The Invention of ‘Jaywalking’

In the 1920s, the public hated cars. So the auto industry fought back — with language.

Clive Thompson
Published in
7 min readMar 28, 2022


A 1921 card handed out to pedestrians, with the newfangled term “jaywalking”

This is the story of how, in the 1920s, the auto industry chased people off the streets of America — by waging a brilliant psychological campaign.

They convinced the public that if you got run over by a car, it was your fault.

Pedestrians were to blame. People didn’t belong in the streets; cars did.

When pedestrians ruled the roads

It’s one of the most remarkable (and successful) projects to shift public opinion I’ve ever read about. Indeed, the car companies managed to effect a 180-degree turnaround.

That’s because before the car came along, the public held precisely the opposite view: People belonged in the streets, and automobiles were interlopers.

If you travelled in time back to a big American city in, say, 1905 — just before the boom in car ownership — you’d see roadways utterly teeming with people. Vendors would stand in the street, selling food or goods. Couples would stroll along, and everywhere would be groups of children racing around, playing games. If a pedestrian were heading to a destination across town, they’d cross a street wherever and whenever they felt like it.

“They’d stride right into the street, casting little more than a glance around them,” as Peter D. Norton, a historian and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, told me when I interviewed him for Smithsonian a few years ago. “Boys of 10, 12 or 14 would be selling newspapers, delivering telegrams and running errands.”

Here’s what New York’s Mulberry Street looked like in 1900…

Black and white photo of vendors and people crowded in the street in NYC in 1900
Before cars came along, pedestrians ruled the streets in NYC (via Picryl)

Not a car in sight! And tons of people.

Those streets were pretty safe for pedestrians. Sure, there were horse-drawn carriages and streetcars, but those moved comparatively slowly (and predictably, in the case of streetcars, on tracks). You had time to get out of the way.



Clive Thompson
Writer for

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.