When is it safe to cross the street: towards a Jaywalker Bill of Rights

People walk. And when we walk, we walk in rhythm with the world around us, adjusting in large and small ways with every step to avoid obstacles and encounter what we want - a nice flower, a captivating store display, a friend from down the street. While we walk we sometimes make the choice to cross the street even while we are not at a crosswalk. In the US, this normal, common, reasonable decision became disdainful and then became illegal. It became not just walking, but Jaywalking.  As walking in cities resurges, we take a look at jaywalking and what a world of walking rights might look like.

First, we must recognize that laws against jaywalking have been inequitably enforced. Not in distant history or isolated pockets, but right here and right now.

As part of their Vision Zero pledge, San Francisco Police committed to issuing at least 50% of their citations for the five most dangerous driver behaviors(1). Since this program, known as Focus on the Five, was implemented in 2013 all of San Francisco’s police departments have increased the percentage of citations issued for these dangerous behaviours, but the increase is uneven. Only one police district (Richmond) is consistently achieving the goal of the program, and all SF police departments have bolstered their Focus on the Five (FOF) percentages by writing fewer citations overall. The city-wide FOF citation percentages have also been trending downward after peaking at 58% in September of 2016. Among these citywide statistics, the Tenderloin Police Department stands out for consistently missing the mark, and perhaps the whole point of the Focus on the Five program.

Every street in the Tenderloin is on San Francisco’s High Injury Network list, the 12% of SF’s streets that account for over 70% of all severe injuries and fatalities for all road users. This makes it especially alarming that the Tenderloin has the lowest rates of FOF citations in the city. Even worse, the Tenderloin Police Department has a very high rate of citations for pedestrians and bicyclists, often citing as many or more people walking in the Tenderloin as all other police districts in the city combined. This might be because of higher rates of pedestrian violations. It may also be because of biased policing practices.

2017 High Injury Network map from Vision Zero, with Tenderloin Police District boundary added.

2017 High Injury Network map from Vision Zero, with Tenderloin Police District boundary added.

About 70% of workers living in the Tenderloin do not have access to a car(2), so this policing disparity means that people in the Tenderloin are much more likely to be seriously injured in traffic and much more likely to be targeted by law enforcement for walking than people in other parts of San Francisco. Because of the low car ownership in the Tenderloin, we know that unsafe motorist behavior comes from drivers from elsewhere and impacts -literally- Tenderloin residents. The Tenderloin is home to the most children per capita of any neighborhood in San Francisco, and the highest concentration of social services. It is a critical neighborhood to defend against traffic violence as well as other forms of violence.

In San Francisco we value fair enforcement of fair laws. In committing to Vision Zero, we have acknowledged that the streets are not safe, and that they could be safer. We recognize that dangerous driving is at the root of traffic injuries and fatalities, and that increased enforcement might deter the most dangerous driving behavior. Other parts of the city are succeeding at this, so it’s fair to expect that the TLPD can succeed here too. The Richmond Police District, the district with the most consistent success at Focusing on the Five, issued an average of 142 speeding citations each month in the first half of 2018, and an average of about 1 citation each month for pedestrian and bike offenses. In the Tenderloin, police wrote an average of 11 speeding citations each month in the same time, and an average of 27 citations each month for pedestrian and biking offenses. In neither district was every speeder or jaywalker caught- enforcement is not as potent as design- but penalties accrued to those acting most dangerously in the Richmond, and to those who are most vulnerable in the Tenderloin. Right now in the Tenderloin, laws against jaywalking are enforced more often than laws against dangerous driving, even though the the city’s policy is to focus on the most dangerous driving behaviors.  

Every day, TLPD go onto the streets and make complex decisions. Every day, they have the opportunity to improve these statistics, to enforce laws against dangerous driving behavior as laid out in the city-wide Focus on the Five program. Over the last year SFPD has failed to make their FOF enforcement goals, decreasing the rates of ticketing overall, and decreasing the rates of ticketing for the most dangerous behaviors even more. While other police departments are going low, TLPD can go high by prioritizing enforcement against the actions that make their streets so dangerous for people walking. Furthermore, their own data show that the Tenderloin police can switch to FOF enforcement. In March the TLPD wrote ten times more tickets for blocking the pedestrian right of way than their average for the twelve months surrounding March.


