Illustration by Mariam Diab

Jaywalking – Optimizing Your Commute

As a proud Indian, jaywalking has always been an integral part of transport for me. It seems this is not the universal experience I thought it was.

Mar 7, 2022

Apparently jaywalking is illegal. I was recently notified as much by a European friend who witnessed me trying to cross Hamdan street. This is news to me. Back home in India, it is just time management. If you waited for “the lights to change” and “the cars to stop,” you would never get anywhere.
Crossing a busy road is a competitive sport in India. Most of the time you hope that you can get where you need to go by following the pavement and turning right enough times. If, God forbid, you must now go left, you plot your route carefully and bide your time until an incompetent driver comes along and blocks the traffic long enough for you to dash across. It usually requires a complex set of calculations involving traffic lights, how reflective your clothes are, the number of school drop-offs happening within a mile of you and how lucky you’re feeling that day. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it wasn’t in India, probably.
The European friend is not buying any of this. Constant bumper-to-bumper traffic is simply unrealistic to her. “How would the city even function?” she says. She still thinks I just like engaging in petty crime. I go on trying to explain to her how it is a lifetime of subliminal conditioning that drives my actions.
Every evening after school, about two thousand students, hundreds of vehicles arriving to pick them up and the general chaos of the city would converge upon the main road in front of my school. After navigating a road like that hundreds of times, you develop an intuition for how to do it. The optimal time to attempt it is when the light is red. This might seem obvious, but you couldn’t actually cross in front of the cars — traffic from an intersecting road would mow you down instead. So while the cars temporarily stood still along a mile long section of road, you wound your way between them, close enough that you had to wiggle around rear view mirrors and try not to graze the hot metal of motorbike exhaust pipes. If you timed it right, you got across without too much drama. If you didn’t, you were caught in the middle of a busy road as the light turned green and whichever old man in whatever car you were unfortunate enough to be standing beside, squinted past you and gunned it. You dodged as quickly as you could and ran the rest of the way.
“You could’ve been hit!” says the friend. Of course I’ve been hit, I inform her. I’ve had my elbow clipped by an autorickshaw when I didn’t have it tucked in tight enough. She asks me what happened next.
“I cussed him out, obviously. I don’t think he heard it though, he drove away too fast.”
“He drove away?”
“Well yes, clearly he had places to be.”
“So what did the police do?”
“The police?”
“Yeah, when you called them to report the hit-and-run.”
First of all, it only counts as a hit and run if you can get money out of them “for the hospital.” Secondly, if people called the police every time there was a minor traffic incident, the police wouldn’t have time to deal with, I don’t know, murder. Lastly, it reflects poorly on you if you involve the authorities just because you got sloppy and didn’t time your maneuvering right. Imagine trying to explain to a cop that you didn’t see the vehicle barrelling down the road because you were too caught up checking yourself out in a shop window as you walked. Embarrassing. I am glad to say that the friend no longer thinks that I am an amoral lawbreaker and believes my actions are the consequence of a turbulent childhood. On the flip side, it seems I may have blacklisted my entire country in her eyes. Still, jaywalking is my culture and one of the few traditions I observe away from home, so I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.
Mahima Sankar is a Columnist. Email her at
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