It pushes the button to cross the street, or my windshield it will meet

So yes, I hate pedestrian crossing buttons. Nothing says “cars über alles” like imposing the dehumanizing condition of having to locate and push a germ-ridden button in order to simply get from one side of the street to the other. I have had a well-reasoned post on this subject in the back of my mind for awhile, and wanted to do a bit more research to produce something of quality. Someday, perhaps. Instead, I am going to throw together an emotional smart-alecky response to today’s Freakonomics post (WashCycle takedown style!)

My complaints cannot even wait until after the title, “When Is It Inconsiderate to Press A Crosswalk Button?” Well, this pre-supposes that the crosswalk button is placed as a courtesy or amenity to the pedestrian. It is not. A pedestrian button is placed to give people a chance to cross the road when they otherwise would not be given adequate opportunity to do so by the baseline signal timing scheme created by some signal timing engineer, in order to promote “vehicle flow.” Car convenience 1, pedestrian convenience 0.

Let’s move to the text:

But some pedestrians press the button with a conditional intention to cross the street before the crossing light changes if there is a break in the traffic.

And there’s your acknowledgment that the button is a symptom of a system that tries to hard to “balance the needs of all users.” If people are jumping the break, it is because there is a break, and perhaps the through-drive phase is being overserved. Why does the phasing not give them a green, either by default as kvetched about above, or by knowing that a button was pushed, and preempting the driver phase? Because Car convenience 2, pedestrian convenience 0.

The pedestrian probably reasons a) “I have a right to press the button”;  and b) having pushed it, I now see I can walk without inconveniencing anyone because there aren’t any cars coming.

Well, when I am walking, I reason, a) “I guess I have to push this button just to get a legal and safe opportunity to cross the street”; and b) having pushed it with no immediate result or feedback on when my turn will come… well, sorry Mr. Ayres, I’ve got places to be.

The problem with this reasoning is that just because you have the right to press the crosswalk button doesn’t mean that it is considerate for you to do so.

It is not considerate to design a traffic signal scheme that only considers or automatically detects cars, and makes pedestrians push a button for an uncertain reward. Heck, even the lab rat had a reasonable expectation of an immediate food reward for pushing the button in the Skinner Box. And since when is “consideration” rational economic behavior? Each car driver is maximizing their own outcome at the expense of others, remember? In my role as a pedestrian, I am seeking to maximize my own outcome. Mr Ayres is far more irrationally charitable:

If I don’t know much about the traffic patterns at an intersection, I often wait for ten or twenty seconds before pushing the button to see if there is a natural break in the traffic and to see whether it looks safe to be a scofflaw.  I’m more likely to push the button earlier if it is unusually important that I get across the street quicker.

Does he ever yield to a pedestrian while in a car if it isn’t unusually important that he be somewhere? Doubtful. We just aren’t conditioned to subjugate our own needs, unless outnumbered or outweighed. Car convenience 3, pedestrian convenience 0.

I’m going to overlook the use of the word “scofflaw” and save that for future ranting. But then we get to the solutioneering:

A technological fix might be to have a “cancel” button add next to the crossing button, so that scofflaws could who pushed and then crossed before the light changed could cancel their request when they got to the other side.  But this is a highly impractical idea – both because of the cost of retrofitting, and the difficulty of explaining the idea to pedestrians.  At the end of the day, very few “push and run” pedestrians would bring go out of their way to cancel their previous request. 

Glad he highlighted the likelihood of operational failure of this scheme, but he also cites the cost. We do not invest in pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure, because those needs are clearly considered secondary. Car convenience 4, pedestrian convenience 0.

Here are a few ways we could stop the scourge of button-pushers who morph into pollution-inducing inconsiderate scofflaws at the first opportunity.

  • Take out all the buttons, and design safe pedestrian crossing phases into a signal timing scheme.
  • Give immediate feedback to a pedestrian that a button-push is rewarded with accelerated crossing phase.
  • Use pedestrian and bicycle detectors (like those many intersections have to accomodate cars) to automatically note and adjust for the presence of road users. Where detection doesn’t result in an immediate crossing phase, provide some confirmation that detection has occurred.
  • Or, we could just do this:

[Awesome sign mockup by Eric Fischer]

If you have hung around this blog for its short life, you may have guessed that providing progression for pedestrians and bicyclists is on my Xmas list. Regrettably, we will not get there until we start treating people (regardless of their mode of transportation) as rational actors. Pushing a button (or not pushing a button to avoid maybe delaying others) ain’t rational.

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3 Responses to It pushes the button to cross the street, or my windshield it will meet

  1. Eric Fischer says:

    What a hideous show of windshield perspective. Down with actuated signals!

    With regard to cancellation, I wonder if the Freakonomics author knows that Toucan crossings in the UK do cancel the signal request if the pedestrian walks away, and that the post-installation evaluation found that it makes basically no difference in practice.

  2. Eric Fischer says:

    (Sorry, I mean Puffin crossings. I should have proofread before I posted.)

  3. Ericka C says:

    This is my favorite post so far. Pedestrians should always be favored since they are traveling more slowly and will reach their destination at a slower rate than even a car that has to stop. Also, they are using the more environmentally-friendly mode of transportation. (Not to mention healthier!) Finally, some pedestrians can’t afford a car. I don’t care for the idea of putting the “haves” (car-owners) above the “have-nots.”

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