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?

Richard Simon

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?


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.


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...


John B. Pynchon

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.


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.

Wally East

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

H Sams

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.


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 :)


Under some minimal model of economic choice it is of course irrational not to push the button. What that tells me is that economic modelling approaches have a very hard time to actually explain human behaviour rather than just back and over fitting observed patterns.


What is it about being the driver of a car that makes us so impatient? Do you not see the hypocrisy in asking pedestrians to wait 10 or 20 seconds before hitting the button (after which, they must still wait their turn for their light to change) so that you as a driver can avoid a 30 second wait at a light?

Kiaser Zohsay

Is it still inconsiderate if the button doesn't do anything?



Why not simply create buttons that actually react *when* you push them? The issue is not that pedestrians are inconsiderate; it's that (typically) they have no idea when the light will actually switch to their favor. If you don't know if you'll have 5 or 50 seconds of waiting around, you're much more likely to cross whenever an opportunity arises (whether or not you have the light).

If urban planners placed more value on unimpeded pedestrian traffic - by giving priority to the crosswalk button - this would be a moot point.

Enter your name...

The pedestrian crossing buttons that I encounter do not seem to affect vehicular traffic flow. They just light up the "walk" sign, in one instance, for the first 20 seconds out of the 60-second green light, but not at all if you push the button one second after the light turns green.


There's a similar problem with people pushing elevator buttons that they don't need. In China, I lived in a dorm where you could actually cancel the floor by pushing the button again... Of course, this confused the "jab at button a gazillion times" crowd, because sometimes the elevator would skip their floor.

The main problem with the crosswalk lights is that they take forever to work. Maybe we could implement lights that actually turned red more quickly, instead of waiting for 40 seconds or so? That would solve the problem of people crossing before the light turns.


So, if I push the button and then realize that I could go ahead and cross, how does my continuing to stand there waiting for the "walk" signal make anything more efficient for either the drivers or myself? You're basically saying that I should be punished with a street corner time out for having pushed the button without checking first, which is just silly.

Steven Gangstead

"My car burns gas, you pedestrians should be ashamed!"

Nice try.


A better solution would be a nationwide implementation of extremely high penalties for jaywalking. In CA, for example, it is my understanding that the ticket for jaywalking -- which is enforced -- is on the order of $150. That's quite a deterrent. If people were prevented from ever being scofflaws, the considerateness issues that Mr. Ayres identifies would never arise in the first place.

If you want to cross the street, you should be forced to wait for official permission to do so provided by a light or a duly identified representative of the ruling regime (crossing guard, policeman, etc.). The fact that we allow so many to get away with openly flaunting our traffic safety laws is fairly shocking when you really think about it. The grave environmental consequences of an unnecessarily pressed crossing button is only the tip of the iceberg.


In lots of cities crosswalk buttons don't even operate for most hours of the day. The lights are on timers and it doesn't matter how many times someone presses the x-walk button, it'll change on a given schedule. The only time they usually work is later at night when there's much less traffic.

Google the phrase "Do crosswalk buttons work" and have some fun.

Mike B

In most places outside of New Englande the crosswalk button is usually a placebo that has no effect on the traffic light cycle. In New Englande the transportation departments give Pedestrians their own light state where all other traffic is stopped in all directions. In those cases I consider any use of the pedestrian button to be inconsiderate due to its horribly inefficient implementation.


This is quite inane. As a pedestrian, there's often no way to know how long you will be waiting before there's a break in traffic. Unless the street is completely clear when you arrive at the crosswalk, it makes sense to go ahead and push the button with the assumption that it will let you cross before there's a natural break in traffic.

If there is an inefficiency in doing so, it's because there's too much of a delay between pushing the button and the walk signal.