capitalist alienation, in which the entire apparatus of the city is a producer of spectacles. I wish to focus on one particular element of the city for this essay: the street. The way that we conceive of the street space has massive effects on our orientation towards the urban space we occupy. In many of our minds, the automobile and the street are two halves of a whole: the street is “empty” if there are no cars in it. Examining the history of the space of the street shows us that it was both physically and socially constructed by capitalist interests to advance a particular agenda in American cities. The invention of the idea of the “jaywalker” serves as a telling example of corporate control of our streets that alienated the people from the everyday space of their lives. If we are to realize an authentic space of everyday life to be reclaimed in our cities, we must fundamentally rethink our streets.

The street space historically developed in conjunction with the urbanization of America. And while the space that a street occupies does not necessarily carry a particular political agenda, public opinion about what the purpose of the streets in cities was shaped by industrial interests to engender a view of the streets as a privatized space.

Before the invention of the automobile, the street was a public space. A street was occupied by children at play, pedestrians strolling, peddlers selling wares, and even public congregations. A street was a space like any other public gathering space, akin to a park or community center. This is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, because we have become so accustomed to tying the street to the car. A thought experiment is helpful here: what would transpire in a city’s streets if there were no cars? Normal goings-on of the public’s day-to-day life could exist in the street space. For centuries before the automobile age, this was the reality of the city, and the city street was a public good.

At the beginning of the motor era, there was massive resistance to automobiles having rights to the streets. It seemed ridiculous to propose that a public good would be taken from the people in order to facilitate private transport that was primarily reserved for the rich. The modern equivalent would be akin to razing parks (a public good) to use the land for a new expansion of a corporation (private interests). Peter Norton writes in an illuminating article on the subject for the journal Technology and Culture: “[Most city people] regarded the city street as a public space, open to anyone who did not endanger or obstruct other users. Yet in [1920], the competition for street space was intense.”[1] Norton then concludes that only ten years later, in 1930, “most [city residents] agreed, readily or grudgingly, that streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares, open to others only under carefully defined restrictions.” What happened in the interim? How were capitalist powers able to convince average city residents to give up streets to the rich automobile owners?

Unsurprisingly, the capitalists themselves best answer this question. When public resistance to the automobile was at an all-time high, a group of engineers that worked for the industry were attempting to figure out how to convince people that streets belonged to the users of cars. In a 1922 engineering news bulletin, it was proposed that the “obvious solution . . . lies only in a radical revision of our conception of what a city street is for.” It was clear that the streets could not be taken from the people by force alone; they had to be tricked into thinking that the streets belonged to cars, not people. Before engineers rebuilt American cities to accommodate the automobile, capitalists had to reconstruct our mental space towards the street to accommodate the automobile.

A massive public relations campaign was initiated to change peoples’ minds on the question of acceptable street usage. Some of this was standard progress that accompanied technological change, but it is interesting to note that top-down efforts were made on the part of state and private interests to influence public opinion. At first, the top-down strategy was pure punitive regulation. Cities placed police officers on corners to stop pedestrians from crossing in the middle of the street. But because the concept of the street was so ingrained in peoples’ minds, people ignored the police regulations and merely continued to cross. After the failure of regulations, the strategy quickly changed to persuading people that the automobile’s value in the streets was more important than average pedestrians. As a deputy police chief said in a 1923 New York Times editorial, “We want to educate the people rather than arrest them.”

This is a classic technique of capitalism, to invade the minds of people and convince them of the validity of technological progress that benefit the rich. The pedestrians who formerly used the streets as a part of their everyday life were now labeled “jaywalkers”. The etymology of the term is revealing. “Jay” was slang for a person from the country, not the city, and thus presumed to be backwards, out of place in the modern city. By labeling the pedestrians as “jaywalkers,” it appeared that they were outside of capitalism’s march of progress. They were unlike the modern, advanced citizens who cleared the way for the technological marvel of the time: the car.

There was cooperation between the comingled forces of state and commerce to ensure that public opinion turned against the “jaywalking” pedestrian (who didn’t cross at the corners, where the crossing guards were located) and in favor of the automobilist. City governments instituted “safety weeks” to discuss the perils of incorrect street usage. Norton reports that city government officials in San Francisco would pull jaywalkers off the streets and publicly lecture them on the correct usage of streets. In Providence, the government instituted pedestrian schools to reeducate people on the correct use of the street space. These safety weeks spread across the nation in an attempt to convince pedestrians to give up their rights to the street. As the Grand Rapids Herald reported in 1921, “thousands of people who never knew what jaywalking meant have learned the meaning of the word.”

The entirely new idea of jaywalking served to empty the formerly full public space of the street and allow capitalists to make room for the automobile. This eventually fueled a development of a car culture in America that facilitated unequal cities divided by automobile access. More relevant to situationist theory, however, it carved out the street as an alienated space; formerly a bustling, lively public center, the street had become a dead (and deadly) space, cars whizzing back and forth from work to home and home to work.

The modernization of the city for the car was accompanied by a commercialization that removed all non-productive elements of city life. Only that which produced capital was valuable. The capitalist rationale for the supremacy of the automobile involved the productive possibilities it opened for economical transport. The car made rationalized efficiency the modus operandi of the streets; the conduits of the city became conduits of commerce, enabling commutes, trucking of cargo, and shopping trips.

Psychogeography was a direct response to this neoliberal isolation, for it called for transport as pleasure rather than transport as productivity. Psychogeographers were the modern jaywalkers who merely wandered through the streets to form their own subjectivities in the city. They realized that automobile ownership, originally touted as a mark of wealth and distinction, has become automobile dependency, serving to isolate us from the city, trapped in a glass and aluminum box.

