When Is It Inconsiderate to Press A Crosswalk Button?

I have no problem with pedestrians pressing crosswalk buttons when they wait for the crossing light to change before crossing the intersection.  Crossing lights and crosswalk buttons serve important safety function at busy intersections especially for disabled or elderly pedestrians who need a bit more time crossing the street.

(Photo: Alfonso Surroca)

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.  One often sees pedestrians approach an intersection, press the button, and then immediately cross the street, before the crossing light changes. 

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.

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.  (You also have a first amendment right to call me names, but that doesn’t make your exercise of the right considerate.) Pressing the while having a conditional intention to cross the street early is inconsiderate because cars often then have to wait for a crossing light when there are no longer any crossing pedestrians to protect.  It wastes gas.  Forcing cars to wait longer for a green light is not green environmentally.  And the problem is especially acute at intersections where the crosswalk button stops traffic in both directions.

So when isn’t it okay to push a crosswalk button?  I think it’s inconsiderate if you think there is a high probability that you will not wait for the crossing light to change.  But this rather trivial problem of social planning could expand to include a variety of subtle factors — including Bayesian learning and the loss functions for both you and others.  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.

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. 

So next time you find yourself pushing and then jaywalking before the cross walk light changes, ask yourself did you really need to push the button?

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  1. Richard Simon says:

    It is fairly well known that many of those crosswalk buttons do not work – by design! (Similarly, many of the “Door Open/Close” buttons are deliberately non-functional, as well) In many cities, NYC for one, the buttons were deactivated a long time ago when computer-controlled traffic signals equipment was installed.

    If the button doesn’t work, and isn’t supposed to work, what difference does it make if you press it or not?

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    • Dave says:

      It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work, but that really isn’t the issue. Many DO have an effect, and I think those are the ones we are talking about here.

      If you know it doesn’t work, why press it? If you don’t know whether it works or not, then you have a chance to stop traffic for nothing if you press it and cross early. I think that was more the focus….

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      • Dim says:

        By “do have an effect” you must mean “illuminate the walk sign” and not “change the timing of the traffic light to favor the pedestrian” because that is all many do anymore. Heavy traffic areas are least likely to allow a pedestrian walk button to disrupt traffic timing which is utilizing a computerized dynamic sequence which allows pedestrians to cross at optimum model points.

        As for actually changing the light to favor the pedestrian – consider those mainly active at low traffic flow intersections where traffic controllers respect for the crossing auto traffic is less of a concern.

        In my daily commute I have a state highway “right on red” intersection in which my car trips the coils to change the light, I turn right on red, and in my mirror I see the light change blocking oncoming traffic well after I have passed. Not my design, not my intent and if traffic controllers disrespect commuters that much I cannot see them providing a “walk cancel” button whilst providing so many placebo buttons to pedestrians.

        I pedestrian cross daily too. I never press the button, nor do many of the other pedestrians. It has been several months since I’ve seen a button pushed.

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    • November says:

      Agreed, all the buttons do (when they do anything at all) is illuminate the walk symbol when the pedestrian has the right-of-way. They do not do anything to create a condition where the pedestrian has the right-of-way. Nothing changes from the perspective of a driver. They are for people that don’t know when would be their turn.

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      • Amanda says:

        Well here they do actually stop traffic. They are not just a warning signal. They block cars from coming in other directions.

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  2. Tom says:

    My wife and I talk about this ALL the time. Personally I think the best solution is how crosswalks apparently work in NYC. The button secretly does nothing. It’s just there to make people feel like they have control. The reality is the intersection will allow pedestrians to cross on a regular basis.
    And I’m not sure a person who crosses against a Do Not Cross who can see for miles there are no cars approaching should be thought of poorly. I’d say they’re alert and intelligent.

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    • CMITCH says:

      I’ve always thought pushing the button never had any effect anywhere. Manny times, I’ve experienced the walk light turning on before I have the chance to press the button. I’ve seen tis in cities other than NYC.

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    • Matt says:

      Many of these lights that “do nothing” actually do, just not at all times of the day. At least when I lived in Boston, during heavy pedestrian/commuter times, the lights would always come automatically, but not at night unless the button was pressed.

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  3. Jeff says:

    I always press it. Why would I wait 10-20 seconds to see if there’s a break and then, if there’s not, press the button and wait *another* 20-30 seconds for the walk to come up? Pressing the button is “insurance” against not being able to make a run for it.

    Where I work, they recently added a light where there once was only a “Yield to pedestrians” sign on the crosswalk from my lightrail stop to my building. It’s a fairly busy road, and people usually cross in packs since we’re coming from mass trans. I think the traffic light is idiotic, as everyone still crosses, but now presses the button as well. It has also made cars more aggressive, speeding up and honking if they see people trying to cross.

    Maybe we shouldn’t have these buttons or crossing lights except in the busiest intersections, with everyone just yielding to pedestrians? This would require the *drivers* to be the considerate ones now, though…

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  4. John B. Pynchon says:

    You’re assuming people will think and act in a considerable manner. Wrong assumption in the age where the majority think of themselves first and others second, or third.

