A common sight, especially in suburbia, is the "push button" at an intersection. I come to an intersection and see a big button telling me to push it in order to cross the street. I push the button, and nothing happens. I push the button again and again. Eventually, the light turns red at the intersection and I cross, never knowing whether the button did any good.
I recently learned that the purpose of the button is not to make the light change more rapidly, but to give pedestrians more time to cross when the light does change. At one eight-lane street in Jacksonville, pedestrians have 49 seconds to cross if they push the button, and only 11 seconds otherwise. Needless to say, the combination of high-speed streets and short crossing times breeds pedestrian injuries: most recently, a woman was killed by a speeding vehicle while crossing the street on the way to Yom Kippur services.
It seems to me that these "push buttons" are not an ineffective way to improve pedestrian safety. As noted above, a push button often will not tell pedestrians what it does; thus, the pedestrian will not even know that the button gives the pedestrian more time. I do not see why the pedestrian should have to be an expert on traffic policy to have a decent amount of time to cross.
Instead, every pedestrian should have a decent amount of time to cross- at least 49 seconds, or better yet, 60 (as I saw at one Washington, D.C. intersection last month) seconds. Since cars routinely wait far more than 60 seconds to cross some intersections, it seems to me that 60 seconds should be a normal traffic-light time, button or no button.
Another improvement (recently enacted at Jacksonville's intersection of death) is to create a countdown clock, so that the pedestrian knows how much time he has to cross. Whether the pedestrian has 11 seconds or 60, he should at least know how risky his trip is.
But even with long crossing times, a pedestrian still risks her life when crossing the street for another reason: just because the pedestrian has the light on her side does not mean there are no cars coming at her. Here in New York, when I see a "Walk" sign at a north-south avenue sign I only know that I need not fear a car coming southbound or northbound- but I am still fair game for cars making left and right turns. For these cars, the light is still green. One solution to this problem is to have "four-way" stops where (at least for a few seconds) the light is red for motorists making turns as well as those who are driving straight through an intersection.