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KPLU: Seattleites notoriously unwilling to jaywalk

People in Seattle almost never jaywalk. In fact, the population’s firm adherence to the red crosswalk hand is the stuff of legends. For many, including myself, it’s one of the first things that stands out during an initial visit to the city. Rain or shine, heavy traffic or completely empty roadway, almost everyone simply waits for the crosswalk signal.

I vowed when I came here that I would never become one of the non-jaywalking Seattleites. I’ve jaywalked my whole life and I’m not gonna stop now, I said to myself.

Within a week, I caught myself waiting for the WALK signal before crossing a street that did not have an oncoming car in sight. The anti-jaywalking culture had ensnared me.

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KPLU took up this law-abiding cultural phenomenon in a recent story titled “I wonder why Seattleites don’t jaywalk?” Listen online.

Whatever the reason for such rampant regard for the law, it seems even more strange that Seattle Police continue to ticket jaywalkers at such a high rate.

As we noted a few weeks ago, a person driving failing to yield to someone walking is the number one cause of such collisions. Jaywalking is hardly a blip comparatively.

Yet Seattle Police are still far more likely to ticket people for jaywalking. If the goal of traffic policing is to reduce the number of people injured on our city’s streets, wouldn’t it make sense to focus on the leading cause of collisions?

A potential counter-argument might be that the rampant ticketing of jaywalking is a factor in our city’s culture of waiting for the WALK signal. But if that is the case, then would it not also apply that rampant ticketing of people driving for failing to yield would be a factor in creating a culture of stopping at crosswalks and being cautious when making right turns (two common “failure to yield” scenarios)?

But there must be something more at work than a simple fear of a jaywalking ticket. I can say that a ticket never crossed my mind as I was quickly consumed by the law-abiding culture.

The confusing nature of the streets was certainly one big factor. When you regularly have intersections with five or six streets coming at various angles, it becomes very hard to anticipate who is going to get a green light next. There are more blind corners with cars flying around them unexpectedly. Where jaywalking in many cities with clear, predictable street grids is almost second-nature (and nearly everyone does it in some places), jaywalking in Seattle is stressful.

The power of this uncertainty comes up in the KPLU program. John Morgan, who heads up the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board, thinks people would be safer if there were fewer jaywalking laws. In the face of uncertainty, people behave with caution. In Seattle, people wait for crosswalk lights. In other parts of the world, the same principle works to keep people driving alert and cautious.

Morgan says in places where jaywalking is allowed the roads are safer for walkers.

“You create more uncertainty. People drive more slowly. And when people are paying attention and communicating, everyone ends up being more safe.”

As long as it’s the law, police officer Abraham says citing jaywalkers will continue to be a top priority.

“Jaywalking can cost your life; smoking marijuana can just give you a buzz. So, I’ll be after a jaywalker rather than someone with a joint. Unless that person starts to jaywalk, then they’ll really be in trouble.”

What do you think contributes to a culture of following traffic laws? How can we, as a city, encourage cultural changes to prevent the actions that cause senseless injury and death?

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31 responses to “KPLU: Seattleites notoriously unwilling to jaywalk”

  1. Did KPLU note that a major reason that jaywalking is safe when done at midblock is because doing so eliminates turning conflicts? Regardless of law and tickets and pedestrian caution.

    1. Gary

      If you cross mid block at an alley, it’s not jay walking. It’s a legal crossing at an intersection. Alleys are legal streets.

  2. Meanwhile you have the Walking in Seattle blog stressing that even some of our most high-powered officials jaywalk…

    “The confusing nature of the streets was certainly one big factor. When you regularly have intersections with five or six streets coming at various angles, it becomes very hard to anticipate who is going to get a green light next. There are more blind corners with cars flying around them unexpectedly. Where jaywalking in many cities with clear, predictable street grids is almost second-nature (and nearly everyone does it in some places), jaywalking in Seattle is stressful.”

    Where are these? In my experience, there aren’t that many mega-intersections except along Denny and Yesler downtown and near the Stewart-Olive and Olive-Howell forks.

    Personally, I’m just a stickler for following the rules of law and order, no matter how meaningless they may be, and only jaywalk if I’m in a hurry.

  3. charles

    I was not aware Seattle was notorious for not jaywalking. It seems that people jaywalk downtown at every light. Outside downtown I don’t see as much jaywalking. I think what causes people to jaywalk is having to wait longer than usual. Downtown you have more lights to cross compared to the longer distance between lights in other neighborhoods. It also seems that I see more cars run the beginning of a red light when it is a longer than usual red light.