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  5. Kev says:

    I do this all the time.

    1) The system here supposedly maintains stats on request-button usage. I totally want to game those stats, to keep the city from finding excuses to cut pedestrian amenities and pedestrian signalization.

    2) The city has a policy of replacing existing signals, where pedestrians get the walk light as of right when the traffic has the green, with mandatory request signals. Pedestrians HAVE to press the button (ahead of time) to get a walk with the vehicular green. So, nuts to that. I’m pushing the button every time, even if there is no car for miles, but ESPECIALLY if there are cars. If I’m going to be inconvenienced by stupid city signal policies, so are motorists.

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  6. Wally East says:

    It’s never inconsiderate to push the button. As a pedestrian, traffic flow isn’t my problem — getting across the street safely is.

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    • Joby Elliott says:

      Exactly! I’m bothered by the attitudes betrayed in both this article and many of the comments I’m seeing below it.

      Normally here at Freakonomics we’re all about how these imaginary rational actors economists love so much tend to self-organize into functional systems.

      And yet here we are, presented with a situation in which people in cars (read: “people with money”) are perceived as being slowed by a matter of seconds by pedestrians (read: “people without money”), and NOW suddenly we’re worried about altruism and the greater good?

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      • James says:

        I think your assumption – cars = money, walking = no money – is not grounded in evidence.

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      • La_Boheme says:

        Actually I think the problem is people surrounded by a steel boxes vs. pedestrians. One is obviously a lot weaker (and deserves more protection) than the other.

        Unlike the author, I think design should respond to human behaviour, not the other way around. There is obviously a problem with the timers on the crossing signals. Case in point: there are two pedestrian crossing signals in my neighbourhood. One changes almost instantly — within seconds — and the other changes in 2 min 30 sec (I’ve timed it and yes, that feels like forever, especially when it’s raining). Obviously there are no “ghost crossings” in the first case, but it happens in the second case, a very busy road with very few breaks in traffic (nine times in ten I can’t cross till the light changes).

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      Those things you aren’t considering when being inconsiderate are the problems of others. You’re ignoring the meanings of words, which makes discussing something very difficult. It’s fine if you want to say that you are not concerned with being considerate, but it’s bizarre to claim that’s “never inconsiderate.”

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    • Michael B. says:

      As both a driver and pedestrian, I believe that traffic flow and pedestrian safety are both my problems. It’s called contributing to the greater good. Otherwise known as “Can’t we all get a long?”

      When I’m stepping out into a crosswalk (with no crosswalk light), I always pause for a second or two to see if there is a break in traffic coming up that I can exploit, both for my own safety and so that I don’t need to make a row of cars come to a screeching halt JUST BECAUSE I CAN. Likewise, I happily stop to let pedestrians cross even when they are not aggressively indicating their need to do so.

      I understand that pedestrians feel powerless against cars, but this psychological need to assert your power by sticking it to car drivers is childish and self-defeating.

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  7. H Sams says:

    A better solution is to have the light change very soon after the button is pressed by the pedestrian (assuming it had not changed recently). That way, the human walking is not a “scofflaw” or jaywalking, and the driver gets the satisfaction that they did indeed have to apply their brake to allow one to pass.

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  8. Kevin says:

    I think the more important question about crosswalk buttons is: what exactly does pushing the button do? I often think of them more like the ‘close door’ buttons on elevators. I push the button, then the doors close, but I don’t think that there is necessarily a causal loop there. Similarly with crosswalk buttons. Once it’s pushed, the light changes, but was it going to do that anyway? Most people have no idea (well, I don’t at least; and I’m clearly a good proxy for most people :)

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    • Mark says:

      The button – when it functions at all – sometimes extends the length of the green period to give pedestrians enough time to walk across. It probably won’t decrease the time spent waiting for the green signal to start.

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      • Ami says:

        In my walkable neighborhood there are some lights that exist solely to stop traffic for the pedestrian crosswalk – in these cases the light only changes to red if someone pushes the button. At other intersections the default light timing is too short to allow crossing, so the walk signal is only activated if the button is pushed (and the light is lengthened to allow a safe crossing). At another three-way intersection (directly outside my gym’s windows) I’ve noticed that the light is always green for the main road unless the walk button is pushed or a car stops in the left-turn lane of the cross street.

        Personally I will push the button at the first corner I reach, then go ahead and cross the side street and push the other button to ensure the walk sign comes on for the crosswalk I actually intend to use. I can tell that my button push registers because the side street’s walk sign will immediately start counting down for the light to change.

        One reason that I will push the button then not cross is if there is no indication that my button push had any effect – I’ll wait a bit but eventually walk down to another intersection and push that button instead – I wouldn’t do this if all crosswalks gave feedback that my request registered and the light is going to change within a reasonable wait time.

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