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Bay Area cities should just get rid of crosswalk buttons

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Emeryville doing away with do-nothing health hazards

A hand pressing a small metal button on the side of a pole, labeled “push button for walk signal.” Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Cities across the Bay Area can help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and make pedestrians happier at the same time by eliminating one of the least efficient elements of transit design—the questionably responsive crosswalk button.

At a public meeting in Emeryville last week, civil engineer Ryan O’Connell announced that pedestrians no longer need to push the buttons on city-owned traffic signal poles because crosswalk signals activate automatically.

“You do not have to push the beg button” Councilmember Ally Medina told constituents via Twitter, after previously asking city staff to do away with crosswalk ritual.

The idea is to spare people having to put their fingers on a non-sanitized surface touched by countless others before, but the idea of eliminating the often annoying button system poses the question of why it exists in the first place?

As many people suspect, the act of pushing crosswalk buttons, which are ostensibly supposed to signal the traffic lighting schematic to adhere to a pedestrian’s need to cross the street, doesn’t have any effect on the pattern of the traffic signals at most Bay Area intersections.

This distinction may matter more than it seems at first glance. Texas lawyer Adam Garza alleges that crosswalk buttons can reduce the number of pedestrian accidents at busy crosswalks—but even if this is true, it’s only valid in the case of buttons that have an actual effect and extend the length of signal lights to allow people on foot more time to cross.

That means most of them, unfortunately, do little to nothing. In 2018, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency said that of 1,200 crosswalk buttons in SF, only 259 affect the traffic patterns. In some Bay Area cities, like San Jose, not a single crosswalk button affects traffic lights at all

What good are those buttons that don’t do anything? Well, for many vision-impaired people, the crosswalk button does provide valuable audio signals about when it’s safe to cross. In Emeryville, these people can still summon up that assistance by pushing the button if they want to.

But why should other pedestrians have to continue touching the consoles over and over if they don’t make crossing faster or safer? If cities can simply switch them over to autopilot instead, perhaps it’s time for these buttons to retire.

Los Angeles-based urbanist Luke Klipp alleges that these “beg buttons” represent the lopsided nature of transit design that favors car traffic almost exclusively.

“Beg buttons are inconsistent in their timing, often quite dirty, hard to tell if they’re working, and also not ADA friendly—but then they don’t exist for [the benefit of] people walking,” Klipp said in 2018, suggesting that cities do away with them.

CNN pointed out in 2018 that these days the old analogue buttons are largely outdated anyway, noting that movement censors or automation have rendered them mostly obsolete.

The buttons are essentially black boxes; they may do something, they may not, but the button presser can’t tell the difference. In fact, that ambiguity might be part of their true purpose, as Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer says that pushing buttons usually makes people feel better even if there’s no real effect, calling it “the illusion of control.”

Putting aside the fact that most pedestrians probably don’t want their cities patronizing them with curbside placebos, those buttons were never sanitary even before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Even if you like the idea of a pacifying crosswalk antics, surely designers can create one that’s not a potential disease vector.

If Bay Area cities don’t want to invest in research to determine whether all this button-pushing makes crosswalks safer—whether more modern technology can do the same thing without potentially spreading infections like COVID-19, and then act on the results by making sure the buttons have a real effect on how signals work—then Emeryville has the right idea: Get rid of them.

Sometimes urban design can seem like a bad case of hoarding. Cities grow so used to a piece of infrastructure that nobody stops to think about whether it’s doing more harm than good.

When the time comes, we are permitted to sometimes throw out the old—and we’re getting pretty clear signals right now.