Seattle Campaign to #GivePedsTheGreen Would Do Away With “Beg Buttons”

Graphic: Troy Heerwagen via Seattle Bike Blog
Graphic: Troy Heerwagen via Seattle Bike Blog

A petition in Seattle is calling on the city to do away with “beg buttons” and automatically give pedestrians a walk signal at every traffic light in its “urban villages” — areas that are walkable and transit-oriented.

Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog is an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, which was launched over at the website the The Urbanist by activist Troy Heerwagen. The plan would cost almost nothing to implement while improving walkability and safety.

While pressing a beg button may seem like a small imposition, it’s not that simple, especially if you can’t see very well. Fucoloro once saw from afar how difficult it was for a visually impaired person to locate the button:

The whole time he was searching for the button (it was on a third smaller pole closer to the intersection), the traffic signal had been going through its regular cycles for people driving but kept skipping the walk signal, which “chirps” to tell people with vision impairments which direction has the walk.

This intersection is one of the many, many intersections in the city where the walk signal will only be shown if someone pushes a button commonly (and perfectly) called a “beg button.” By skipping the walk signal, traffic engineers are able to add a few seconds to green lights, thus maximizing vehicle throughput.

But the cost of those extra seconds falls on people walking, who are inconvenienced at best and put at increased health risk at worst.

The man with the vision impairment I saw is a particularly egregious case showing how these buttons can cause some community members serious problems just because they can’t see which of the nearby poles has a button. But as I sat back down with my coffee fuming at how insensitively this cold and distant traffic signal program had just treated this man, I began to notice that sighted and able-bodied people were also being put in unfair and potentially dangerous situations.

Over and over, people arrived at the corner and either didn’t notice the button or didn’t push it early enough to get the walk. Once they realized that the light was green and they were getting skipped, they had two choices: Wait another minute or so for the cycle to come back around (which makes walking take longer than it should, decreasing the appeal) or make a run for the other side, hoping to get to there before traffic on Union got the green.

Predictably, most people who were physically able ran for it. Because of course they did. It’s “their turn,” or at least it should be.

We all know this feeling because it happens all the time all over the city. But it doesn’t need to be this way. It forces people to make a quick, tough decision between two unappealing options. And if they try to cross too late, the results could be tragic.

Fucoloro says Seattle Mayor Ed Murray plans to reprogram a number of traffic signals around the city to improve pedestrian safety. With this push from residents for safer signals, hopefully the city will be compelled to take things further.

More recommended reading today: Greater Greater Washington takes a look at which areas of the DC region are truly “suburban” and which are truly “urban,” and it doesn’t match up too well with the political boundaries people typically use to make the distinction. And Price Tags shares a video that explains “induced demand,” or why adding more road capacity doesn’t reduce congestion.

  • Joe R.

    Isn’t a better way to just have pedestrian detectors which give a walk signal when someone is standing right near the curb? The problem with putting a pedestrian signal in every light cycle is that it needlessly extends the red signal phase if nobody is actually crossing. Whether or not someone cares if drivers are delayed is moot. Stopping vehicles for no real reason adds to air pollution.

  • Phelonious Monk

    Yes because what Seattleites need is one more reason to feel entitled to behave in a way that would get you killed in literally any other city.

  • John French

    The problem with putting a green light in every light cycle is that it needlessly extends the red hand phase if nobody is actually driving.

  • reasonableexplanation

    eh? I’m confused; you want cars to idle at intersections for no reason at all for some reason?

    Joe’s ped detector idea makes a lot of sense.

  • CarlessInOKC

    There are automatic ped signals all over the country. Some places have them set up to be automatic during certain times of the day. Downtown Oklahoma City, for example, has them automatic from 7:30am to 5:30pm, and then they go to push-activated.

  • John French

    No, I don’t want pedestrians to stand around for no reason at all.

    Detectors make sense if they’re applied following the same logic as detectors for cars (only in places where pedestrian volume is very low in that particular crossing).

  • John French

    How does pedestrian behavior change exactly? You still cross when you have the signal. If anything I think fewer people would cross against the signal if waiting times overall went down.

  • Joe R.

    A good compromise might be automatic signals in times/places when there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic. When there isn’t, the signals default to sensor-activated.

