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What Walk Buttons Do (and Don't Do)

Are pedestrian walk buttons effective, or do they only give us the illusion of control? It can vary.
September 10, 2019, 2pm PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Crosswalk Button
J. NIBO

With a focus on Washington D.C., Jordan Pascale discusses what can seem like one great mystery to pedestrians: the walk button. "You generally expect something to happen when you push a button. Especially when a sign encourages you do so. But that's not generally the case with pedestrian buttons in the District. They often don't accomplish what you're hoping for: the ability to cross the street faster."

Despite the distinct sense that walk buttons only give walkers the illusion of control, the situation has improved over time. Before the rise of computerized traffic signals, Pascale writes, pedestrians often had to resort to the "beg button" to get the right-of-way. Now, traffic signals generally give D.C. pedestrians the walk sign "when it's their turn." The downside is that "if there is a push button, it generally won’t make the walk signal come faster."

Still, on some intersections, pushing the button activates audio cues for the visually impaired. And D.C. has implemented HAWK (High-intensity Activated crossWalK) signals at some mid-block crossings for the sole benefit of pedestrians.

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Published on Thursday, August 8, 2019 in WAMU
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