Today, 90 years later, we are confronted by city streets completely given over to automobile traffic. Indeed, we are confronted by an entire societal space that has been transformed by the automobile: highway- and car-dependent suburbs; massive highways built in the 1950s and 1960s that cut off certain area, creating “undesirable zones,” and white flight from these zones.

Reclaiming the authenticity of the city space requires a reduction of the role the automobile plays in our lives. Americans spend hours every week in commutes, and these moments of our lives are lost to a sociotechnical transportation system that alienates us from our surroundings. The natural question is: where do we go from here? Can we “undo” the automobile? And if it were possible, would we want to? Many have a gut resistance to the idea of reducing automobile usage. For many Americans, it represents freedom and the ability to control one’s means of transport.

But despite our mental predisposition to reserve street space for machines, there are many possible alternative ways of conceptualizing our streets, effective at reclaiming public space without sacrificing the car.

A pertinent example is the Dutch engineering concept of the woonerf, described as a street designed to equally serve pedestrians and automobile users. There is no curb to delineate between a sidewalk and the street, and pedestrians and bicyclists are given legal precedence over cars. The word translates roughly to mean “living yard,” and the effect is clearly in line with that thought: the street allows for a public space to be reclaimed and truly lived in. Initially introduced in the 1970s, the woonerf has been a massive success in Europe. There were recently reported to be over six thousand woonerven in the Netherlands, and two million Dutch citizens live in areas with woonerven. The Institute of Traffic Engineers tells us that woonerven have been implemented in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, France, Japan, Israel, Austria, and Switzerland. It appears this model is good enough for the rest of the world.

Additionally, the grassroots resistance movements of the 1960s and 1970s were expanded in the 1980s and 1990s to combat the automobile’s hegemony. These include Reclaim the Streets, which seeks to make street spaces public and community-owned; Stop the City, which blocked automobile movement in London’s financial district, costing corporations millions; and Critical Mass, which collects a decentralized group of cyclists to have a large enough mass to take back the streets from the automobile. These groups are realizing modern Situationist goals by fighting for the authentic possibilities of life within the city, waging a campaign against alienation that capitalists have imbued in our streets.

The modern concept of a street is not an immutable reality however, for we are free to think of the street however we like. Just as we did not always think of the street as a space for the car, we do not always have to. The challenge, then, is to change our minds, to conceptualize of the street as a public space that can encompass automobiles, but also authentic interactions between pedestrians that form the basis of a living, breathing city. When we see the street as a dead (and deadly) space that can only be reanimated by flows of commerce, we risk seeing our homes as a dead space. For after all, we live on streets, and we should animate them with our own energy, making the street our own psychogeographic space. We should not only take to the streets, we should take the streets. The people deserve to claim that space as their own, free from capitalist domination.

[1] See as well Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic (MIT, 2008), pp. 72-79:

“A ‘jay’ was a hayseed, out of place in the city; a jaywalker was someone who did not know how to walk in a city. Originally the term applied as much or more to pedestrians who obstructed the path of other pedestrians—by failing, for example, to keep to the right on the sidewalk. As autos grew common on city streets, jaywalkers were more often pedestrians oblivious to the danger of city motor traffic… ‘Jaywalker’ carried the sting of ridicule, and many objected to branding independent-minded pedestrians with the term. In 1915 New York’s police commissioner, Arthur Woods, attempted to use it to describe anyone who crossed the street at mid-block. The New York Times objected, calling the word ‘highly opprobrious’ and ‘a truly shocking name.’ Any attempt to arrest pedestrians would be ‘silly and intolerable.’ […]

“In 1921 a National Safety Council member from Baltimore confessed to his colleagues that, at least in pedestrian control… ‘You are affecting personal liberty when you keep people from crossing the streets at certain places.’ […] The cleverest anti-jaywalking publicity effort was in Detroit in 1922, where the Packard Motor Car Company exploited the new fashion for monuments to traffic fatalities. Packard built an oversized imitation tombstone that closely resembled the monument to the innocent child victims of accidents in Baltimore. But Packard’s tombstone redirected blame to the victims. It was marked ‘Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking.’ […]

“A St. Louisan, defending pedestrians’ traditional rights to the street, tried to turn the ‘jaywalking’ label against those who promoted it. ‘We hear the shameful complaint of jay walkers, to console jay drivers,’ he wrote. ‘It is the self-conceited individual who thinks people are cattle and run upon them tooting a horn.’ ‘Make every machine stop and wait,’ he demanded, ‘until the road is clear, and give precedent to people who are walking. The streets belong to the people and not to any one class, and we have an equal right, in fact more right than the automobile.’ Nine months later the Washington Post argued that ‘the jay driver is even a greater menace to the public than the jay walker,’ and in 1925 Washington’s deputy traffic director, I. C. Moller, endorsed the term […] But promoters of the epithet ‘jay driver’ failed. Critics of motorists could call them cold-hearted, tyrannical, or selfish, but a motorcar’s power, modernity, and worldly sophistication made its owner anything but a jay […]

“In 1920, when the wave of public safety campaigns was just beginning, ‘jaywalker’ was a rare and controversial term. Safety weeks, more than anything else, introduced the word to the millions. Frequent use wore down its sharp edge, and it passed into acceptable usage as a term for lawless pedestrians who would not concede their old rights to the streets, even in the dawning motor age.”

Don Murdoch
13 September 2013

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