  4. Pam

    Frankly, I don’t jaywalk because I’m afraid of getting swiped by a bicycle going faster than the cars. Especially those that have no lights or reflective gear.

    1. Todd

      What and hold us bicyclists to the same standard?? Blasphemy. Actually Pam, I’m one of the few that tote that line of thinking in here but it’s not good for “policy” and “agendas”.

    2. Doug

      Frankly, far more pedestrians are hurt or killed by speeding cars than bicyclists. But why let reality intrude?

      Please know that I am not suggesting that cyclists should be free to ignore traffic laws. I’m just stating an obvious fact to provide context.

      1. Todd


    3. JAT

      Pam, do you emit some sort of light that would allow you to see this reflective gear you cite? Is there something more painful about being “swiped” by a bicycle without lights compared to a collision with a light-festooned bike? Perhaps you only walk at night.

      I’m not condoning cycling lightless after dark, but as trollish comments go, yours is kind of weak.

      In the meantime I’m smiling at the thought of Tom making a vow, solemn and earnest, I’m sure, not to become one of the non-jaywalking Seattleites (Con Sarn them!).

    4. Gary

      As a bicyclist with lights, I can see pedestrians quite well. However they are least predictable people using the streets. But knowing that, I slow down when I’m near them, and give them a heads up as to whether I’m going in front or behind them.

  5. I’m a Chicagoan by birth, and a long-distance runner. I might jaywalk a lot… but it’s not as easy in Seattle as in Chicago. I remember hearing that either the GM or owner of the White Sox got a jaywalking ticket in Seattle… I’m a Cubs fan myself, but I can read the writing on the wall…

    We have more curvy and hilly roads here, and that means you can’t always see far enough down the road to be sure it’s clear. A hill-based example is NE 50th at I-5. There are often wide enough gaps in traffic to cross 50th, but you can’t see very far down the road to the west, so it’s hard to be sure. We also have a number of intersections outside of downtown with wacky signal patterns, so it’s not always obvious who exactly is going, and whose turn is next (information you need in order to jaywalk safely). Some examples near where I live: N 46th/Fremont, N 39th/Fremont, N 50th/Green Lake/Stone, N 46th/Green Lake/Aurora.

    It’s easier to jaywalk downtown, where there aren’t special left-turn phases.

    I’ve heard that people in Germany don’t jaywalk at all. I spent a couple weeks in Erlangen, Nuremberg, and Bamberg, and found that to be true in those cities — I don’t think I saw anyone jaywalk the whole time I was there, so these places are much more law-abiding than Seattle in this regard. All three cities have significant areas where pedestrians just walk down the middle of the street and car traffic is sparse. In areas with traffic lights, the spacing between lights tends to be pretty wide. And it’s pretty common, even at major intersections, for the signals for car traffic to be in places where a pedestrian can’t see them. There’s no right-on-red in Germany, and turning motions are generally more restricted; this means if you wait for the walk sign you typically get a clear crosswalk. Here in the US, with right-on-red (and our generally irresponsible driving culture), you still have a lot to contend with when crossing with the signal, so there’s a lot less to gain by waiting. If I went for a 10-mile run in Seattle and didn’t have a driver fail to yield to me while I had the signal I’d be shocked; I probably walked and ran 100 miles in my two weeks in Germany and never once had a driver fail to yield to me.

    1. Todd

      Well stated.

    2. I should also note that the specific intersections I mentioned are pretty pedestrian-hostile. The complicated signal cycles with lots of turn arrows mean more waiting for pedestrians, the walk cycles are too short, and you often have to watch for right-turning traffic from odd angles and people sticking their noses out to make right-on-reds. I don’t think we should go around modifying intersections just to make jaywalking easier, but all these intersections could stand to be improved for pedestrians generally, and some have really easy solutions.

      At 39th/Fremont you just have to block traffic coming from the east on 39th from entering the intersection. For the two involving Green Lake Way, just get rid of Green Lake Way between 46th and 50th. Seriously — it wasn’t there originally (according to a 1912 street map of Seattle) and the 5-way intersections don’t really work for any mode of transportation. We could either restore the street grid to its pre-Aurora state or create a linear park or… put pretty much anything there other than cars doing 10 over the limit. There are a couple businesses and a few houses that face out onto the street… but, as it’s a fairly young street, not enough that changing it would be a big deal.