  • Prinzrob

    Passive pedestrian signal actuation does not work because they can’t be reliably detected in advance of the intersection like cars are, shortening the wait time. Such a technology would mean they don’t have to press a button, but it wouldn’t actually reduce delay at all.

    The “slowing cars in any way creates pollution and is bad for the environment” argument is tired and old. We’ve tried that for the past half century and it didn’t work.

    Making our infrastructure more convenient and safer for people walking and biking will get folks out of cars for more trips, resulting in actual positive air quality impacts as opposed to just “less bad” impacts. Giving the cleanest forms of transportation the highest priority makes the most sense, if one is actually concerned about reducing pollution and not just using it as an excuse to maintain the status quo.

  • Joe R.

    The problem here if we’re talking about clean forms of transportation is that automatic pedestrian signals also delay cyclists (or more likely just cause them to disregard red lights). There are times and places for automatic pedestrian signals, but they shouldn’t be the default everywhere in a city. When there are long parts of the day when the majority users are motorists or cyclists, it makes more sense to have on-demand pedestrian signals. The same line of reasoning applies to automatic traffic signals. If you have a main road it makes no sense to have lights go red unless there is actually someone on the minor roads or someone crossing the street.

  • Prinzrob

    From the article:
    “…automatically give pedestrians a walk signal at every traffic light in its “urban villages” — areas that are walkable and transit-oriented.”

  • John French

    Which is just how sensors for cars typically work, except that even in the middle of the night, the direction with the highest car traffic gets a green automatically.

    I’d say that the default, when sensors are active, should be for whichever mode has the most off-peak traffic at that intersection to get the automatic green. If you have an intersection where twice as many pedestrians cross off-peak as cars, then it should default to a pedestrian scramble (all crosswalks ‘green’) and start a countdown when a car arrives.

  • betty barcode

    Agreed. How come the time of people in cars is automatically more valuable than the time of people on foot?

  • davistrain

    I have never felt “put upon” by having to use a so-called “beg button” at a signal controlled intersection. I would call this device a “command button”, because the pedestrian can “command” drivers to stop their cars under penalty of the law. Not sure if it’s still there, but my favorite “command button” was at the exit of San Francisco Municipal Railway’s Geneva Car House, which for many years was the only electric streetcar barn on the West Coast. There was a post with a pushbutton on the southeast corner of Geneva and San Jose that would set all the traffic signals to STOP and give the streetcars going into service a clear path. Either the motorman would get out and push the button, or someone standing nearby would do the honors. I even got to do it a few times when I was getting “pull-out” photos or movies.

  • John French

    The solution to that particular problem is to legalize the Idaho Stop.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    That is not how these buttons work. You press he button, and the signal continues as normal. Then when the car phase in your direction is green, the pedestrian light is also green or white. Pressing these buttons generally does not interrupt the phase timing. That only happens at intersections which are also demand-activated for cars.

  • Jason

    Here in Santa Monica the only thing worse than the intersections where the crosswalk light won’t turn unless you hit the beg button is said intersections where the walk phase is so short that unless you literally run across the intersection, it’s not physically possible to hit the second button in time if you have to cross both ways.

  • Jason

    I routinely feel put upon when I have to wait an extra cycle because I was a couple of seconds too far away from the corner to hit the button in time, or when I have to cross both ways and the timing is too short to be able to hit the second button in time to avoid waiting an extra cycle unless you literally sprint across the intersection.

    We’re not talking about your San Francisco command button that promptly gives the button-pusher the right of way. We’re talking about situations where the car traffic parallel to the direction you wish to cross gets the green light, but the crosswalk light stays on the red hand “don’t walk” signal unless you push the button.

  • Jason

    I personally routinely cross against the signal because of crosswalks where the walk light won’t trigger unless you push the button, and I refuse to wait because I was a couple of seconds too late to push the button in time to avoid having to wait another cycle.

  • In Oak Park, IL there’s one traffic signal—just one—that’s controlled by pedestrians and bicyclists. When pedestrians press the button, motorists immediately get yellow, then flashing red lights. The signal is also tripped when bicycles pass over a detector in the bike lane. More of these please. I hope it’s a trend because in the rest of Oak Park, you don’t get a walk signal unless you press the beg button.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about ped signals, phasing, timing, etc..

