An example of a push button that needs to be activated to trigger the walk signal (aka. beg button) in the Central District. (Photo by author)
An example of a push button that needs to be activated to trigger the walk signal (aka. beg button) in the Central District. (Photo by Natalie Bicknell)

Overshadowed by the recent publicity around Stay Healthy Streets was another change from Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) that may prove to be even more beneficial to people in getting around.

SDOT’s announcement that “Nearly 75% of walk signals in Urban Centers and Hub Urban Villages will now display a walk signal every time there is a green light for cars” is a huge benefit to pedestrians and a win for advocates.

Urban Centers and Hub Urban Villages in central Seattle.

The advocacy group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways (SNG) played a key role in lobbying for these changes and SNG’s Executive Director, Gordon Padelford, explains the significance of the new changes. “This may not sound like a big deal, but the time savings can really add up if you miss a few lights walking half a mile to work, a park, or a light rail station. It’s also a safety issue because we know that when people are faced with inconvenient traffic signals they are more likely to run across the street and endanger themselves.”

The majority of Seattle’s pedestrian signals require a “push to cross”, or “beg button” to activate. Even at the intersections that have been changed, SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson explains the physical push buttons will not be removed as they provide “vibrating and tactile feedback for people with impaired vision or sight.”

However, in the time of a contagious pandemic, requiring people to touch communal surfaces is a big no-no. While Covid-19 was the impetus for the change, SDOT explains, “This is one of the many ways that we are working to address urban traffic trends and provide higher prioritization for people walking and rolling in areas where there is higher activity.”

And, this change is expected to become permanent with an updated signals policy expected this summer. “We plan to convene discussions with our Policy Operation Advisory Group (a recently created advisory group made up of board members from our existing Pedestrian, Bike, and Freight Advisory Boards) in the near future, and then to eventually recommend an updated policy to the Mayor,” Bergerson said.

In addition to automatic walk signals, the policy is expected to bring about other improvements for pedestrians, including “new guidelines to give people more time to cross the street,” according to Bergerson.

While the details of that policy have not yet emerged, it is time to celebrate the changes to push buttons, which SDOT asserts “will have a long-lasting benefit to make our city more livable and accessible.”

However, these changes might not have happened without effective advocacy. In fact, The Urbanist can lay claim to hosting the start of this campaign, with my call to “Give Pedestrians the Green” (#GivePedstheGreen). Hundreds of petition signers prompted SDOT to start updating an outdated signals policy.

In the intervening years, SNG carried the torch, fighting for signals changes as one of its top programmatic priorities. Padelford explains how SNG framed the issue. “When people think about how to make our city more friendly for people to walk and roll, the first things that always come to mind are about allocating more space (i.e., dedicating space for sidewalks),” he said. “A second dimension is who has privilege to safely and comfortably walk and roll on our streets, which is especially important in light of recent racist incidents in NYC and Minneapolis. The third dimension we need to think about is the dimension of time, which is literally metered out by traffic signals.”

The organization delivered this messaging through several methods, recalls Padelford. “We wrote guest posts in blogs, helped reporters understand and cover the issue, led walks with decision makers and community members, testified, talked to our allies about the issue, created a white paper, and sent multiple petitions to city government.”

Influencing signals policy is just one of many accomplishments that SNG deserves credit for over the past several years. Other notable advocacy victories include leading the campaign to reduce speed limits on 2,500 miles of streets, winning $83 million for walking, biking, parks, and affordable housing by convening and organizing the Community Package Coalition, and convincing the city to commit to building out the Basic Bike Network for downtown Seattle.

While this work at a city-wide level may be what SNG is best known for, they benefit from a unique structure that includes over a dozen individual neighborhood groups leading their own initiatives. For example, Queen Anne Greenways helped secure funding and a new design for Thomas Street that prioritizes walking and biking.

The pandemic has changed SNG’s current priorities, putting the urgency of some items in sharper focus. Safe walking and bicycling routes are key for a safe urban transportation network at any time and are even more critical during this pandemic when exercising in our own neighborhoods is one of the healthiest things we can do.

SNG recently announced “8 Solutions for Safe Streets for Social Distancing“, including emergency sidewalk extensions, bike routes, and next-level play streets and streateries. And, while the Stay Healthy Streets expansion and beg button victories represent huge progress toward two of SNG’s solutions, these are not full successes.

SDOT’s current Stay Healthy Streets program is well short of the 130 miles that SNG has called for. And, though SDOT has already updated nearly 450 signals to no longer require pedestrians to push a button to cross, the agency is still evaluating signals on the boundaries of the Urban Centers and Hub Urban Villages and has not yet determined how to update signage for the buttons.

According to SNG’s Padelford, “The work to make signals work better for people isn’t done yet. We are going to keep advocating for a comprehensive signals policy that limits how low long people have to wait for a walk light and gives people enough time to cross the street.”

Article Author

Troy is a pedestrian advocate who serves on the board of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. He loves cities and walking, hiking, and biking. He wrote a book to help others looking to find the right place for them, called Move to the Place of Your Dreams: A Relocation Handbook. By day, he is a professional consultant for a technology firm.