Focus on the Five citation rates in the Tenderloin, Jan. 2014 - May 2018. Graph made by San Francisco City Government, City Performance Scorecards

Focus on the Five citation rates in the Tenderloin, Jan. 2014 - May 2018. Graph made by San Francisco City Government, City Performance Scorecards

We know there is a pervasive attitude of victim-blaming for traffic injuries. Messages for pedestrians to look up from their phones and be more careful crossing the street proliferate and even become laws in some places. These messages miss something fundamental about walking: it’s the only free way to see the world and get places. If we enforce laws against walking more than we enforce laws against speeding we have expressed something backwards about danger and responsibility. In the Tenderloin and many other low-income, center city African-American neighborhoods, this enforcement also speaks to a tacit priority to police black bodies as matter out of place. Just as jaywalking has come to be disproportionately enforced against black people(3) we can expect that the laws against “distracted walking” would not be equitably enforced. No matter their origin story, these laws are not about public safety. Laws that criminalize walking are about enforcing the placement of people in the social order as much as in the streets.

I started researching the policing of jaywalking because of my interest in streets as a public place. Through the National Street Service, a project from Ford’s Greenfield Labs in partnership with Gehl, I worked in our Local “R+D” Lab to come up with a way to bring the facts about jaywalking into conversations in the Tenderloin, a disenfranchised neighborhood with a bustling street life. The Local Lab is a project to come up with quick ways to get big ideas into the streets and incubate future National Street Service programs. Through observing public life in the Tenderloin and using publicly available data from the SF Police Department and the US Census Bureau, I found a set of conditions worth talking about. I observed a full public life that is poorly supported by the infrastructure, laws, and customs of San Francisco. For example, many residents in the Tenderloin ran into each other and stopped to chat outside the convenience stores, bottles of soda and bags of snacks in hand. In a different neighborhood they could sit at sidewalk cafe tables to enjoy their drinks and snacks, but convenience stores don’t get those kinds of amenities. In fact, few streets in the Tenderloin gets these kinds of amenities. The amazing thing about the Tenderloin is how many people spend their life out on the streets there despite the unrelenting inadequacy of the facilities. People are constantly meeting and chatting, standing around for half an hour or more at a time.

Although some street infrastructure is sorely lacking, one thing was ubiquitous: the advertising poster frames outside the convenience stores. They are everywhere in the Tenderloin and neighborhoods like it in the US.

This poster message is seen often throughout the Tenderloin, and in many other central neighborhoods in the US. 

This poster message is seen often throughout the Tenderloin, and in many other central neighborhoods in the US. 

It turns out this message is just the generic backing board for the poster frame. Because I saw so much public life happening right in front of these empty poster frames, I thought they would make a good asset for information in the Tenderloin. Back in the office, the NSS Local Lab team quickly put together a set of posters based on the facts about policing and walking in the Tenderloin, and proposing rights for walkers. Then we tried them out in the street.

For future postings we think it would be good to partner with the convenience stores to put up the posters permanently. These were printed on thin drafting paper and would not stay up on their own in the gusty Tenderloin streets. But even though they were only up for about half an hour, we still got some conversations with Tenderloin residents and workers about the street and the right to walk. One passerby we talked to reflected, “Even if it is illegal to jaywalk, people don’t deserve to be hurt because they do it.” Our posters emphasize an expansive, generous view of pedestrian street life in contrast to current legal pedestrian rights, which can be most succinctly summed up as the right to keep moving.

Two Jaywalker Bill of Rights posters on the front of a convenience store in the Tenderloin, San Francisco. 

Two Jaywalker Bill of Rights posters on the front of a convenience store in the Tenderloin, San Francisco. 

