Pedestrian crossing buttons: placebos or legit?


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 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.

A ritual crossing via Museum of Hoaxes]

Join the Conversation


  1. Yes, I had always assumed that pushing the button would make the “walk” sign light up when it otherwise wouldn’t. Also at intersections where the lights are controlled by those wires embedded in the road, it lets the system know that someone is there when there’s no car to trip the light change.

    “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…” Nah, too easy. 🙂

  2. “fully automatic” crosswalks?

    Does that mean they have heat sensors or weight sensors or something?

    BTW, the “close doors” elevator at my office does in fact close doors early. I know because I’m often on the receiving end of that passive aggressive behavior.

  3. Geek alert: this is something I’ve been paying attention to for a few years now. I get fascinated by the care and planning that goes into all these little systems that no-one normally notices. When this kicks off on the Tube I get terrifyingly close to trainspotting *shudder*. Anyway:

    In the UK there’s a fairly even mixture of working and non-working buttons.

    Our pelican and puffin crossings (great names, huh?) are button-operated crossings that span a road, nowhere near a junction. When you press the button they stop the traffic and signal pedestrians to cross. Most have limits on how often they’ll stop traffic in a given time period, so the button press is often followed by a delay while the timer runs out. They never stop traffic unless the button is pressed. After some experimentation, I’ve found some which change only if the button is pressed and when a nearby junction is in a specific lighting state.

    At junctions, especially crossroads, the traffic lights usually follow a fixed pattern to make traffic flow interact nicely with other junctions nearby. These crossings often do have buttons, but they’re just for show; the safe crossing times are dictated by the changing traffic flow through the junction. If you need to cross more than one road there’s usually a preferred direction to walk around the junction. A junction I cross regularly is timed so that if pedestrians go walk around it anticlockwise, each lane of traffic they need to cross will be stopped in the right sequence. Walking around anticlockwise is far, far slower because after crossing each lane you have to wait for an almost complete cycle of the junction before your next lane is safe to cross.

    A town planner friend of mine also once told me that in Kent (in southern England) there’s at least one long road where all the pedestrian crossings and junctions are timed together. The idea is that if you drive along the road between 25 – 30mph, you’ll only get stopped at one crossing. After you’re released from the first one, the others should change to green just as you get to them. I’ve no idea how well it works but it’s a cool idea.

  4. Anecdotally and with no solid evidence other than my own experience in various Bostonish locations, I can absolutely say that there are buttons in the Bostonland area that do jack to change the signals for cars or pedestrians.

  5. There are a number of Chicago-area pedestrian crossings where if you don’t “Push Button For Walk Signal”, you never get a WALK sign.

    The best zebra crossing signal system I’ve seen was Amsterdam’s, unfortunately the cyclists don’t obey them.

    I seem to recall that a small green LED in the center of the button would light up when pushed, which definitely cut down repeat pressing. And all pedestrian crossings I found, in the city center and even in the industrial outskirts, had loud “CLICK…CLICK” audio cues for the blind.

  6. Canadian, comfirming that it’s true. The street I crossed a few times every day back and forth on my way to and from classes during the school year wouldn’t change unless the button was pushed, or unless cars were also waiting to cross.

    We actually started playing a game to see who could pump the button the most before we could cross, and if memory serves I am the reigning champion with about 86 pushes.

  7. I can vouch for the fact that Sydney, Australia pedestrian buttons not only work, but are fairly sophisticated microcontroller devices.

    They have a microphone to detect ambient noise, so the audible signal (for blind pedestrians) is loud during heavy traffic but quieter in the dead of night.

    They also have a vibrating panel for deaf and blind pedestrians, but I do wonder if they should really be out crossing streets unaided…

    Oh, and only one press is recorded. Repeated pressing does nothing except satisfy the impatient or the OCD sufferers!

  8. Municipalities should label the placebo x-walk buttons as such so that attentive folks like me can avoid spreading germs when I come across a button that benefits me in no way. Or it sounds like a decent graffiti art project to go around and add a tiny standardized sticker.

  9. NYTimes did an article on this in 2004: “For Exercise in New York Futility, Push Button”

    “The city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals, even as an unwitting public continued to push on, according to city Department of Transportation officials. More than 2,500 of the 3,250 walk buttons that still exist function essentially as mechanical placebos, city figures show. Any benefit from them is only imagined.”

  10. “the fact that elevator close door buttons were nothing but scams”

    They’re definitely functional in my building. If you get on the elevator and press it, the doors close immediately. If you don’t, they wait several seconds.

    And chiming in on the walk buttons, here in Columbus Ohio, there are many intersections that won’t give a walk signal unless the button is pressed. Primarily at higher (car) traffic intersections.

