Why Is Jaywalking Even A Thing? Decriminalizing Biking and Walking to Give All the Freedom to Move

A crowd of people on bicycles stand in front of a mural with their arms raised in celebration.

Last year, Kansas City became one of the first major U.S. cities to remove laws against minor walking and biking infractions after a coalition assembled by BikeWalkKC—a nonprofit focusing on making Greater Kansas City a safer and more accessible place to walk, bicycle, live, work, and play—successfully advocated the move. While bikers, scooters and pedestrians are expected to observe traffic laws, in some areas, especially in underprivileged neighborhoods with poor infrastructure like missing sidewalks, this may not always be possible and sometimes even unsafe. Rather than criminalizing these acts, many advocate to remove laws that would unfairly target these behaviors and push to improve infrastructure instead.

Spin supports this cause and is proud to help BikeWalkKC and Safe Routes Partnership—a national nonprofit working to advance safe walking and rolling to and from schools and in everyday life—build awareness about how criminalizing minor infractions related to walking and biking, like laws that empower law enforcement to pull people over for simply having dirty tires on their vehicle and jaywalking, can keep people from moving safely around their communities on foot, bike, and scooter. By sharing their success story, we want to highlight communities around the country that demonstrate how to effectively advocate for change and foster an understanding about the legacy of these laws.

“At Spin, we believe in giving people the freedom to move. As part of that mission, we are actively engaged with nonprofits, city officials, and advocates to make streets safer for all through projects like this,” said Kyle Rowe, Spin’s vice president of partnerships and policy.

“That’s why we’re proud to do our part to spread the word about the work BikeWalkKC and Safe Routes Partnership have done to make our streets safe and inclusive for all who use them,” Rowe said. “We hope that this helps more communities effectively advocate for decriminalizing biking and walking.”

Their step-by-step guide, “Taking on Traffic Laws: A How-To Guide for Decriminalizing Mobility,” is set to help communities to advocate for removing such laws and ultimately provide them with freedom to move, which is fully aligned with Spin’s mission.

To provide context, we spoke to Michael Kelley, BikeWalkKC’s policy director, Denver, CO City Councilmember Candi CdeBaca, Leah Shahum, founder and director of the nonprofit Vision Zero Network (VZN), and Marisa Jones, Safe Routes Partnership Marisa Jones, policy and partnerships director:

“A lot of times, Black and Brown people are walking or biking in communities where they don’t have good sidewalks or there’s non-existent bike infrastructure,” said Michael Kelley, BikeWalkKC’s policy director.

“So, when we are punishing people for jaywalking or for other similar infractions, we’re essentially punishing them for things outside of their control. And that’s wrong,” he said.

The guide includes a soberingly long list of studies that, time and again, show that in cities around the country that criminalization of jaywalking and similar behaviors leads to wildly disproportionate enforcement against Black and Brown people.

It also presents a case study on how to build a coalition and successfully advocate for better alternatives to over policing, like better infrastructure.

“The data…is clear. There’s no good reason for [criminalization]. So, if we’re committed to racial justice, then it’s time to walk the walk,” said Denver, CO City Councilmember Candi CdeBaca has also been an advocate for decriminalizing walking and biking.

For example, in March 2017, the Chicago Tribune published an article showing that, in one year alone, police issued 321 citations in the predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood of Austin, and only five in a majority white, wealthy neighborhood, Lincoln Park.

The trends are similar all over the country. A bill is making its way through the California state legislature a second time after being vetoed by the governor last year that would similarly decriminalize jaywalking and similar infractions. Advocates point to the fact that Black people in California are more than five times more likely to be stopped for a walking infraction than white people. And Seattle advocates recently got that city’s all-age helmet law after presenting lawmakers with a study that showed how it was primarily used to target underrepresented communities, especially Seattle’s unhoused residents.

“We haven’t been investing in multimodal transportation as much as we should be and we know an emphasis on over policing can lead to negative interactions between, especially, Black and Brown people and the police,” said Kelley. “So, this is really the intersection of both of those issues and gives us an opportunity to not only step away from over-enforcement, but bring back the conversation to: ‘how can we invest in our streets to actually make them safe for everyone to use.’”

Leah Shahum, founder and director of Vision Zero Network, agrees.

“We should not be leading with enforcement,” she said.

This partnership builds on Spin’s commitment to safe streets for all as we believe safety is foundational to the Freedom to Move.

Part of that commitment has meant partnering with organizations like the Vision Zero Network, which last year held two important discussions. Spin was proud to sponsor these talks, which were designed to help a cohort of 20 cities re-examine their approach to traffic safety in light of the growing awareness of racial bias in traffic stops. The talks also presented city officials with alternatives to police-based approaches to traffic safety.

Spin also worked with the Brown Bike Girl on the “Safety for All by Spin x The Brown Bike Girl” initiative, designed to address the most common riding concerns among Black and Brown riders.

As we work toward safer streets, we know it's essential to listen to diverse voices and understand their experiences. Only then can we make our streets safe for all. 

“Just because something is not my lived experience as a white person doesn’t mean that it’s not very real for other people in my community,” said Marisa Jones, Policy & Partnerships Director, Safe Routes Partnership.

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