Why the Auto Industry Invented "Jaywalking"

Back in the days before cars, city streets were the realm of pedestrians. Well today, we think of them as “pedestrians” but back then, they were just people. People walked in the street, chatted with friends in the street, and sold goods off their carts parked in the streets. Meanwhile, children played and ran all over the streets. City streets were also used by horses and carriages, but they didn’t move fast enough to hurt anyone.

Cars, on the other hand, moved fast. In 1908, Ford’s Model T began rolling of assembly lines, and once on the roads, they could hit top speeds of 45 miles an hour. They were dangerous. Many people were hurt and killed. By 1925, auto accidents were by far the leading cause of death in medium and large cities. Many of those killed were children. Citizens directed their anger toward cars and the people that drove them. Newspapers printed scathing editorials about the menace of cars. The public staged marches, such as a 1922 march in New York that consisted of 10,000 children.

Traffic laws and traffic management infrastructure weren’t yet well developed, and legislators were feeling pressure to severely limit the legal speed cars could go. Streets belonged to people, not cars, after all.

Car manufacturers and other businesses with interests in the growing auto industry grew nervous. They developed a PR campaign to push the message that roads were actually for cars, not people. Anyone who got hit by a car in the street only had their own inattention and carelessness to blame. The auto industry popularized the term “jaywalker” to characterize such ignorance. The word was basically unknown in the early 1920s, but after just a few years, it found a place in standard dictionaries.

Contrary to a common belief (or at least what I once thought), the “jay” in jaywalker does not refer the shape of the letter J, representing a curving path of someone meandering across a road. Rather, “jay” at the time meant a hayseed or a hick, so a jaywalker is someone who arrives from the country to the big city and is too stupid to stay out of the street. Automakers used a variety of tactics to promote this idea, including floats in parades and leaflets handed out by Boy Scouts. Of course, sophisticated city dwellers did not want to be thought of as jays, so they avoided behaving like jaywalkers. The tide in the public debate began to turn in favor the auto makers, and newspapers published screeds about the jaywalker problem.

This historical example offers another case study about how one of the most effective messaging strategies is to get people to personally identify with an idea. Just about everyone has a strong investments in their personal identity. In this case, urban citizens thought of themselves as urbane, and to maintain that identity they shifted allegiances to automakers and changed their behavior as pedestrians. This strategy can also be seen in the “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering campaign which effectively conveyed the idea that real Texans don’t litter. Texans stopped throwing their trash out of their cars in order to maintain their self-identity as real Texans.

If you want to convert people to your idea, you can try to argue its benefits and present reasoning. Don’t litter because it’s unsightly, or Giving cars priority in streets will improve transportation and the economy. But these points will only get you so far. To really change behavior, the ideal is to find a way to align your cause with people’s pre-formed identities.