Monday, November 20, 2006

crosswalk buttons

That shiny silver button beckons pedestrians with the promise of parting traffic like the Red Sea to allow safe passage through the otherwise perilous journey across the street. Surely the crosswalk button is evidence of the miraculous ways in which technology improves our every-day lives in so many subtle ways. Or is it? From a broader perspective, one must ask why we need such a device at all. Why does of street traffic flow uninhibited while those on foot have to beg permission to procede? If by envisioning the key, we create our own prison, then perhaps by providing a button, society casts pedestrians as second-class travellers?

Some cities are making an effort to improve the pedestrian cross walk button-punching experience. The Vancuver Transportation Plan calls for system-wide reduction in pedestrian wait times. They also provide crossing buttons for bike lanes.

At the same time, massive pedestrian crowds don't guarentee government attention. For example, in New York city the majority of cross walk buttons are simply placebos! Updates to the traffic control system included disabling thousands of crosswalk buttons that still get pushed every day by anxious pedestrians.

We contacted the city engineering department to find out how our fair city addresses the issue. As has always been our experience, the city provided us with a speedy and detailed (a little too detailed in some ways) explanation. We've sifted through the engineer-speak to give carfree folks the straight scoop on Ann Arbor actuated pedestrian crossings and, yes, it is just as exciting as it sounds.

We've got about 150 traffic signals in town and most of them include pedestrian signals. Those that do not are mostly freeway signals and areas without sidewalks. This city does plan to include pedestrian signals with any future traffic signal additions whether there is a side walk or not.

There are two types of pedestrian signals, pre-timed and actuated. Pre-timed signals have a pedestrian crossing built into the traffic light cycle and don't provide a button. Actuated signals are the ones that provide a button to request crossing permission. There are a few places on main roads with a hybrid system that include pedestrian signals in the regular cycle, but also provide a request button.

There are a few tips worth noting for pedestrians, though walkers have probably already figured out the subtlies of signals along their regular routes.

* If there is a button, you should push it. Unlike NYC, Ann Arbor's buttons actually do something. They ensure that you will get a chance to cross and that you have enough time to complete the journey once you step into the street.

* Pressing the button queues up a pedestrian crossing once demand for the current (vehicle) cycle has ended. Once demand ends, the current cycle is completed and then the pedestrian cycle starts. That means that if traffic is heavy, you may still have to wait a while before you get a "walk" signal. This is probably where you (justifiably) start to feel like a second-class citizen. Make up for it with a jaunty stroll or happy skipping in front of the line of cars that is forced to wait for you when the light turns.

* It is a basic human instinct to push the crosswalk button repeatedly, even if you just saw someone else push it before you. We are sad to report that the city denies any beneficial response by the traffic system to such behavior. Once the button is pushed, the request is in and the system is apparently not designed to recognize repeated taps as an expression of urgency of the pedestrian. No doubt this is a shortfall in the system, but the city does not appear to be willing to commit resources to making this change. Additionally, bloggers across the country agree: people who push the crosswalk button repeatedly are annoying.

A while back some witty pranksters published a list of cross walk button hacks. Punching the crosswalk button with these secret codes would would allow for instant crossing, permanent walk signal, and other pedestrian advatages. The codes would do so, that is, if they existed. They don't. The original website that published these fake hacks is gone, but references to the legend of the crosswalk button hack lingers on. In case you won't take our word for it, you are welcome to try the "instant walk" hack next time you are waiting at an intersection:
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thanks to carfreeChicago for leads on some of this info

4 comments:

Becky said...

Oh, nothing annoys me more than people who don't press the button (in AA) and then wonder why they're not getting a walk signal. Aaargh.

Anonymous said...

Another way to consider the crosswalk button: it allows for more efficient traffic flow (and less wasted petroleum) by only stopping car traffic when a pedestrian is present.
I know it's annoying to live in a car-centric world--but dedicated crosswalk times, without a real pedestrian or cyclist pushing the button, is a waste. And efficiency (of time, resources, energy) is, in the end, what it's all about.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I consider "mother may I" style pedestrian buttons - where no "walk" signal appears without a press - to be a safety risk for pedestrians.

If somebody walks up to the intersection at the point in the cycle where you would naturally cross the street, were there a ped signal, but after the point at which they would need to press the button to actually get a walk signal, are they going to wait an entire cycle for their next chance to push the button and get a signal?

Heck no! They're just going to walk across! Because "Oh, the don't walk signal doesn't actually mean 'don't walk'; it just means nobody pressed the button. I can still walk." The pedestrian gets no feedback as to whether there's actually time to cross before possibly careless drivers start moving, or whether the light is just about to turn yellow.

A ped signal that always turns to walk in the proper point in the cycle provides important information to a pedestrian approaching the intersection that a mother may I button-triggered signal doesn't.

Death to ped buttons!

1-800-COLLISION said...

Why not just buy auto-sigs when they're replaced?