Thursday, May 1, 2008

Push to walk buttons - power or placebo?

By John Greenfield

[This also runs in Time Out Chicago,]

What’s up with those push-to-walk buttons at intersections? Do they work or are they just there to make you feel empowered?

Good question. The New York Times reported NYC deactivated most of its pedestrian switches in the 1980s but thousands of sucker buttons were still in place by 2004. CDOT’s Brian Steele assures us this isn’t the case here. “When you press it activates the walk signal and lengthens the green,” he says. Does rapid-fire jabbing help? No, says Steele. “It’s like an elevator – pushing once is enough.” Some newer stoplights are programmed so that, late at night, side streets never get a green unless a waiting motorist or ped is detected. Under-pavement sensors automatically register cars but if you don’t notice the button you’ll never get a signal. Unfair, but Steele promises CDOT’s researching pedestrian-triggered automated walk signals. ‘Round midnight we tried to cross busy Chicago Ave. at sleepy Paulina St. and found Steele’s right. If we pushed the button in any manner, or if a driver was also waiting to cross, we’d get a walk signal in about a minute. Not pressing meant our light stayed red indefinitely. So as Curtis Mayfield sang, “Keep On Pushing.”


Lee said...

One very annoying thing about the buttons though is that if you don't push it, you don't get the signal, even if there's a green light. These have been popping up around Lakeview, such as at Broadway/Cornelia and Sheridan/Barry. I see people standing there through multiple cycles waiting for the cross signal, while cars going the same direction get a green. It also means when you approach a green light, you can't tell how long you have to cross -- whereas at a normal signal you'd have a walk signal or flashing hand, these intersections permanently say not to cross unless you were there to push the button.

CDOT should always assume that pedestrians will be crossing if the light is green.

blind chic and her dark sidekick said...

I agree with the previous commenter. I am blind and do not look for actuated signals everytime I want to cross a street. I listen to the traffic flow and go when I am protected by traffic that is going the direction I need to travel. I wouldn't know the difference since we do not have universal audible signals in Chicago.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it might be reasonable to assume there are always pedestrians in Lakeview, but I don't think CDOT should assume that there will always be a pedestrians in some lower density parts of the city. I think the solution is to make sure the push buttons, where they exist, always have an audible tone, like Maureen suggested.

Anonymous said...

The white walk signal is not always shown as the computer is waiting for a break in the stream of traffic (or until the signal has been green for some maximum amount of time.) After a period of no cars the signal immediately turns to amber, and then red, as to minimize the waiting period for cross traffic. The walk signal and timer are not shown in this case because the computer does not know when the break in traffic will occur. The pedestrian walk button must be pressed to let the computer know you are crossing so it may guarantee you the time you need to cross. Additionally main roads will typically have their light programmed to stay green until a vehicle is detected on their cross street. This prevents stopping traffic for no cross traffic.