  11. I think partly they make impatient pedestrians feel better. Same for elevator “door close” buttons, which are also almost always fake.

  12. Yay! I live in Victoria, and it’s nice to see a mention.

    Having said that, I can verify in my city that most intersections you really do have to push the button – the light won’t change without it. However some of them also emit a ‘beep’ noise when pushed.

    Having lived at an intersection where I could hear -all-the-buttons-being-hammered-dear-god-make-it-stop, please, please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t hammer the button. One push is enough.

    Regardless, is it a bad thing to have a few fake buttons? I feel this xkcd is worth remembering. Having programmed a simulation crosswalk, I am sympathetic.

  13. They do work here in (at least some parts of) the US. Here’s a cool trick that you absolutely shouldn’t try (wink): As some have mentioned, they also control the traffic lights. So if you want to shorten the wait on a red light, have a passenger hop out and hit the crosswalk button for the cross street. This comes in particularly handy for lights that may not be adjusted to detect cars or time of day, leaving you waiting several minutes for a light in the middle of the night with no other traffic.

  14. Just amongst the traffic lights on my bike-to-work route I have observed all of the following:

    A) a couple lights completely ignore the button (on one of these, the button is observably not connected)
    B) one light only turns if you hit the button (or stop over the sensor with more metal than my bike)
    C) one turns green at the same time, but does a shorter green with no walk light if you don’t push
    D) one light changes between behavior A & B based on time of day

    So it’s really up to whoever programs the lights for that intersection. But in a big city, or anywhere that the light is going to change in it’s regular cycle for long enough for you to cross: it’s a placebo.

  15. I am always amazed when I see people furiously pushing “close door” buttons on elevators, and I’m frankly disappointed if the New Yorker wrote an entire article about it. Maybe some elevators do have functioning buttons, but for the vast majority (including all the elevators I come into contact with frequently), the close door (as well as open door, and occasionally up and down) buttons are for elevator technicians and firemen. You’ll be able t identify these in two ways: first, no light comes on when you push the button, and second, there is a slot for a key next to these buttons, often marked “run, stop, normal, fire” etc.

    So stop pushing them!

  16. In Austin TX, near as I can tell, these do work in the sense that when the light changes, you will get a walk signal. But they do nothing to force the light to change, and if you don’t push the button, you won’t get a walk signal.

    Some intersections around here cycle the lights on a timer, and some on an induction-coil sensor. If you’re trying to cross a busy street from an untrafficked street (where sensors are especially likely to be used instead of timers), you could wait an arbitrary amount of time to cross legally.

    It’s just as bad with bikes, since most bikes don’t have enough metal in them to trip those sensors.

  17. Caltrans states that the pedestrian buttons will register up to two pulses.
    In Irvine CA this is essential, in that you must press the button to get a walk signal, the duration of green lights is a little longer with the walk signal, and the walk signal does signal when to stop crossing which is crucial in that the signals switch rapidly here.

  18. We have 20 year old Kone elevators in our building. They have locks for the technicians, but they also have close door buttons.
    Amazingly, these buttons work.
    I think this will vary with the age of the lift and the manufacturer.
    We have Otis lifts in one of the newer buildings, so I’ll have to try it out there.

    There are a lot of pushbuttons for pedestrian crossings in Sydney that were disconnected while there was roadwork and never connected again. Stumbling across one is both exciting and frustrating in roughly equal amounts.

  19. The very new (certainly less than 18 months old) Schindler lifts in my parking building absolutely respond to the close door button – after reading the claim that the button wasn’t hooked up I tested it, and found the same thing that #10 did, pressing the button closes the door right away, otherwise it waits several seconds.

    With pedestrian crossings here in New Zealand the ‘don’t walk’ sign doesn’t even light up red, and pedestrians don’t get included into the sequence, until the button is pressed.

  20. I think the elevator close button varies by country. In the US, they rarely–if ever–seem to work. But I lived in China for 2 years, and they definitely work there. you get in the elevator, you hit the button, the door closes–hopefully before the person hurrying toward you manages to get their hand in the door. On a related note, they also have different ideas on what is/isn’t polite: holding the elevator definitely doesn’t happen.

  21. “Astute BBG readers can fill in the punch line to that filthy joke in the comments,”

    It’s funny because some people aren’t sexually competent!

    In my town, they don’t change the timing, they just make the walk signal appear at the appropriate time. That’s what it sounds like this guy is describing too.

  22. I’m in Toronto, and while most of the buttons actually do something, I’d still call them placebos. Why? Because in most cases the light at that intersection will turn even if you don’t press anything, and there are no cars waiting. And to rub it in, only the car light will turn — the pedestrian light will stay red.

    I found this link describing some more problems with pedestrian signs. And here’s my argument that they are, in fact, placebos — and bad ones, at that.

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