One of the things about traveling on a bike, is that you spend a lot of time studying the way the city works. I started doing it out of self-preservation, because noting infrastructure and patterns helped me ride more safely. But I've become a self professed traffic geek in the process, endlessly studying Streetsblog and Strongtowns and Bike Portland, for the latest ideas and theories about livable streets.
All that studying causes me to draw conclusions about the ways that infrastructure influences the way that people behave in the city. For most drivers, the infrastructure works well most of the time, and it's fairly easy to get from point A to point B (there are many parts of Boston where this is not completely true, but mostly the right of way is clear and defined, and you just follow the signs and signals and uninterrupted lanes to where you're going. Biking has gotten better in that respect: there are more and more bike lanes, and drivers in Boston are more and more aware of bikes and better about acknowledging their right of way or "sharing the road" with them. But there are still lots of places where bike infrastructure disappears at critical points, or lights don't trigger unless there's a car, or places where the best way to get from A to B is either unclear or feels unsafe.
And then there's the pedestrian experience. The Boston area is a great place to walk, for many of the same reasons it's a good place to bike: density, interconnectivity, good transit. On a bike you instinctively interact more with pedestrians than drivers do- they're on eye level with you, you can communicate easily with them, and there's a sense of traveling through the same shared space.
In my "studies" I've noticed a huge difference between how pedestrians behave in Cambridge and in Boston, and I've been wondering what explains it. In Cambridge, there's a fair bit of jaywalking, but mostly it's the kind that doesn't cause problems for anyone else: i.e. it doesn't get in the way of the person who legally has the right of way. As soon as I get into Boston though, pedestrians start to walk out from between cars mid-block, and there's a lot more jaywalking in front of you just as you get a green light. It's not like the people are any different, the density of streets and buildings is similar, and the numbers of pedestrians isn't much different.
I've been observing this for 6 years now, and I think I have a conclusion about why this happens- it's not like the populations of the two sides of the river are any different. But the approach that Cambridge and Boston have taken to accommodating pedestrians has been very different. In Cambridge, the city has had a policy for a long time of concurrent walk signals, so pedestrians have a right of way every time the cars going parallel have a light, so there's never much of a wait. There are regularly spaced crosswalks in areas without closely spaced lights, and where those crosswalks are on high speed roads, there are lights with "on demand" buttons. The signalized crossings controlled by the city of Cambridge (for example the ones around Fresh Pond) operate almost immediately after pushing, with only 30 seconds or so of delay to safely slow and stop traffic. In most places, especially pedestrian dense areas, there are countdown timers too, so that the pedestrian knows exactly how long they have until the light will actually turn.
In contrast, Boston had a longtime policy* of "scramble signals" where there would be two cycles of traffic, and then a four way pedestrian signal, which doubles the amount of time you have to wait for walk signal. For a pedestrian-heavy city, they had way too many intersections where pedestrian signals were only "on demand" and after you pushed the button you'd have to wait sometimes through a full cycle of both directions before you got a crossing sign. That's particularly awful if you have to do that twice to get diagonally across an intersection. Countdown timers are in the minority, and infuriatingly a lot of the walk signals end long before the parallel light turns yellow, without any explanation of why you can't walk even though the parallel car traffic has the right of way. This is my pet peeve, because people stop when they lose the "walk" signal, but then they realize that the perpendicular traffic doesn't have a green light, so they decide they may as well walk, and they get halfway through the crosswalk when the light changes. Finally, although drivers in Boston are better than in most places, they're still not great about stopping for crosswalks, and I don't know of any Boston controlled signalized crosswalks. (The DCR controlled ones on the parkways are pretty bad, often requiring peds to wait 2 cycles before they get a light)
My theory is that when pedestrians feel that the rules aren't fair to them, or create unnecessary hardship for them, they ignore the rules and do what is simplest and easiest for them. By making things clear and easy for pedestrians, Cambridge has created a place where pedestrians are happy to obey the "rules" and generally don't interfere with other modes' right of way. In Boston, where pedestrians are forced to wait too long for their "turn," are given signals that don't seem to make sense, and aren't given enough legal places to cross, they take the law into their own hands.
There's an obvious parallel to bicyclist behavior here. If bicyclists are given comprehensive infrastructure that's of equal quality to car infrastructure, and the system seems fair and logical, I think that they will understand why standard traffic laws should apply to bikes as well as cars, and you'd get "buy-in" and much better compliance. More importantly I think you'd get bicyclists to be more like the "polite" jaywalkers of Cambridge, breaking the laws only when they aren't going to endanger or inconvenience anyone else.
*I believe that Boston has revised its policy and in the future, concurrent signals will be typical, but I don't know what their policy is for going back and retiming lights with the old scramble signals.
Updated: Just to clarify, I don't have a problem with jaywalking necessarily, just as I don't have a problem with the Idaho Stop- I think that they're parallel situations. My problem is mostly at lights when people charge into traffic right in front of people who have the right of way. It's really kindergarten level stuff- taking turns and being fair. And I think that if the infrastructure is fair, people will remember those primary school lessons and share the public space safely.