When there is no such concept as ‘jaywalking’

Questions about crossing the streets keep coming back in the comment section of my videos. Some people comment that they don’t understand the lack of crosswalks on the cycle paths. Well, that’s because pedestrian crossings are perhaps less common in the Netherlands compared to other countries. As a pedestrian, you are allowed to cross the street or the cycle path wherever you like. When you are not used to that kind of freedom it is apparently not the easiest concept to follow.

Dutch people had always been allowed to legally cross the street mid-block. Zebra crossings are not mandatory and even the obligation to cross in the shortest line was scrapped from the law in 1995. The latter is still advised, but  – quite obvious from my video – that advice is not followed well.

Crossing the street; there is not much to it in the Netherlands, so it may be perfect to tackle this subject in this short post week. If you want to cross a city street you just wait for a gap in traffic and you cross. So, isn’t there an obligation to use a zebra crossing? No, there no longer is! That article 99 was scrapped from the traffic laws on 1 January 1995. Until then, pedestrians were not allowed to cross within 30 metres of a zebra crossing, effectively making it illegal to cross the street for over 60 metres with just one zebra crossing in the middle of that zone. That restriction was abolished to simplify the traffic rules and to give the pedestrian more freedom. A zebra crossing is now just a service to the pedestrian. You are allowed to judge for yourself if you want to use it, but you are not obliged to. If you do use the zebra crossing, other traffic must yield the moment it becomes clear you are going to cross the street. Just the visible intention to use the zebra crossing already gives the pedestrian priority over motor traffic and people cycling. Unfortunately, a lot of Dutch drivers choose to forget that rule (and people cycling also tend to miss this regulation all too often) so it is best not to depend on getting that priority.

Dutch Road Law 2.19 Pedestrians Article 49

1 Drivers must give priority at all times to blind or partially sighted pedestrians carrying a white cane with one or a number of red rings around it and also to all other persons with disabilities.

2 Drivers must give way at all times to pedestrians and drivers of invalid carriages who are crossing, or obviously waiting to cross at a pedestrian crossing.

3 The second part does not apply to drivers of a motor vehicle that forms part of a military column or a motorised funeral procession.

4 Subsection 2 above does not apply if the pedestrians and the drivers of invalid carriages are prevented from crossing by either a red or a flashing amber pedestrian crossing light.


What is forbidden in one jurisdiction can be encouraged in another. Above: a card that was handed out in the 1920s in the US to discourage ‘jay walking’. Below how the city of Utrecht would like pedestrians to use a street (yellow lines) that they reconstructed in 2014.

That Dutch pedestrians have had this extented freedom to cross the streets for over 20 years, now even becomes apparent in the street design. Some municipalities literally encourage people to cross wherever they like by lowering the kerbs (curbs).

It is very different across the Atlantic Ocean. In the United States, the concept of ‘jaywalking’ was propagated in the 1920s by the auto industry, with the object to restrict pedestrian movements and to give motor traffic more space in the towns and cities. Nowadays it is still illegal to cross the street mid-block in most of the United States. Although in New York even children are taught to do it carefully as it may be safer than crossing at the crosswalks. As a foreigner it would be best to stick to the rules though, or you may end up flat on the sidewalk with five police officers pinning you down, like a British professor after he crossed a street mid-block in Atlanta.

There is no pedestrian crossing needed on this cycle path. This pedestrian is free to choose where she would like to cross it.

New York was also strict in 1968. I used a well known traffic education song* from that city’s traffic department from that year for this week’s video. I combined that song and some sound bites from an earlier commercial about jaywalking, with images of people in the Netherlands today, who are enjoying the freedom to cross the street wherever they like. The juxtaposition makes clear why it is sometimes hard to understand traffic images from another country. Things can be so different!

This week’s video shows a lot of Dutch pedestrians legally crossing the street where they like!

* The song is so well known that a Dutch band recorded a version of it in 1996.