ITHACA, N.Y.—In the City of Ithaca, it’s illegal to jaywalk — crossing the street without using a designated crossing — but some members of Common Council have the local law set in their crosshairs.
The initiative to decriminalize jaywalking is being led by Second Ward Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, who brought the idea forward for a discussion at Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting on Wednesday.
Nguyen opened the discussion saying that the effort comes from a “years long frustration” with what he described as a culture of drivers not obeying state law to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, and a desire to prioritize pedestrian mobility over cars.
Legalizing jaywalking may shift more liability onto drivers if they were to get into an accident with a pedestrian, but Nguyen said he needs further legal advice on the matter.
“When you’re in that steelbox, you have — at least I do and I know a lot of other people do — just have this natural surge in entitlement to the road that can be dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said that street-crossing laws have been inequitably enforced against people of color in different communities across the U.S. “Which, to be clear, is not true here,” Nguyen said. “In fact, talking to [the Ithaca Police Department] it’s basically unenforced.”
Alderperson Phoebe Brown shared that she once received a ticket for jaywalking while on Cornell’s campus.
Someone ticketed for jaywalking would be required to appear in city court where they would face a potential fine left up to a judge’s discretion, typically around $150 for first time offenders.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock described “terrifying” driving conditions she has experienced on Cornell University’s campus as a result of students freely jaywalking.
“Driving on campus is terrifying, because students walk into the road from anywhere along the block, and they don’t look to the left or the right, they just walk right into the road and cross,” Brock said. “And sometimes will cross right in front of you looking down at their phone.”
Brock added that the “onus should absolutely be on drivers to be as careful as possible,” but she questioned whether the city could change what party bears legal liability if an accident were to happen between a pedestrian crossing the street and a car.
Jaywalking is illegal under New York State traffic law, Brock said, making it potentially “moot or symbolic” to remove the jaywalking law from city code.
Pedestrians at the intersection of Cayuga St. and State St. on the West End of the Ithaca Commons had a mix of opinions about the legal fate of jaywalking in the city.
Yvette Sterbenk, an Ithaca-area resident, described herself as a “serial jaywalker,” but said “there probably should be” a law against jaywalking in the city.
“When you look at these streets, everything is so condensed that if someone came out of nowhere it’s pretty unsafe,” Sterbenk said.
Phoebe Warner, a city resident, said she doesn’t think jaywalking “causes very much harm, if any at all.”
She expressed discomfort with the idea that jaywalking could potentially be unevenly enforced.
“If they only pick and choose times to enforce it, then there’s not much of having it on the books at all,” Warner said. “If 100 people can get away with it, then why is the 101[st] not allowed to?”
PEDC Chair Alderperson Rob Gearhart said Wednesday, “I do agree that it seems silly to have something that we just don’t bother enforcing, except if it does serve as a guide for safety, which is the thing I wish we had more data about.”
Nguyen told the committee at the end of the discussion that he would seek out legal advice on the repeal of the local law, as well as more information on the potential safety impacts. He said he could introduce a resolution to the committee to legalize jaywalking as soon as next month.