Search the Site

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?