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Montrealers have no problem walking the walk

In Canada's second-largest city, jaywalking pedestrians feel that they always have the right of way.

On the corner of Ste. Catherine and University streets, a jaywalking crowd can easily become so thick that cars have no choice but to slow down. (Raffy Boudjikanian/GlobalPost)

MONTREAL, Canada — At various intersections along Sainte Catherine Street, which courses through the heart of downtown Montreal, jaywalking crowds are sometimes so thick they immobilize cars.

Pedestrians often don't even bother to pick up the pace when crossing illegally. And instead of honking their discontent, drivers accustomed to the routine simply wait their turn, simmering in their seats.

It sounds like an exaggeration, but it isn't. Montrealers are known for their jaywalking, particularly in comparison to their counterparts in other large North American cities. Despite a campaign started in 2006 by police to curb the jaywalking masses, they stubbornly persist in their irreverence.

Round, green stickers pepper the sidewalks along busy Peel Street and De Maisonneuve Boulevard, reminding pedestrians to “cross at the right place and the right time.” Yet many simply strut their stuff right on through, ignoring the authorities' message as they traverse the street in defiance of traffic signals, seemingly unaware that such a concept even exists.

“There is a lot of delinquent behavior in Montreal by pedestrians,” said Jacques Bergeron, a retired psychology professor at Universite de Montreal, who in 2002 co-authored a study comparing the behavior of pedestrians and drivers here to those of other cities such as Toronto or Ottawa in Ontario. “People judge when to cross the street not according to whether the light is green or red, but whether it appears personally safe.” One conclusion of his work in 2002 was that 33 percent of Montreal pedestrians tended not to traverse the street at proper crosswalks, whereas in Toronto, that number was 14 percent.

Over the course of the anti-jaywalking campaign, which began in 2006 and carries with it $37 CDN fines for being caught in the act, Montreal police have doled out more and more jaywalking tickets. In 2006, 1,066 pedestrians were ticketed. Last year, the number nearly tripled, reaching 3,155, according to Montreal police officer Sophia Provost.

Since the campaign started, Provost also said that traffic accidents due to jaywalking have greatly decreased. In 2007, 50 percent of pedestrians involved in fatal accidents were found to have been jaywalking. Last year, that number went down to 22 percent.

But does this indicate a proportional decrease in the number of jaywalkers?

Bergeron questions whether the fines act as true deterrents. “Those 3,000 tickets issued last year, how does one tell what percentage of people breaking the law they covered?” he asked.

It's hard to tell, Provost admitted, though she added that the campaign hasn't been entirely ignored, either.

“The fines certainly have an effect,” opined Provost. As an adviser on road safety and traffic signals, she has seen injury and death statistics among pedestrians fall in the last three years, after police began their five-year plan to curb jaywalking. In 2006, there were 27 pedestrian deaths. Last year, the number was down to 18.

Still, while a fine may dissuade some, many Montrealers think jaywalking is simply a part of the culture.

Cara Chen, a student at Montreal's Concordia University and a self-proclaimed jaywalker, explained her mental checklist before she commits the act: “I make sure there’s quite a distance between me and where the car is,” she said. “I make sure that I will be able to get to the other side within the given time.”

“I don’t do it when there are any police cars around,” she added with a coy smile.