Tenderloin residents generally have low access to jobs and parks, and have small apartments. Because of these factors they use streets differently than people in other neighborhoods; selling small goods (what might be a yard sale or garage sale in another neighborhood is a sidewalk sale in the TL- residents there don’t have yards and garages), arguing with friends and lovers, relaxing and hanging out with other people. These normal actions become legally deviant when they happen in the street, even if they don’t pose harm, because of inequitable ideas about what and who the street is for, and inequitable design and social support for a variety of life(4). Pedestrian and bicyclist traffic citations are possible anywhere in the city, but come down hardest on people with the fewest resources, especially people of color, who face more barriers in the justice system. High rates of pedestrian ticketing in the Tenderloin disproportionately polices the people of color (POC) who live there, and the POC who receive these citations have fewer resources to deal with them. They are doubly overburdened by this system.

In the Tenderloin, racism, policing, and poverty intersect, and they often intersect in the intersections. We know that people jaywalk all over the city, including other neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, low rates of car-ownership, and small apartments, such as Chinatown. The policing disparity exists within the Tenderloin Police District and not within the Central Police District (which contains Chinatown), suggesting that it is not simply high density, high rates of infraction, or high rates of poverty that explain the discrepancy. The Central Police District also falls short of the FOF pledge, but does not cite as many people walking or biking as the Tenderloin PD. The Central District shares some features with the Tenderloin: it has a high-density, high-poverty core and a robust street life. One major difference is that the Tenderloin has a large African American population, while the Central District has predominantly Asian American and European American residents. The Tenderloin Police District and the Central Police District are right next to each other, but exist on different sides of America’s racialized policing dynamic.

The enforcement component of Vision Zero is meant to support equity by holding police to a city-wide standard about which traffic laws take priority.  Police are supposed to be protecting people by deterring the root cause of traffic injuries: dangerous driving. What we see in the Tenderloin is a persistence of enforcement against people instead of against danger. The most dangerous driving behavior is allowed, and walking is punished.

I want to see the Tenderloin Police Department use their capacity to enforce laws in service of protecting the local residents consistently and fairly. This means they should write more citations for FOF offenses, and they should write fewer citations for pedestrian and bicyclists. It would also be helpful for them to give more visible support for street design projects that make walking, biking, and driving safer in the Tenderloin, which might decrease the need for enforcement overall. Ultimately, laws prohibiting jaywalking and other normal pedestrian behaviors, like stopping and sitting, ought to be repealed. They do not serve our needs for making city life better, and they make city life much worse for those unjustly targeted for enforcement.

Walking should be as much a right as living. Walking is an essential and unavoidable way to be a human in public.  Right now, policing is still mired in laws and enforcement that allows bias into their work. Vision Zero can help police officers focus on dangerous behavior instead of policing people for walking and biking infractions. By focusing on dangerous behavior, officers can minimize racial bias in their policing and become better, more trustworthy agents for the safety of their neighborhoods. By demonstrating a willingness to enforce laws against dangerous actions that put Tenderloin residents at risk of serious injury and not overly-enforcing laws against walking, police can help to strengthen and repair their relationships with people in their districts, especially low-income people of color.


  1. Vision Zero is the pledge many cities have made to ending traffic fatalities and major injuries. The top five most dangerous driver behaviors identified by Vision Zero are: speeding, running a red light, running a stop sign, failure to yield while turning, and blocking the pedestrian right-of-way.
  2. From ACS five-year data for “Journey to work” responses in Tenderloin Census Tracts. Modes available to non-workers are not recorded, but are unlikely to include a private car due to cost constraints.
  3. In 2017, SFPD recorded that they engage in  traffic stops of Black people at 3x their percentage of the population of San Francisco. This pattern holds when we compare Tenderloin traffic stop data to Census data of race in the Tenderloin Police District. Source: https://sanfranciscopolice.org/data#trafficstops
  4. This is not meant to minimize the serious criminal activity that occurs in the Tenderloin, which includes an outsized portion of the city’s arrests for drugs, weapons, and violent crimes. This is simply meant to suggest that not all activity that is deemed illegal is bad or dangerous. Much of the same kinds of public life are given social support and permission in other neighborhoods. Since this brief essay focuses on traffic citations and public life, discussions of policing violent criminal activity have been left out.