Jaywalking is illegal in most circumstances in Denver, making the city out of step with the state. Pedestrian advocates want to change that.
"In terms of the transportation space, a lot of folks are like, 'This makes complete sense,'" says Jacob Smith, the Denver-based senior director for National Organizations for Youth Safety
. "It’s a no-brainer for us to be able to, one, stop unnecessary interactions between law enforcement, but then also make our laws and streets more accessible for many folks who are not just walking...[but] rolling on the streets as well."
Smith, together with groups like the Denver Bicycle Lobby
, is pushing to decriminalize jaywalking in Denver, whose laws are tougher than the Colorado Revised Statutes.
"The goal of this law is when it’s safe, when the coast is clear, if someone wants to cross the street mid-block, they can," explains Denver Bicycle Lobby's Allen Cowgill, who's working on the proposal to change city rules.
Denver law currently prohibits crossing anything but a local neighborhood street outside of a crosswalk. Colorado law offers more leniency, allowing people who are between two intersections with stop signs or an intersection with a stop sign and an intersection with a stoplight to cross the street without fear of being cited. State law does prohibit pedestrians from jaywalking when they're between two traffic control lights; in those cases, they need to pick one of the crosswalks.
And both Denver and Colorado law say that pedestrians crossing outside of a crosswalk must yield the right-of-way to vehicles in the roadway.
"We’re not advocating that people jump out in the middle of traffic," Cowgill says. "I think that people’s sense of self-preservation is pretty strong."
The idea of decriminalizing jaywalking in Denver came out of recommendations from the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing and Public Safety
. Just prior to the release of that report in June 2021, Kansas City had decriminalized jaywalking; Nevada and Virginia have also decriminalized jaywalking.
Much of the impetus for this decriminalization effort comes out of racial justice concerns. Maria Lopes, an intern with Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca
's District 9 office, collected data from 2017 through part of this year on jaywalking citations in Denver; out of 135 jaywalking cases, 40 percent of the citations were given to Black individuals, although just 10 percent of the population is Black.
"The highest number of jaywalking citations by neighborhood include East Colfax and South Federal Boulevard, which are majority-minority neighborhoods, as well as Downtown Denver and areas near Civic Center Park, where many unhoused people live," Lopes notes.
And 25 percent of the jaywalking citations were issued to individuals experiencing homelessness, which is a massive overrepresentation of homeless individuals in Denver's population.
"Sure enough, the data said exactly what folks were saying," says CdeBaca. "It was just consistent that the most vulnerable groups were being targeted."
Jaywalking in Denver is considered a Class B traffic violation. According to Lopes's research, those cited had paid close to $4,000 in jaywalking tickets.
"For me, as someone who is Black, queer and disabled, this would just allow a breath of fresh air for me to be able to walk as someone who doesn’t drive and know that because my built environment isn’t protecting me, that I won’t be criminalized," Smith says.
Decades ago, jaywalking tickets were sometimes used to harass patrons heading to gay bars. And there are other concerns about jaywalking stops. "In the worst circumstances, [they can be used] as a precursor to some other kind of arrest," says Denver City Council President Jamie Torres
, who represents parts of west Denver.
"There are still rules that apply to crossing the street," she continues. "We just don’t want this to be an enforcement priority. A lot of the really terrible accidents that occur and terrible deaths that occur, they’re still at intersections. This isn’t really something that puts more people at risk in my district when it comes to street safety."
Smith and Cowgill are currently working with CdeBaca, Torres and Councilman Jolon Clark
on a proposal to turn jaywalking into a lowest law enforcement priority and bring Denver law in line with the state. The three councilmembers plan to introduce the measure within the next two months; if approved by Denver City Council, residents could walk across streets as long as cars aren't coming and they're not between two intersections that both have traffic lights.
The policy shift would also make it legal for people in wheelchairs to use the street when a sidewalk is too damaged or obstructed to use.
A potential criticism of the move could be that only 135 people were cited for jaywalking in Denver over several years. But advocates have a response to that.
"For me, I would say that that 135 really signifies the fact that this law isn’t really changing anything," says Smith. "If anything, it’s criminalizing people, but it’s not really making our community safer. We’re not really making it safer."