    The quote from the article “By skipping the walk signal, traffic engineers are able to add a few seconds to green lights, thus maximizing vehicle throughput.” isn’t wholly accurate. I don’t know the details of the locations being considered in Seattle, but if they are truly “urban villages” that are walkable and transit oriented, then most are likely timed and have adequate walk and clearance intervals in the existing phases. Thus, running concurrent walk phases doesn’t impact the amount of green and should be a routine practice. The exception is often where you have major traffic imbalances at minor cross street running on detection that only provide a minimal amount of green to allow one or two cars to cross a multi-lane street.

    As Jeffrey Barker (in the comments) notes, buttons generally don’t affect timing. In urban areas they are typically a holdover from days gone by that reflect poor engineering practices. If you have adequate intervals, concurrent phasing should be the default. If you have heavy ped volumes that require a longer green than typical (which is unusual), adequate walk intervals and concurrent phasing should be added.

    That said, there are times that they add value; interrupting a green in recall on a mainline, providing a walk interval where a protected turn phase typically operates, adding time to cross an arterial, etc, all of which are typically suburban context, not “urban villages”.

  • Concobhar Mac Conmara

    which intersection is that?

  • Chicago Ave and Harvey. New signal.

  • Emily68

    I commuted on foot for many years–walking an hour each way. I crossed many streets where I had to push the button and that was always fine because I was familiar with the route & knew where the button was. BUT–sometimes a button didn’t work. Day after day, I’d push it and never get the walk signal. I’d just wait for the light to change & cross without the walk signal. I never remembered by the time I got to the office to figure out the phone # to call & report the situation.

  • Elle Nicole

    I have always hated these things, especially in winter when standing motionless at a windy street corner can result in frostbite.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    As far as I know, no such technology exists. It is easy to have a loop that detects a bicycle using a metal detector. How do you detect a pedestrian?

  • Autonomous cars know how to detect pedestrians.

  • Drew Levitt

    This sounds like a pedestrian hybrid beacon: https://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/ped_bike/tools_solve/fhwasa14014/

    They’re generally placed at unsignalized locations, such as side-street-stop-controlled intersections or mid-block crosswalks, on roads that have been engineered for high traffic volumes and speeds.

    I’m a little surprised to see it used at this Oak Park location, which has only one lane of traffic in each direction. Must have been some crazy speeding!

  • Phelonious Monk

    Seattleites do whatever they want whenever they want. There’s a special sense of entitlement unique to this town where people think everyone else should cater to them. This sense of entitlement already includes pedestrian cross walk behavior. No need to encourage the culture of ‘me’ that pervades tech dominated cities.

    And most of downtown crosswalks don’t use a beg button, they are on a timer anyway.

    Knowing how to be patient and wait your turn is something most adults are just expected to be capable of. It’s only in Seattle where increasing adults sense of entitlement seems like a good idea. That’s not how major cities work, and Seattle, like it or not, is becoming a major city.

    Eventually it’s citizens will need to start acting like it.

  • Phelonious Monk

    And by acting like it I mean come up with congestion alleviating solutions which don’t treat auto traffic through put like it’s not already a massive problem. Pretending that encouraging cycling and pedestrian commuting will do anything to address Seattle’s abysmal traffic situation beyond make it even more unnecessarily congested by placing priority on pedestrians over the drivers blocking intersections.

    It’s a solution in search of an actual problem that is barely newsworthy, nevermind that it does nothing to address the problem that traffic lights are supposed to solve.

  • John French

    “And most of downtown crosswalks don’t use a beg button, they are on a timer anyway.”

    The campaign mentioned in the article is about putting a few more of them on a timer instead of a beg button… no additional “entitlements” for pedestrians, no change in behavior.

  • John French

    Making it possible for people to get around without cars is the only solution which has any hope of actually alleviating congestion. That means making walking, cycling, and public transport safe and convenient. (It also means building cities where people can afford housing within a few miles of their jobs, which usually means mixed use zoning and relatively high density.)

  • Phelonious Monk

    No argument there, but you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Cars aren’t going anywhere and the road system here is decades behind it’s demand threshold already, and Seattle’s population is going to triple over the next 20 years.

    Building a transportation infrastructure that.imagines a world in which cars are not a primary people mover is just delusional and naive. The city of Seattle itself will be a commerce center, not a residential hub, it’s already unaffordable. People will need to commute from afar and even when the light rail is finally finished, it too will be grossly incapable of keeping up with demand.

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