After reading the recent New Yorker article about the secret life of elevators clued me in to the fact that elevator close door buttons were nothing but scams, I began wondering what other non-functioning buttons I might be in the habit of maniacally thumbing in fruitless pursuit of a social myth. Astute BBG readers can fill in the punch line to that filthy joke in the comments, since I'm over my quota for the day, but Canada.com has an interesting article exposing the truth about another widely suspected placebo button: the pedestrian crossing button.
The amazing revelation? They actually work. At least in Canada.
Transportation planners around Victoria say there are no such "placebo" buttons here, but they add that the effectiveness of the button varies by intersection and region.
Brad Dellebuur, city transportation planner, says pushing the button sends a signal to the intersection's traffic controller that a pedestrian is present and enters the "walk" signal into the system's cycle.
"If you don't press it, some intersections won't give a walk signal," Dellebuur says. The traffic light timing is also determined by the amount of vehicular traffic, which is picked up by sensors imbedded in the road.
This does seem to vary quite a bit from city to city and country to country: in 2002, a reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser reported that 35% of Honolulu's walk buttons were placebos. But in Europe, most pedestrian crossings are fully automatic, and have no buttons. So who knows? Since you can't be sure, we suggest rapidly hammering the button with your fist while jumping up and down impatiently, which is probably what you were doing all along anyway.