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

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  1. 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.

  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. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s a game in which you’re not sure whether your turn will be honored unless you ask in a specific and often inconvenient way, and where other players’ turns are privileged above yours. Pressing a button is akin to saying, “Please, sir, might I cross?” And the answer is always, “Probably, when we get around to it.” That’s why they’re beg buttons.

    • Cars also have “beg buttons ” in the form of detection loops in the pavement. The left turn light comes on only when there’s a vehicle waiting to turn. The problem isn’t the buttons per se but rather how they are used, and where they are located.

      • Yes, I think the comparison to left turn arrows for people driving is useful because it highlights the priority of different users and movements. Along MLK in Rainier Valley people making left turns in cars experience the level of passive detection that SDOT is touting in the beg buttons of the future. But people driving straight on MLK get the green automatically. You don’t see cars constantly stopping just because there was no one driving immediately ahead of them to trigger the green light. They get the green whenever the train triggers the signal too. If we prioritized pedestrian movement the walk sign would be in the same category as the straight green light. We wouldn’t be promising to someday make walking as convenient as getting a left turn arrow.

        • Great point. Yes, along major arterials like MLK, peds should always get a WALK whenever arterial traffic gets a Green. On a slightly different note, I observed ped crossing lights on MLK only provide 5 seconds of Walk light before the Don’t Walk light starts flashing. Only 5 seconds out of 80 or more when it’s legal to step off the curb. Signal design by people who never walk anywhere.

      • Detector loops are not the same as beg buttons – just by the very act of being there, drivers are given a turn to go.

        A pedestrian could wait all day without being given a turn, unless they push the button. They literally have to ask permission (or “beg”).

        It’s worth noting that there are many different reasons for beg buttons. In places with loop detectors or half-signals, it makes sense to require pedestrians to push the button. However, we’ve been seeing intersections without loop detectors require pushing a button. In other words, the light always turns green for cars (even if none are there), but pedestrians will never get a walk signal unless they push the button.

        So in general, there’s a bit of nuance. However, the ask is pretty basic – if you’re expecting lots of pedestrians at an intersection (hello SLU), don’t make them beg to cross the street.

        • OK, it’s basic and the feeling is understandable, but we seem to be somewhat in the dark as to what this would do to overall signal timing. I’m saying, green lights are shorter without a default walk, if no one pushes the button so we assume there’s no one trying to walk across. That means the more throughput, less traffic backed up waiting for that green to finish. Is that true, and how much difference is there? Do we have traffic capacity to spare, if it means making pedestrians feel better about their walk signals?

    • “Victimhood” is a bit of hyperbole, too. “Beg” describes the feeling I have with these buttons – the situation where you have to ask for something that privileged users (cars and bicycles) receive automatically.

      That said, an article on the matter would do well to present the positive reasons for this policy, that we stand to sacrifice with automatic pedestrian Go. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that it changes the signal timing for the whole sequence — if the phase has to account for a pedestrian crossing, that may make it longer, either because the vehicle-only green is too short for pedestrian crossing, or to allow more throughput when pedestrians interfere with turning traffic. So already severe traffic throughput problems could get worse, for the benefit of easing my resentment (really, the practical problem is that I can cross in 1/2 the time allotted, but I don’t get the signal unless I arrive ahead of time for the whole thing.) Again, I haven’t done the research for the article, but maybe someone should have.

      • Applying the concept of “efficiency” equally to pedestrian and vehicle movement is a good way to achieve lousy urbanism and dangerous intersections. Pedestrianism is inherently fragile, and pushbuttons are one minor way to discourage it. This is not about fairness in the abstract; it’s about creating an environment that’s conducive to walking, and pushbuttons are antithetical to that. Pedestrians simply don’t like them, no matter what you call them.

        If you’re talking about a situation where a pedestrian can use a button to assert control over the crossing, such as a half-signal or the Tokyo crossing that I described, that seems like a nice idea. It empowers pedestrians to say, “It’s my turn, and you need to stop right now.”

        This is unintuitive, I think. “We should all take turns” works well when you’re playing Monopoly. In a dense urban environment, design that is “unfairly” biased in favor of pedestrians is, in fact, fair and appropriate, and is what you’ll find in great urban environments around the world.

        • Are you implying that Seattle should have cross walks with buttons that go to “Walk” as soon as possible (Traffic light goes straight to yellow, then red. Walk signal goes to “Walk”) or what are you suggesting at all the busy crosswalks in Downtown?

          • I’m suggesting they shouldn’t have buttons. Leading pedestrian signals are appropriate for a lot of downtown intersections, but other than that a standard signal cycle is fine.

            A place where “straight to walk” would be appropriate is, for example, Rainier and Weller. Not a lot of pedestrians, but you can hit the button and wait two minutes if you hit it at the wrong part of the cycle.

      • I don’t know if the semantic distinctions between ask, request, beg, etc. are really going to shed much light on the issue. One could argue that, if you know you’ll get it, it isn’t even a request, it’s a demand, or … However you slice it, though, you’re a 2nd class participant in this deal, and the cars and bicycles are 1st class. What’s the harm? At worst, I suppose it breeds a degree of disrespect. Maybe that’s just me. I not infrequently cross against the light, since I consider that I’m as entitled to cross as the cars, even if I got there a second too late to put in my “request.”

      • One intersection I regularly encounter is so short-cycled that it’s practically like you ask for – you’re nearly guaranteed to arrive at red, and wait for the green. It will go green right away, when it senses your vehicle, but it’s super annoying and not good for throughput – not an expert here either, but I’m pretty sure that the slack in green phases is normally tuned for optimum throughput, and shortening it for normal intersections would cause massive stop-and-go slowdowns.

    • So you and the Urbanist support vandalizing public property to promote your agenda, at a cost to taxpayers of $300 per intersection to remove the stickers. But that’s OK, because you’re just so much more righteous than the rest of us.

  4. 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.

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