How jaywalking got to be respectable

“You’re jaywalking, you idiot!”

That harsh pejorative was shouted through the open window of a car turning onto the 100 block of Port Washington’s Grand Avenue early on a recent morning. The comment was aimed at a man walking swiftly on a diagonal course across the nearly deserted street in the middle of the block. The pedestrian was safely on the sidewalk before the car with the angry driver passed.

Besides a bad attitude, the driver was revealing that he is living in the past. Jaywalking is obsolete. The term, that is, but certainly not the practice.

Walking across a street outside of a designated crosswalk or contrary to traffic signals has long been a small-town privilege, but now large cities and entire states are also deciding that jaywalking is not the crime of century.

In California, the Freedom to Walk Act will take effect on Jan. 1, repealing anti-jaywalking laws, making it perfectly legal for walkers to cross streets anywhere they want to. Virginia did the same thing in 2021, followed by the state of Nevada and Kansas City, Mo.

Word from New York City, once called the jaywalking capital of the world, is that while jaywalking remains unlawful, police are now averting their eyes when they see it. This is noteworthy, because New York was the scene of the draconian crackdown famously ordered in 1998 by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who in burnishing his reputation as a law-and-order warrior proclaimed that arresting street-crossing scofflaws and fining them $50 for each jaywalk would deter more serious crime.

In the communities of Ozaukee County today, pedestrians are royalty and vehicle drivers are their subjects. The street-using culture has changed, and it’s all for the better. It wasn’t that long ago that editorials in this space condemned the wild west atmosphere in downtown Port Washington in which pedestrians sometimes had to literally run for the lives to cross the city’s main business street through a gantlet of aggressive drivers. The new norm is courteous, considerate drivers who stop and wait for any walkers who give so much as a hint they intend to cross the street, in a crosswalk or anywhere else.

When the Port Washington public was invited by city officials to weigh in with ideas for downtown improvements, one respondent suggested that forcing vehicular traffic on Franklin Street to slow down should be priority. This sparked a bit of hilarity, because if downtown traffic on a typical summer weekend moves any slower, it will be going backwards, thanks to the pedestrian migrations crossing the street.

Smart urban planners are delighted by that sort of congestion—downtowns moving at a walking pace, sidewalks filled with people shopping, looking in store windows, strolling with an ice cream cone or coffee cup in hand, petting a passing dog and crossing streets in leisurely fashion when the spirit moves them. All the better to make downtowns places where people want to stay for awhile and not just drive through.

In their newfound courtesy, drivers are, of course, merely obeying the state law that requires them to “yield to pedestrians who have started crossing the street at an intersection or crosswalk.”

Though the legal onus is on drivers, street crossers should consider granting some courtesy of their own to motorists, such as, say, refraining from pausing in the crosswalk to type a text message.

They should also be aware that Wisconsin statutes require pedestrians to “yield to drivers when crossing a road where there is no intersections or crosswalk.”

In other words, feel free to cross wherever you want, but don’t make drivers stop in midblock so you can indulge your right to jaywalk.


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login