Would this really fuck up traffic?
January 30, 2023 4:39 PM   Subscribe

I have a friend who is fed up with living in Toronto, "a city that prioritizes the car". His way of rebelling is to press every single "Press to cross the street beg button" that he passes, regardless of whether he intends to cross the street. He insists that if enough people do it, it will fuck up traffic and cause the city to stop installing these evil things. Is he right?

To be clear, Toronto has two styles of buttons, one which is blue and the purpose of which is to turn on audio cues for the hard of seeing. These lights will change regardless of whether the button is pushed.

The others are black, colloquially known as "beg buttons," which exist at intersections which will never change for pedestrians unless pressed or if a car is also trying to cross the intersection. These buttons are not labeled as such and foreigners or those not in the know can wait a substantial amount of time before realizing nothing will happen unless they press the button.

The beg buttons do not only exist at small intersections. They are everywhere, on major streets and intersections.

As an example, we have one major street, Parkside Drive, which runs south from Bloor Street (one of our largest E/W streets) to two major thoroughfares (the Queensway and Lakeshore Blvd). There are about a half dozen streets that cross Parkside Drive with a traffic light and not a single one of them will turn green for a pedestrian wanting to cross E/W without a beg button being pushed — this, despite multiple people being killed each year on the street and a single speed camera on this street generating 10% of the revenue from speed cameras for the entire city. I personally cross Parkside Drive on foot twice a day and every single day without fail I see people run red lights.

My friend only pushes the beg buttons.

If a substantial number of people did this, would it affect anything? Would it cause the city to change its policy and eliminate beg buttons?

What are the upsides and downsides, from a city planning / infrastructure pov, of such a silent and seemingly pointless rebellion?
posted by dobbs to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Eliminate the buttons, maybe. Replace them with something that works for pedestrians? In Doug Ford's John Tory's Toronto? Absolutely not.
posted by rodlymight at 4:59 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]

No, it won't affect anything.

Your description of how the traffic lights work matches pretty much every place I've ever lived. Intersections in areas with really heavy pedestrian traffic (like, downtown) get a walk signal with no button on every light - for cars, those intersections are often purely timed and not based on a sensor. Elsewhere, even on very large streets, you have to push a button to get a walk light, while for cars there are induction loops buried in the pavement to alert the system that a car is there (or, more common lately, optical sensors on top of the lights monitoring the lanes). Essentially, it's a beg button for a car.

I don't see any logical path where pushing a button at intersections makes the city decide to turn all their intersections into timed signals instead of "beg buttons" for both cars and pedestrians. Pushing the button would make me think the system is working as intended.
posted by LionIndex at 5:18 PM on January 30 [5 favorites]

Every vehicle mile traveled costs us, collectively, quite a bit. In deaths, in health, in climate, in quality of living, and, yeah, in the income and property taxes we also pay to support automobiles. The only real incremental drivers face for the costs they impose on us is the time spent in traffic congestion.

Unfortunately, that cost doesn't really benefit us more than just the deterrence, and clearly it doesn't do a lot of deterrence.

But at least mashing the beg buttons imposes that (small) additional cost on drivers.

On the other hand, from a macroeconomic perspective, drivers are a large enough lobby that I could imagine the city replacing beg buttons with say optical pedestrian detectors or something else that deprioritizes pedestrians even further.

So I don't have a good answer, but my guess is that if the city replaced beg buttons with always having a pedestrian cycle, you'd get more people showing up to scream at city hall than you will pedestrians advocating for sanity, and until that shifts pressing the beg buttons pretty much doesn't get ya anything.
posted by straw at 5:18 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]

If a substantial number of people did this, would it affect anything?

Yes, because it adds more red time throughout the grid, so mean transit times have to go up for cars traversing those intersections. I'm not an expert at traffic analysis but I have studied traffic models at the graduate level, and it's kind of hard to see how this wouldn't have a jamming effect. In theory they could try to compensate for the beg button usage by dynamically adjusting other times to be longer so that total red time per hour stays unchanged. But that seems highly unlikely and I still think it would have a jamming effect at a certain point, though it may require more people pushing the buttons without crossing. In some sense, this is analogous to pressing buttons on an elevator for floors you're not going to. Even if there's a computer in there that tries to compensate, it's not going to catch up to the case where you hadn't pressed extra buttons.

