As reported in the Boston Globe, more American cities are taking the attitude that their city traffic flows  well without the intervention of  pedestrians touching  the  walk/don’t walk push button.  Imagine-remember all those times you were visiting New York, Seattle and London and thought that merely pressing the pedestrian walk button somehow gave you unbridled priority over vehicular traffic? Um, no. Those cities have already decided their light cycles on many major streets.
Even those wonderful Belisha beacons (as in the photo above) are being retired in Great Britain. They are named after Leslie Hore-Belisha the British Minister of Transport that first installed these lights in 1934.
But back to Boston. In Boston  “the city sets most traffic signals, particularly during the hectic daytime hours, to a schedule that gives people on foot a chance to cross at regular intervals, while ensuring that drivers get their turn, too.”  And thinking that walkers are understandably dismayed at hitting fake “placebo” buttons to cross the street, “Boston officials say the setting is actually aimed at making life easier for walkers by eliminating the need to push a button at all.”
Because of heavy traffic volume in many downtown cores pedestrian crossing time is just incorporated in the intersection timing. “A lot of these intersections were at some point designed more for motor vehicle movements, and later on cities said, ‘Oh, we want to make this more for pedestrians,’ ” said Alex Engel, of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Now many traffic lights are simply programmed assuming that pedestrians will be crossing on every cycle. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for walkers, and does slow down and pulse traffic on major streets. As Gina Fiandaca the commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department states “Ideally, the signal functions in such a way that you minimize the wait time for pedestrians, ” Surprisingly Ms. Fiandaca did not give a list of pedestrian intersections in Boston that are on this automatic light cycle.
New York City has removed hundreds of nonfunctioning pedestrian push buttons. It is an odd experience to be on a street without the button, but the cycle time and the walk time in New York City is fairly generous.  There’s also an interesting story about Winnipeg who was required to remove pedestrian activated buttons in response to a lawsuit undertaken by an advocacy group for visually impaired and disabled wheelchair users. The  2008 settlement meant that most pedestrian buttons downtown have been replaced with an audible message button. However buttons are still in use in other parts of the city.
But why keep pedestrian push buttons on traffic poles if they really don’t change the traffic cycle? As one Bostonian said “They’re there to calm the tourists.”


  1. As a pedestrian and cyclist I’m in the habit of not pushing the button if it looks like I might get a break in the flow of vehicles that allows me to cross without impacting anyone. I prefer not to force traffic to stop if I can help it, since making them stop will just create more pollution and greenhouse gases once they start up again.

    1. Gee, I’m genuinely curious why this would be downrated, because for the life of me I can’t figure out how it could negatively impact anyone. What am I missing?

    2. I generally push the button as a pedestrian, but often do the same as you do on a bike, if is safe, because I can cross more quickly in that mode.

  2. In my opinion, a crossing in the direction of a traffic light should never have a pedestrian button. These buttons are not designed to switch the walk signal on: they are designed to keep it off.
    This just happened to me the other day on Dawson. I pressed the buttons for east and north. East changed first, and I crossed. Then the traffic light changed for north: but of course the pedestrian light didn’t. I pressed the button immediately. No go. I had to wait another full cycle. Infuriating.
    The only place where a button is appropriate is where there would not otherwise be a crossing. If it makes sense for pedestrians to cross, the walk signal should change automatically. Period.

  3. ” Belisha beacons activate when a pedestrian pushes a button. ”
    The beacons flash all the time.
    Crossings with signals that activate on a push button are quite different – much more recent installations – known as “Panda crossings”
    Hore Belisha was Minister of Transport 1934 – 37 and the crossing beacons appeared during his term of office. He did not invent them.

  4. In Downtown Vancouver, the only intersections that come to mind with pedestrian buttons are along Pacific Boulveard (and Expo Boulevard I assume).
    In those cases, the button extends the green light for the cross traffic to allow pedestrians to cross the extra-wide street – otherwise, they’d always be stuck on the median (i.e. the regular signal timing favours the major thoroughfare versus the cross street).

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