I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pedestrian push buttons. Okay, full disclosure? I’ve been thinking about pedestrian push buttons because a few weeks ago a police officer yelled at me for crossing against the “don’t walk” sign.
Yes, yes, I know this is bad behavior for a pedestrian advocate. But here’s the thing: I arrived at the intersection a mere second before the traffic light changed to green. Just as I reached for the button— *click* green light—and there I was stuck waiting through a full signal cycle, even though there was more than enough time for me to safely cross.
I feel there are other walkers out there who can empathize with this situation. They might even be asking, like me, “Why? WHY? must I push the crosswalk button every time or be stuck languishing at the edge of the sidewalk while the vehicles next to me whisk gleefully through the intersection?”
Actually, I know the answer to that question. When traffic signals include a walk cycle, they are timed to allow a “typical” pedestrian to make it safely across the street (a typical pedestrian walks at a speed of 3-3.5 feet per second). If there are no pedestrians around the green cycle can be much shorter, because vehicles move through the intersection at a much more rapid pace. Thus, to keep traffic speeding along, at many intersections engineers only turn on the longer walk cycle when a pedestrian indicates their presence by pushing a button.
On the surface this seems reasonable, but a closer look reveals a vehicular bias. First, most modern traffic signals extend green times when they detect additional vehicles waiting to move through an intersection. Yet, there is no such extension for pedestrians—and at many intersections pushing a crosswalk button after the green cycle has begun won’t activate the “walk” signal even if there would be adequate time for a pedestrian to cross without extending the cycle length.
Second, there seems to be (and I admit I haven’t confirmed this scientifically) an over-reliance on pedestrian push buttons. As described in the Florida DOT handbook on pedestrian design,
“ Designers are cautioned to not use actuated push buttons on crossings where there is always adequate time to phase a pedestrian. Pedestrians should not be required to push buttons when it is not essential for adding time. Many pedestrians do not push buttons. It is the engineer’s job to give them a WALK signal whenever possible. Otherwise they give up on these information systems, and fail to use them, even when they have a specific purpose. "
I appreciate the desire for efficient intersection design. But with a few tweaks--the elimination of unnecessary push buttons, the extension of green times for late-arriving pedestrians--intersections can be made efficient for everyone, not just vehicles. Maybe then I'll stop getting in trouble for crossing against the "don't walk" sign...