Story: Street life

Page 3. Pedestrians give way to cars

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Sidelined to footpaths

Being struck by a horse ridden ‘furiously’ through streets had long been a hazard of city life, and largely explains why traffic was restricted to walking pace. However, as trams and cars were introduced, it made little sense to maintain this speed limit.

Furious motorcyclist

In 1904 Thomas Stone was charged with furious motorcycling down Dunedin’s George Street. The prosecution alleged Stone was riding between 15 and 20 miles per hour, before knocking down a boy standing on the street. The defence argued Stone was only going half that speed. The judge disagreed and fined Stone 50 shillings and court costs. The injured boy recovered.

But raising traffic speeds increased the prospect of accidents. Municipalities decided the solution was to lift traffic speeds and confine pedestrians to the safety of footpaths. Traffic engineers and motorists applauded the change. Pedestrians congested streets and obstructed traffic flows – removing them would make cities more efficient.

Controlling pedestrians

In 1907 a full-time policeman was assigned to point duty (directing traffic) at the busy intersection of High, Hereford and Colombo streets in Christchurch, to make traffic run more smoothly. Other cities copied Christchurch’s lead. Constables were also charged with warning children against playing on streets – not always to great effect.

In the early 1920s pedestrian crossings were instituted to encourage people to cross streets at particular points. To traffic engineers’ consternation, pedestrians largely ignored them. Parallel white lines were then introduced to better define crossings and deter jaywalking. This was followed by a 1937 government regulation declaring vehicles had to give way to pedestrians on crossings.


The expression ‘jaywalking’ was coined in early 20th-century America, and formed part of a campaign by motor vehicle promoters to make streets non-pedestrian zones. ‘Jay’ was slang for a stupid person. A jaywalker was therefore a pedestrian who stupidly ignored traffic regulations. The term came into use in New Zealand in the early 1930s.

By the 1950s motorists’ supremacy over city streets was unquestioned. Australian writer Frank Clune remarked in 1956: ‘Traffic moves fast in Auckland’s maze. “Pedestrians, beware” is the motto. Twice in ten yards I was nearly knocked down.’1

Pedestrians retreat

Confined to narrow footpaths, there was less space for pedestrians to stop and chat, particularly at lunch and other busy times. Many withdrew to tearooms and pubs to socialise.

  1. Frank Clune, Roaming round New Zealand: the story of a holiday trip. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956, p. 8. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Street life - Pedestrians give way to cars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010