  6. I’m not a fan of penalizing pedestrians over motorists but most of the jaywalking enforcement I see is warranted. Metro Transit Police issue jaywalking tickets around certain bus stops in an attempt to get people to stop jaywalking around us. We have several blind spots up front that pedestrians frequently appear out of as if they were beamed down by Scotty. Not a week goes by where I don’t caution a jaywalker that they came out of a blind spot and were fortunate that I saw them. Jaywalking in front of a bus? Don’t do it – please. We’re trained to double-check blind spots but we’re human… Jaywalking mid-block with no approaching cars or at a short crosswalk with plenty of space between you and oncoming cars? Knock yourself out – you might even catch me doing it (after carefully checking for cops, of course).

    (Metro Police’s tickets are likely not included in the above stats so the total number of tickets may actually be much higher. I have no idea how SPD and MTP work out jurisdiction for these)

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s a great question. Do those jaywalking ticket numbers not count MTP tickets? I will look into this.

      And of course I’m not saying that people should just walk wherever they want regardless of their own safety, and some public education about where not to walk near a bus would be a great investment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a PSA ad on a bus that tackles bus/ped safety. Do those exist? If not, maybe that’s something for King County to consider.

      I think people assume bus drivers are infallible gods, and if you have this many issues with people behaving dangerously around you, it seems like a problem that could use work.

  7. Todd

    So the question really is, “Why don’t we break the law”? Not that this is the crime of the century but I like to think we have class. I’ll never forget going to a London pub for the first time and when last called was given and people filed out, EVERYONE pushed in their chairs. In other words, it’s culture. I’m glad we’re not like other cities.

    Do I personally jaywalk? Errr — yeah I’ve been known to pick my spots.

  8. Andrew

    Yes, I do agree that the police should enforce more failure-to-yield infractions. I see these pretty often. I would also love someone to penalize those who block crosswalks. Unfortunately, in this article the bicyclists are omitted. Why? I work near a quite busy intersection and i see every single day how bicyclists break all possible traffic laws on their way.
    I think it’s hard for the police to see drivers who don’t yield because they are in their cars ALL THE TIME (unless they are in downtown). When you are in a car, you can’t really see what pedestrians experience. Seattle should increase the number of foot patrols in busy parts of the city (do they even exist somewhere else except downtown??)

  9. MondoMan

    It’s not a general respect for the rules of the road, or we wouldn’t have so many bicyclists blow through stop signs/red lights.

    1. Gary

      Or drivers who hang out in the left lane, drive 10 mph over the speed limit, roll through stop signs, etc etc.

  10. Jerry Platski

    Has the author of this story been anywhere outside US? and I don’t mean a Third World country without proper road infrastructure. People in Europe or Australia don’t jaywalk on the red light signal, which is notorious in downtown Seattle. They could at times sometimes in the midblock of the smaller arterials, but not on any major streets. Seattle is so backward. Some people are dreaming of being the world class city, yet it is nowhere close to Madrid, Barcelona, Paris or Berlin.
    Try, if you ever will have a chance, to jaywalk at any major intersection of Rome, London, Vienna or Florence, outside of their old town parts. You’ll be lucky to stay alive, if you’ll ever make it across. And Seattle? The huge number of people jaywalking downtown and small number of collisions, borders on some kind of a miracle. KPLU wake up, and stop your propaganda.

    1. JAT

      I don’t understand this comment.

      It appears to say: Vehicular traffic is so intense in “world class” European cities that people attempting to jaywalk will die. Seattle is a backwater where everybody jaywalks and the author of this article and KPLU are both incorrect as well as being the information arm of some shadowy anti-walking government conspiracy.

      Did I get that about right?

      1. JAT

        p.s. I lived in Australia for three years and can confirm that people jaywalk there and sometimes are cited for it and sometimes get hit by cars.

  11. Jay N

    During my last Chicago trip, I found myself walking up to an intersection and had not stepped into the crosswalk when the DO NO WALK sign lite up. When I stopped at the curb, I was run into by several pedestrials behind me, and ended up temporarily in the crosswalk. Getting back onto the sidewalk, the policeman standing there looked at me in amazement and asked where I was from.

    Certainly, there is difference in enforcement philosophy in Chicago.

    1. In downtown Chicago one of the most cherished spectator sports is watching men in suits playing Frogger in heavy traffic to make it out to Union Station. I only assume it’s as amusing for the police as for the rest of us. I wasn’t that crazy, but I sure never waited for a light when there was no traffic coming.

      Also, in Chicago I regularly ran red lights on my bike right in front of police cars (safely, as if the Idaho-stop law was in effect) and never once drew a bit of attention for it.

