Disconnected Buttons at New York City Crosswalks Still Frustrate Pedestrians

Instruction sign for an American, button-operated crosswalk.
Clear instructions, but if pedestrians are kept waiting too long some of them will take chances and the whole purpose of safe crosswalks is defeated. (And it’s not just drivers who have places to get to.) Copyright image, 2018.

Back in 2004, it was reported in U.S. national media that the “push-to-cross” buttons at most of New York City’s crosswalks were disconnected to prevent pedestrians from interrupting traffic flow, and it has just been revealed that now, in 2018, an even greater proportion of the City’s crosswalks have non-functional buttons.

The stated purpose of delaying pedestrians in this manner is to keep vehicles moving and reduce traffic jams.  This may be all well and good when traffic is busy but this approach, when used around the clock, inevitably will annoy pedestrians.

The green man symbol at a crosswalk.
The famous little green man — much better than text signs because foreign visitors can understand images without needing to be able to read English. (Copyright image, 2018.)

Around fourteen years ago, when this situation was first revealed, we reported on it through the website of our not-for-profit organisation, Drive and Stay Alive, and criticised the fact that as pedestrians started to realize that the push-buttons did nothing to help them cross, it was likely that a growing number would simply try to walk across the road whenever they saw a gap in traffic and estimated that they could make it.

It should go without saying that people on foot, trying to hurry through gaps in traffic without waiting for the “Cross” or green-man signal, are putting themselves at significant risk, and logic dictates that inevitably some of them will get hit by vehicles.  So is it wise, in any way, to exacerbate the frustration of people by making them wait longer to cross, even when traffic is not particularly heavy?

Pedestrians edging forwards onto a crosswalk, despite the fact that they cannot proceed.
Pedestrians are probably neither more nor less impatient than drivers, and here can be seen edging out onto a crosswalk despite a “do not walk’ warning. (Copyright image, 2018.)

More recently, we have written here on the ADoNA website that New York City is pursuing a “Vision Zero” approach to highway safety, in which the target is to prevent all road fatalities completely.

To put this course of action at crosswalks into perspective, cities in other countries program the crossing facilities rather than simplistically just disconnecting the buttons.  The new article, from CNN, states:

In London, which has 6,000 traffic signals, pressing the pedestrian button results in a reassuring “Wait” light. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the “green man” — or “pedestrian stage,” in traffic signal design terminology — will appear any sooner.

The 'Wait' warning light, beside the push button, at a pedestrian crossing in Britain.
The “Wait” warning at a pedestrian crossing (crosswalk) in Britain, although the word is sometimes replaced by a miniature red or green man, as appropriate. (Copyright image, 2018.)

‘We do have some crossings where the green light comes on automatically, but we still ask people to press the button because that enables accessible features,’ [for disabled pedestrians] said Glynn Barton, director of network management at Transport for London, in a phone interview.

These features, such as tactile paving and audible traffic signals, help people with visual impairments [or other disabilities] cross the road and are only activated when the button is pressed.  As for the lights, a growing number of them are now integrated into an electronic system that detects traffic and adjusts intervals accordingly (giving priority to buses if they’re running late, for example), which means that pressing the button has no effect.

Others, meanwhile, only respond to the button at certain times of day.
But, in the majority of cases, pressing the button will call the pedestrian stage,’ said Barton…

Photograph of a car stopped on top of and blocking a crosswalk, at a red light, and of a cyclist ignoring the red light and riding on through.
It’s not just pedestrians who behave poorly at crosswalks. Drivers who stop on the actual crosswalk and block it also take away any chance of a clear view for drivers doing a right-on-red and for pedestrians who are legitimately crossing. And then there are the bicyclists who arrogantly and wrongly decide that red traffic lights don’t apply to them. (Copyright image, 2018.)

One thing that certainly would shed important light on this subject is independent empirical research, specifically covering the proclivity of pedestrians to ignore warnings not to cross a road if traffic is relatively light and could be stopped without adverse effects.

Large group of people waiting correctly at a crosswalk with a do not cross sign showing.
In an ideal world… In this case it is large group of mothers with strollers, waiting patiently at a do-not-cross “red man” signal while a solo cyclist rides past. (Copyright image, 2018)

So, New York City; what’s the score on this?  Are you working under the umbrella of appropriate research or just taking an easy out that benefits traffic flow at the expense of pedestrian safety?

Read the full, original article from CNN.


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Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/ceochief-instructors-resumecvbio/

One thought on “Disconnected Buttons at New York City Crosswalks Still Frustrate Pedestrians”

  1. I like the fact that light can be used for traffic and pedestrians to help them get where they have to be on time. I think that pedestrian lights are easier to follow than signs because people sometimes don’t have the time to read. Thank you for helping me get an idea of how traffic lights work for people and traffic.

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