The Fuzzy Logic of a Jaywalking Crackdown in New York

Officials hope it'll make streets safer. But pedestrians are often the victim of careless, speeding drivers.

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The image was shocking: An elderly man, face covered in blood, being restrained by burly New York police officers on an Upper West Side corner.

What had the visibly frail Kang Chun Wong, 84, done to merit being forcefully handcuffed and arrested? Well, if you believe the cops, he had been engaging in a most typical New York behavior. He had been jaywalking.

Pedestrian safety advocates have long called for better enforcement of traffic laws in New York City, with local advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives calling specifically for "traffic enforcement…to combat the most deadly violations, speeding and failure to yield." Mayor Bill de Blasio's "Vision Zero" plan, which pledges to bring traffic fatalities down to zero, gave advocates hope that a new era was dawning.

But a jaywalking crackdown in Manhattan earlier this month — embodied by the bloody face of Kang Chun Wong, who says he'll sue the city for $5 million over the rough treatment he says he received — has gotten a negative reaction from many safer streets advocates, and raised questions about exactly what a "broken windows" approach to traffic policing might look like.

“We find it troubling that one of the police commissioner's apparent priorities is to ticket pedestrians,” Paul Steely-White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, told the Guardian after Wong's arrest. "The first order of business is to focus on those road users who do have the capacity to do harm. That is of course drivers of cars and trucks, multi-ton vehicles, that should be the first and foremost priority for enforcement and ticketing."

The refreshed debate over how to make the city's streets safer highlights just how difficult it will be to change a notoriously chaotic traffic culture, where thoughtless and illegal behavior by people in cars, on bikes, and on foot is routine, and usually ignored by police.

Wong, who speaks only Cantonese and Spanish, was caught up in a January 19 ticket blitz targeting pedestrians crossing illegally at the corner of 96th and Broadway. Getting a jaywalking ticket is a vanishingly rare occurrence in New York. But this neighborhood was in the spotlight because three people had been killed by drivers within a few blocks, all in the space of a few days.

One was Samantha Lee, 26, who died after being hit by two cars when crossing mid-block near her apartment building in the early morning, just hours before the police began the ticketing effort that ended in Wong's arrest. Another was 73-year-old Alexander Shear, struck on 96th Street by a tour bus whose driver said he did not see the man; it's not clear from published accounts if Shear was crossing legally or not. And one was 9-year-old Cooper Stock, who was reportedly crossing in a crosswalk with the light alongside his father when he was struck and killed by a cab driver making a turn onto West End Avenue. The driver in the Stock case received a summons for failure to yield, but no criminal charges have been filed.

The scene of Wong's arrest was captured by reporters who were there covering the death of Lee, and it seems from published accounts that there was a misunderstanding between the officers and Wong when they stopped him for allegedly jaywalking. Some witnesses told reporters that Wong tried to walk away from police and that a scuffle ensued. The city's new police commissioner, Bill Bratton, said witness accounts suggest Wong's injuries were the result of a fall, and told reporters when visiting the neighborhood later that the incident was "an unfortunate circumstance" and that he was "not aware of excessive force at all" in Wong’s arrest.

Wong told the Daily News that he entered the crosswalk when the light was still green, but that it turned red before he got to the other side. He says that when the cops stopped him, he didn't know why, and the misunderstanding continued when they asked for his ID and took it away. When he tried to get it back, Wong said, the cop took out cuffs, and he got scared. Then, according to his account, several officers pushed him to the ground and he briefly lost consciousness. 

Wong was one of a reported ten pedestrians to receive tickets in the action. Five motorists also got tickets. Exactly how much the tickets were for is unclear. A police department spokesperson said it's up to the court to determine the fine, but published reports talk about a $250 price tag for the offense. 

The jaywalking crackdown, which included cops distributing flyers reminding pedestrians to follow basic safety precautions, is just one enforcement initiative that's hit the streets since de Blasio announced his Vision Zero plan. Cops have been ticketing drivers in Brooklyn for failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks as well, with undercover officers putting themselves on the line, literally, as part of the operation. According to the Brooklyn Paper, police from the 78th Precinct handed out 16 such violations in a two-day period last week, after only issuing 96 in all of 2013.

But already some advocates in New York are nervous that the new commissioner is too quick to blame pedestrians for crashes. Bratton drew criticism from Streetsblog for figures the new commissioner cited at the press conference announcing Vision Zero earlier this month. In his remarks, he claimed that "pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions, and 66 percent are directly related to the actions of pedestrians."

Bratton has not answered repeated questions from reporters and advocates about the source of those figures, which don’t match up with any his department, or anyone else, has cited in the past. Streetsblog’s Brad Aaron crunched the NYPD’s own numbers from the first 11 months of 2013 and found that pedestrian and cyclist "error/confusion" was coded as a contributing factor in only about 7 or 8 percent of fatal and injury crashes. Aaron also dug up a 2010 pedestrian safety study from the city’s Department of Transportation, which found that the actions of the driver were the primary factor in 78.5 percent of serious pedestrian crashes.

It's important to know who is right about these numbers. If driver error is what causes most pedestrian fatalities, it would make sense to target drivers more often than pedestrians. That’s not to say that pedestrians are always blameless. People on foot can endanger themselves and others through careless or downright stupid actions. Just stand on a busy New York street corner for a few minutes and you'll see plenty of that. 

But lots of times, they are crossing where they’re not supposed to because the crosswalks themselves are not particularly safe, as drivers whip around corners without yielding. You can see that phenomenon ably documented here and here in videos shot by Anna Zivarts of spots where pedestrians were killed in January 2014.

While enforcement has long been the missing piece in making New York safer for pedestrians and everyone else, the efforts of the past few years to redesign the streets provides a longer-term solution. Traffic-calming measures, like wider sidewalks at intersections, bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, countdown signals and refuge islands, naturally slow drivers, cutting down on crashes and on the severity of the ones that do occur. Traffic fatalities in New York were on an overall downward trend over the first years of the 21st century, declining 21 percent between 2001 and 2010, but the number of injuries and deaths then plateaued, and even increased again slightly in 2012, the last year for which complete numbers are available.

To truly change the behavior of drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians will take a continuation and intensification of this design effort, coupled with sensible enforcement aimed at life-threatening behavior. A start would be to install more "leading pedestrian intervals" – walk signals that give people crossing at a light a head start before motor traffic, allowing them to get out into the crosswalk before cars can begin turning. (Watch this video if you’ve never seen an LPI yourself.)

In the meantime, New Yorkers will be watching closely to see what the NYPD does next. De Blasio’s Vision Zero plan has already accomplished one thing: raising awareness of traffic deaths as a problem that needs solving.

Top image: Anastasios71 /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.