  12. RC

    Really, you’ve got to be kidding. I ride the bus, and jaywalkers abound in Seattle, especially on 3rd Avenue. I get angry as I watch people cross the street in the middle of the block @ 3rd and Pine, 3rd and Union, etc. when there are traffic lights at each block. It’s stupid, and unnecessary to say the least. Buses are continually going both directions on 3rd Avenue and you’re taking your life into your own hands if you run in front of them.
    There’s a crosswalk in Lake City Way near 125th, and although the majority of people use it, there are those, who for some unknown reason, will jaywalk 2-3 feet from it. I haven’t understood the mentality of that.
    At 8:55 on Sunday mornings I may jaywalk on 3rd avenue after I deboard the bus, only if there are no cars coming in either direction. I also will do the same as I’m climbing the hill to cross @ 5th Avenue, as that’s a one-way street. I always check for cars. Sunday mornings are the least amount of traffic.
    I never jaywalk during the week or in rush hour traffic in the a.m. or p.m.

  13. AiliL

    I believe Tom Vanderbilt discussed jaywalking in his book, “Traffic.” Basically it says what is being stated above, that the more car-centric and less pedestrian friendly the area, the more jaywalkers an area will have. If pedestrians feel their progress is impeded or sidelined for drivers; think of walking downtown where the lights are timed so that if you are driving the speed limit you can make all the green lights but if you are walking you get stopped at a “don’t walk” signal at each block. I think, just due to my cycling non-scientific experiences, that there’s a small issue with jaywalking in Seattle, but not huge. I know where the jaywalkers tend to be (3rd/Pine is a biggie) and just exercise due care and vocalize when someone looks like they are about to step in front of me (like the woman and her two kids who was expecting me to stop for them as they started crossing on their red light).

    Another issue that really, really bothers me are intersections frequented by cyclists and pedestrians at which one must punch the crossing button to get the “walk” signal; e.g. King/Alaskan (a NEW intersection with high levels of peds/cyclists) and Delridge/Andover. These intersections could easily have automatic “walk” signals like many intersections in the city, but they force sidewalk/path users to punch a button for permission to cross. And if you miss that window of time in which you much punch it, oftentimes the signal for the crosswalk/path user is timed out and the “walk” signal never turns. Then one must wait another full light cycle to cross legally. Again, this is a prime example of problems that cause jaywalking to happen. This issue may be more frequent in neighborhoods too.

    So it’s not just about people’s behavior but what is the cause of the behavior? How can the infrastructure be updated to help reduce jaywalking if it’s truly a problem? It’s something I don’t see that SDOT is too concerned with.

    1. RachaelL

      Well said. People will behave on roads and streets in ways that are reasonable efficient for them — and that is largely guided by the infrastructure we give them. Give drivers two lanes both ways, clear sight lines and large distances between signals? They will speed. Give pedestrians no ability to cross without waiting a few minutes? They will cross against the signal (and not just at that intersection).

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Well put! Thanks for making that connection.

  14. Gary

    To take a moto from OWS:

    “Whose Roads!”
    “Our Roads!”

    Ie, I don’t need no government permission to cross the street. Which sums up my feeling about waiting for a complete light cycle even though I would have had the walk signal. Or waiting for a walk signal when there are no cars in sight.

  15. Ken Tanzer

    I’m a native of NYC with jaywalking in my DNA. Since moving out here, and despite my own vow, I admit I’ve mellowed somewhat. Nonetheless, Seattle’s concern about jaywalking is WAY over the top.

    Yes, there are times when jaywalking can be dangerous. If you dash out in front of traffic, then I can understand some law enforcement action. If, however, like me you wait for any cars to pass, and can clearly see there is no traffic coming in any direction, then it seems perfectly OK to cross. In that case, the red light becomes a perfect symbol of meaningless and arbitrary government authority.

    It would be best if our laws were changed somewhat similar to right turn on red, so that pedestrians were required to yield to all traffic, but if the coast is clear we should be allowed to continue on our merry way!

  16. Doug Bostrom

    Helpful complete review of Seattle law regarding pedestrians and motorways here:


    Incidentally, confirms what the old curmudgeon in me has always suspected: using roadways to “train” maybe isn’t strictly legal, if we want to get all picky about it and depending on one’s definition of “toy” and “play” (defined as bicycles costing over $5,000? Most Colnago too expensive to be considered an authentic tool for living? Professional cyclists ok, they’re working, amateurs not because they’re playing?) .

    One of many strangely asymmetric features of the law; it’s ok to to drive aimlessly on roadways, but not to bicycle aimlessly (again, depending on your exact definition of “exercise” or “play”). And why is it that I get to cross the road almost anywhere I want, -including- between two intersections controlled by traffic signals if I’m behind the wheel of a car, yet I’m “jaywalking” if I do the same thing on my own two legs?

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