Do Pedestrian Push Buttons Calm Tourists? Why Do We Have Them?



As reported in the Boston Globe, more American cities are taking the attitude that their city traffic flows  well without the intervention of  pedestrians touching  the  walk/don’t walk push button.  Imagine-remember all those times you were visiting New York, Seattle and London and thought that merely pressing the pedestrian walk button somehow gave you unbridled priority over vehicular traffic? Um, no. Those cities have already decided their light cycles on many major streets.

Even those wonderful Belisha beacons (as in the photo above) are being retired in Great Britain. They are named after Leslie Hore-Belisha the British Minister of Transport that first installed these lights in 1934.
But back to Boston. In Boston  “the city sets most traffic signals, particularly during the hectic daytime hours, to a schedule that gives people on foot a chance to cross at regular intervals, while ensuring that drivers get their turn, too.”  And thinking that walkers are understandably dismayed at hitting fake “placebo” buttons to cross the street, “Boston officials say the setting is actually aimed at making life easier for walkers by eliminating the need to push a button at all.”

Because of heavy traffic volume in many downtown cores pedestrian crossing time is just incorporated in the intersection timing. “A lot of these intersections were at some point designed more for motor vehicle movements, and later on cities said, ‘Oh, we want to make this more for pedestrians,’ ” said Alex Engel, of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

Now many traffic lights are simply programmed assuming that pedestrians will be crossing on every cycle. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for walkers, and does slow down and pulse traffic on major streets. As Gina Fiandaca the commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department states “Ideally, the signal functions in such a way that you minimize the wait time for pedestrians, ” Surprisingly Ms. Fiandaca did not give a list of pedestrian intersections in Boston that are on this automatic light cycle.

New York City has removed hundreds of nonfunctioning pedestrian push buttons. It is an odd experience to be on a street without the button, but the cycle time and the walk time in New York City is fairly generous.

There’s also an interesting story about Winnipeg who was required to remove pedestrian activated buttons in response to a lawsuit undertaken by an advocacy group for visually impaired and disabled wheelchair users. The  2008 settlement meant that most pedestrian buttons downtown have been replaced with an audible message button. However buttons are still in use in other parts of the city.
But why keep pedestrian push buttons on traffic poles if they really don’t change the traffic cycle? As one Bostonian said “They’re there to calm the tourists.”