What You Need to Know About Pushing the 'Walk' Button

The Button: What does it do?
The Button: What does it do? | Photo: hermitsmoores | Flickr: Creative Commons License

That button. The one pinned about waist high to the traffic signal pole, sometimes strangely far from the crosswalk, which is supposed to ... to do what, exactly? Jon Hotchkiss at The Huffington Post, with genial snark, lays out the effects in Los Angeles of pushing that button in a new episode of his This vs. That series.

1. The button does nothing at all. Notoriously, the buttons at crosswalks in New York City (and reportedly in Boston and elsewhere) were revealed some years ago to do nothing at all and have not done anything for at least a decade. In Los Angeles and other Los Angeles County cities where traffic control is now synchronized, the buttons sometimes do nothing.

At intersections where pedestrian demand is high, the cycling of red-green-yellow lights always includes display of the pedestrian signal, with or without button pushing. At intersections where pedestrians are few, display of the pedestrian signal is routinely skipped, to the benefit of drivers.

2. The button makes the "walk" signal appear. Maybe. If the system is set to skip the pedestrian cycle, pushing the button may result in display of the signal, depending on traffic volume and time of day. But the signal won't display sooner if you push.

In Los Angeles and many other communities, sensors in the roadway (those circular loops about two yards from the crosswalk) communicate with a traffic control center. Monitoring traffic flow allows lights to be synchronized and cycle times to be adjusted.

A button that will cause the "walk" cycle to run may work under some conditions of traffic synchronization and not under others. For example, if vehicle traffic is light, some systems delay the pedestrian signal through another complete cycle despite the button having been pushed.

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3. Or "walk" appears sooner. Won't happen in Los Angeles, according to pedestrian lore. But in Orlando, some intersections now have crosswalk buttons that bring up the "walk" display faster when pushed ... except during rush hour.

4. The button confers magical powers. A pedestrian myth, but if you want to try, here's a formula to make a "walk" signal appear sooner: 3 fast clicks; 2 clicks, holding on the each of the two for at least 5 seconds; 1 fast click; 2 held ones again; and then 3 fast clicks. (Click click click, cliiiiccckkkk, cliiiiicccckkk (holding down for 5 seconds), click, cliiiicccckkk cliiiiicccckkkk, then click click click.)

I don't believe in magic, so I push the button only once ... most of the time.

Many of the buttons on poles in L.A. are round Econolite boxes with a brass button the size of a dime under a raised hood that requires you to poke accurately. Econolite has been around a long time. I pushed those buttons when I was a boy.

Some buttons have been replaced with a large, disk-shaped pad that beeps or sounds off or displays LED red and green lights in sync with the traffic signal. Sound equipped buttons used to chirp like angry birds, indicating to the visually disabled that the walk sign was displayed.

Newer buttons sound off with a robotic male voice that brusquely commands "Wait!" when pushed.

But when the light changes, the button doesn't order "Walk!" (which would be an invitation to a lawsuit should the pedestrian be run down on the advice of a button). Instead of a verbal command to go, the chattering buttons at some intersection make a sound like an antique arcade game: machine gun pops followed by a shrill whistle repeated over and over.

If you didn't know that the sounds of a Word War I battle are supposed to indicate "walk," you might duck-and-cover instead of step into the intersection.

Talking buttons may be doomed, however. In Orlando (again), motion-sensing cameras now eliminate the need for button pushing. A waiting pedestrian automatically activates a new "walk" cycle, and the system considerately holds the signal until the pedestrian is completely across the street.

Fine. But what will pedestrians do without a button to push and push and push as they wait impatiently for the light to change?

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