About those pesky pedestrian crossing buttons...

I'll admit, the following article written in early 2016, had me fired up. As my friends will tell you, there's one major thing that causes my normally clean vocabulary to turn to curse words: pedestrian safety issues. When I'm crossing the street in front of my apartment and am nearly mowed down by speeding cars on a weekly basis, or when I try to use the crosswalk by the senior home in my neighborhood and not a single car stops, it's hard for me not to swear. I didn't result to that in this article, but I did make a passionate argument for pedestrian rights. And many of our readers seemed to feel the same, if the 75 comments on the article are any indication.

Since writing this, I've noticed a promising sign at a few intersections in my neighborhood: leading pedestrian intervals. When you push the "beg button" at these intersections, you initiate a few seconds where the lights in either direction are red and the walk sign for pedestrians is illuminated. This is a very small step—it's only a couple seconds and it's only at a few intersections—but it's better than it was before. At least the button does something helpful for people walking. A better step would be full pedestrian scrambles at high traffic intersections. Maybe in 2017, we'll be so lucky.   - Rachel Quednau

If you've ever walked on a sidewalk, you've probably encountered the "beg button" at one point or another. That's the button you press in order to get a pedestrian walk signal to light up on the other side of the road. As Alissa Walker writes in a recent Gizmodo article: "Those little buttons on walk signals have been nicknamed "beg buttons"—because walkers are pretty much begging to be able to cross."

This is problematic for a number of reasons, but the biggest is the obvious prioritization of car movement over pedestrian movement. Do car drivers have to pull up to each intersection, lean out their window and push a button in order to get a green light? No, they just wait and the light appears. The Gizmodo article continues: 

Comic by Dhiru Thadani

Comic by Dhiru Thadani

It's annoying for walkers: have you ever tried to walk a few blocks, stopping to hit the button at every single intersection? Or hit the button just a few seconds too late and had to wait a whole additional cycle? But it also illustrates the backwardness of our street design: pedestrians, who are supposed to have the right-of-way, are required to press a button at an intersection in order to get a walk signal, which should happen automatically.

We know that walkability creates value in a community. It invites people out onto the streets, interacting with one another, visiting local businesses and participating in the livelihood of a place. So why do our cities, time and again, in so many different ways, continue to limit the most basic form of human movement and make it more and more challenging to walk? 

A couple weeks ago, a commenter on this website accused us of promoting one way of living (walkable neighborhoods, traditional developments) over another (auto-oriented, suburban developments). The commenter wrote: 

There is a certain mindset which does not believe in promoting cooperation but rather feels the need to attack, criticize, and tear down other people in order to make themselves feel big and important. That is the underlying approach of this article. If you want to rehab an older home in a run down neighborhood, go do it and stop pretending that you've got some lock of the proper way to live. The suburbs and cars have been wonderful for hundreds of millions of Americans. The car is fantastic.

I didn't spend a whole lot of time debating this person because we have a whole website that proves his last two sentences wrong. However, I did respond with this:

Strong Towns is not here to tell you you can't drive your car or live in a suburban home. But our cities have been completely constructed around the automobile so that people who want to make a choice to walk or bike (just as you make a choice to drive) endanger their lives doing so and, in many places, are completely unable to do so. 

I know that the beg button may not seem like a big deal, but it is yet another way that cities send a message to pedestrians: You are not normal. You don't belong here. You need to push a button just to walk somewhere while we have built an unaffordable transportation system to prioritize the free movement of cars. 

I don't have a problem with people driving and owning cars. I drive a car sometimes too. What I do have a problem with is the fact that millions of Americans (many of whom can barely afford cars) live in places where the car seems like their only option to get anywhere. Where there is little walk infrastructure and what does exist is dangerous, inadequate or makes them push a button and wait a long time just to get across the street. I have a problem with the billions of dollars we spend every year to build more roads and widen our roads while much more affordable modes of transportation (walking and biking) are neglected.

Ms. Walker shared a video (see video to the right) in her article that illustrates a big problem with beg buttons: they often make you wait several light cycles as dozens of cars whip by and you stand around watching for that little white man to tell you it's safe to cross.

The article proposes a few solutions to the button issue:

  1. Focus on driver violations instead of pedestrian "rule-breaking." When it comes to enforcement, the button is often used as a way to blame pedestrians, i.e. you didn't push the button before you walked across the street so it's your fault you got hit by a car. Remove the buttons and start putting the responsibility in the hands of drivers.
  2. Use leading pedestrian intervals That means that every green light cycle begins with 3-7 seconds where only the walk-sign is illuminated. This gives pedestrians a head start in walking across the street.
  3. Redesign intersections. I find this to be the best proposed solution because it has the power to do the most good. What about a roundabout instead of a traditional intersection? What about an uncontrolled intersection? What about narrower lanes and wider sidewalks?

At the very least, intersections with pedestrian walk signs (including audio and visual, in order to accommodate those with sensory impairments) should be automatic and should not require the push of a button.

You can read more about our ideas for promoting safer, more walkable streets on our #SlowtheCars campaign page.

(Top photo by Downtowngal)

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