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Hurry up and wait.

Dear CityLab: Do I really need to press those pedestrian “WALK” buttons at crosswalks? I feel like an idiot because they don’t seem to do anything.

It depends on where you are. At intersections with actuated signal controls, the button functions as a human detector, alerting the system to the presence of a pedestrian and requesting a “WALK” signal as soon as possible. In some cases, you may have to push the button to cross; otherwise, the system doesn’t know there’s a pedestrian waiting and will proceed through its cycles without ever displaying a “WALK” signal. In other cases, pushing the button simply reduces your wait time.

Pushing the button doesn’t cause a “WALK” signal to appear immediately. The system still needs to complete its cycle and allow cars enough time to get through the intersection. That could take anywhere from five seconds to two minutes, depending on the signal settings and the traffic.

And if the pedestrian signals are in “recall” mode, pushing the button does nothing. In a recall system, pedestrian crossings are already built into the signal cycles, so a “WALK” will come up eventually, at some predetermined interval, whether you push the button or not.

Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t about the placebo effect. Signal settings can vary by time of day, so it’s possible that the buttons “work”—in the sense that the system responds to pedestrian detection—during off-peak periods and not during peak periods, when pedestrian signals are in recall. That, or the city switched the intersection from actuated to recall mode and didn’t get around to removing the buttons.

How do I tell if this particular button is working?

You can’t—at least, not by looking at it. Only the city could tell you whether a particular crossing is pushbutton-actuated, and they’d have to inspect the unit in order to tell you whether it’s actually working properly.

Keep in mind that “WALK” signals don’t come up like magic as soon as you hit the button. Sirisha Kothuri, a transportation research associate at Portland State University, explains: “Most of the push buttons don’t provide any feedback to the pedestrian that the traffic signal has received the input. It may appear at many locations that nothing happens, when in reality a call has been transmitted to the signal controller.” If, after pushing the button, you find yourself waiting for what feels like an eternity, don’t assume the city is trying to con you with the illusion of pedestrian control. Chances are the system is simply trying to balance the needs of drivers also passing through the intersection.

Peter Koonce, traffic signal manager for the city of Portland, Oregon, adds that the vast majority of buttons do work. They may just take a while to do so—especially in areas where traffic lights are coordinated across intersections to increase throughput. Durations will vary block to block and by time of day. But if you suspect that a button is truly broken, you should notify your city’s department of transportation.

Fine. I’ll just jaywalk then.

You’d be doing so at your own peril. In fact, many studies have found that pedestrian wait times play a role in crashes: People get sick of waiting for the “WALK” signal and cross the street into unfettered oncoming traffic. Traffic psychologist Ron Van Houten tells CityLab: “Almost all [pedestrians] will wait for 30 seconds if the intersection is difficult to cross because of volume, speed, and an absence of gaps. By two minutes the violation rate is fairly high.”

Fortunately, there are a number of ways cities can reduce delays, enhance walkability, and improve pedestrian safety overall. These include shorter signal cycle lengths, leading pedestrian intervals, automated pedestrian detection systems (infrared and microwave), and “WALK” buttons that provide feedback to demonstrate that they actually work.

More pedestrian data could point the way forward. “It's a series of trade-offs,” Koonce says of the push button dilemma. “Traditionally we haven't empowered pedestrians to tell us if we're doing a bad job. In our research we've been trying to proactively seek out ways in which we can make the signals work more as a pedestrian would want, or as the pedestrian would expect, based on the level of traffic.”

In signal technology, as in crossing the street, you’ll just have to be patient.

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