Seattle’s transportation department missed the mark in their recent response to the campaign Give Pedestrians the Green. #GivePedstheGreen argues that in urban villages pedestrians should be automatically given the right (without having to push the “beg button”) to cross the intersection in the same direction as vehicular traffic when the light is green. However, in a post last week by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) entitled, “Why We Need the Pedestrian Push Button”, more questions than answers were created regarding how the transportation department will respond. Their article wrongly conflates signal re-programming with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements to install physical beg buttons and suggests that futuristic technology will solve the problem.

By the standards of ADA, pedestrian push buttons are required because they provide audio and vibrotactile feedback to people with disabilities who are crossing the street. But that ADA requirement is separate from SDOT’s practice to program intersections to give drivers priority and require pedestrians to push a beg button in order to get a walk signal. #GivePedstheGreen isn’t an argument that beg buttons should be removed, just that they should be used differently. The buttons can still be there without being necessary in order for pedestrians to get a walk signal.

SDOT does acknowledge that beg buttons can be used differently, but does not offer solutions on how they can do that. The department is working toward drafting a new pedestrian signals policy by the end of the year, but they have not yet revealed any details or committed to improvements that will automatically activate the pedestrian signal when vehicles get a green light.

However, while we don’t know what’s in that draft policy, this article makes clear that people who want a safe and comfortable pedestrian environment should speak out. As if to distract us from the real issues facing people walking today and the need for concrete changes in the policy, SDOT touts the red herring of technology as the solution to pedestrian issues.

SDOT’s argument that passive pedestrian detection or soundscapes will solve problems for the pedestrian experience is both misguided and incorrect. Looking to technology for the answer is the same approach that incurred millions of dollars to deliver the adaptive signaling system on Mercer that hinders pedestrian movement and has been discredited by The Urbanist.

Rather than simply give people on foot the right to cross along with vehicle traffic in the same direction, SDOT continues to pursue “passive pedestrian detection”. This technology is supposed to know where people want to go and activate the signal for them. In some of the busy tourist areas, like 5th Ave N and Denny Way, people often approach an intersection and don’t even know which way they want to go themselves. How is a system going to know? Furthermore, if people don’t realize that they have to push a button today, how will they know that they need to stand in the right spot and face in the right direction for a system to give them the walk signal?

And one can only imagine the next technological frontier that SDOT will reach. Perhaps a partnership with Amazon to replace the pedestrian signals on Mercer Street with drones that pluck pedestrians by the head and lift them over vehicles to cross the street?

Even when SDOT’s new policy is released, reprogramming existing signals will cost money. At the current pace, SDOT’s signals group only has budget to reprogram five intersections per year. Signal improvements have the highest return on investment of any transportation improvement due to the amount of efficiency that all roadway users can reap from an efficiently designed system. Instead, SDOT offers unproven technology on Mercer Street and threatens a new way to slow down people on foot with passive pedestrian detection.

While SDOT is wrong about this, they accept that they need advocates to help them in the right direction. And, fortunately, people are getting louder. The initial petition to Give Pedestrians the Green has hundreds of signatures. And, recently, the unaffiliated Seattle Department of Transformation has created stickers that are appearing all over, shaming the city for its beg button programming.


SDOT says they’re listening. And now they need to hear from advocates who argue for straightforward and common-sense changes to make the pedestrian environment safer and more comfortable: just #GivePedstheGreen!

Adaptive Signal System Kicks Pedestrians To The Curb


  1. Thank you for this. I brought this issue before the Pedestrian Advisory Board a couple of years ago, and Dongho Chang made this same argument, that the ADA requires pushbuttons. Several accessibility experts on the board who are conversant with MUTCD explained that this is not true, that there are ways to satisfy ADA that do not require and are superior to pushbuttons. Furthermore, I continue to encounter new pushbuttons mounted on poles directly in the middle of the sidewalk, which manages to disadvantage both blind and wheelchair-using pedestrians. SDOT moved one of these when I complained repeatedly about it; I guess maybe we all need to adopt one?

    Incidentally, I was in Japan last week and saw an interesting pushbutton configuration at a midblock crossing. There were two pushbuttons, one for pedestrians with a disability and one for those without. My friend who couldn’t read Japanese pressed the “with disability” button and was granted an immediate walk signal. I only felt mildly guilty.

  2. I agree the pushbuttons are a major inconvenience when moving around in dense areas. But I would like to stress the general picture of walkability, walking time, waiting time, sidewalk width and such. Beg buttons are just one component in this puzzle. They are not always bad. For instance, I see the buttons as the only way to create a “pedestrian green wave”, a configuration where you get green signal immediately. I think this can be done in many context. Alternatively, I feel that my walking experience would improve if the junctions were less regulated, for instance, by switching the signals off outside the rush hours. Pedestrians need much less regulation than cars. I would like to see a general research-based awareness among the city officials about the pedestrian traffic needs. What does the extra wait time (and jaywalking) caused by the buttons mean in the more general context of city accessibility? Can this be compensated by other means? Would love if SDOT people could come up with some answers.

  3. Seattle DOT has not come close to prioritizing people who walk. Beg buttons are just an annoying tip of the iceberg. I’m just back from an extended urban trip in the Netherlands, where people walking and biking are considered first, and feel safe using their streets.

    The Dutch DO use beg buttons for people walking on more suburban roads (actually hand-wave-activated buttons because mobility issues may make finger-controlled buttons difficult). On busier streets — near transit stations for example — pedestrian greens are automatic.

    I should note too that Dutch use signals sparingly, instead relying on protected intersections, protected mid-block crosswalks, and protected bike lanes whenever possible.

    • Of course, you don’t have to go to the Netherlands to see pedestrians treated better. Take the practice of allowing construction to shut down the sidewalk – I know that happens everywhere, but I’m told that in other US cities, the city fees for this are steep enough that builders have strong motivation to make it as brief as they can. Dallas was cited as an example. It would be great for The Urbanist to shed some light on that – the Seattle rate structure is available online, but someone would need to explain what the categories mean and so forth. Forcing pedestrians to cross back and forth just to walk along the street is surely much worse than asking them to press that button when they actually want to cross.

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