Would it cause the city to change its policy and eliminate beg buttons?
Highly unlikely imo, my hunch is you'd be better off joining whatever pedestrian/mobility advocacy groups are probably already there.

Then again, pushing the buttons needlessly seems to only hurt transit times of people in cars, and I have definitely done it on occasion when frustrated with anti-pedestrian design!
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:20 PM on January 30 [6 favorites]

Hi there, here's the perspective of a Canadian cop who is not your cop, not a Toronto cop, and mostly thinking about this from a personal/philosophy perspective, as this isn't something I've run into at work. That being said I've run into something I think is functionally similar, hence why I changed into this sock account in the first place today.

(Side point, I'm not sure why you or your friend think these things are evil, like, that wasn't clear to me? That might be a me problem, but if you felt it was important to understanding the question then you may want to clarify.)

Ok so...
To answer your questions, there are a couple levels of analysis we can go with.

If a substantial number of people did this, would it affect anything? In theory yes, but it would take a lot of people doing it to be a noticeable amount. (Where for noticeable I mean it might show up in traffic studies but for reasons discussed below I don't think the CAUSE would actually show up in most traffic studies.)

Would it cause the city to change its policy and eliminate beg buttons? This suggests the city is paying close enough attention to realize this is what is causing traffic problems, and I don't think that's the case in Toronto. Even in your hypothetical where people do it a ton, the folks who are hired to do traffic studies are given very narrow reporting criteria, count X, Y, and Z ONLY. So even if they saw multiple people pushing the button AND realized it was an issue it probably doesn't exist on their reporting form. Unless your friend mentions this to a traffic engineer and makes a public campaign about it, I doubt the city would ever notice.

So then the point I actually came to make: the most obvious impact of having mostly empty crosswalks most of the time is that drivers will start to think they are always empty all of the time and that pedestrian fatalities will go up as a result.

So to re-state my position with that in mind:

Would it cause the city to change its policy and eliminate beg buttons? I think the city would notice more pedestrians being killed, not be able to figure out why, and probably end up installing more of the things to try to make it stop.

So I would respectfully ask you to ask your friend, to not do that, because I think (in a statistically significant but somewhat indirect way) they're going to get someone killed.

For further discussion on this point see Fixed vs. Actuated Signalization, and the City of Toronto page on Pedestrian Crossovers (as opposed to Pedestrian Countdown Signals)

For discussion on a similar points, see The Hidden Dangers Of Crosswalk Timers and Alarm Fatigue.
posted by BlueSock at 5:22 PM on January 30 [26 favorites]

Arguably, it would make traffic congestion worse, leading to more vehicles on the road for longer, increasing pollution, and maybe resulting in the development of more roads to cope with increased congestion (that last one’s pushing it from one guy pressing buttons but you see where I’m going).

(Also: Almost all traffic light crossings in the UK have these buttons too, I don’t think they’re unusual?)
posted by penguin pie at 5:23 PM on January 30 [10 favorites]

I moved from a city where I'm not quite sure what the beg buttons were for. They'd get you a crosswalk light eventually. To a city where the beg buttons work. Hit the button, and expect the light to change some time in the near future.

I think the best you might get out of hitting all the beg buttons is 1. some minor petty retribution and 2. a tiny chance that some driver will say "that's one stop light too many, I'm taking the bike!" or something like that.

But I have actually heard this theory before, so maybe it is a thing.
posted by aniola at 5:25 PM on January 30

I do try to hit the button when I see anticipated bike/ped/etc folks who might want it.
posted by aniola at 5:26 PM on January 30

I think this will work about as well as any passive aggressive behavior. I hate beg buttons, but I seriously doubt that the response to "Often people push them and the sidewalks are empty while traffic waits" would be "We should just make it so the traffic always has to wait even when the sidewalks will be empty." I also concur that it may slow traffic in a way that frustrates people and in response they drive even more carelessly.

Your friend would have more impact saving that energy up to attend a city planning forum on some regular basis (quarterly? monthly?) and speaking out there. Change in those venues is frustratingly slow, but then at least you can articulate a message instead of hoping that your unusual behavior is properly interpreted.
posted by meinvt at 5:35 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]

The only difference I foresee is, if the city is tracking the usage of those buttons they'll pat themselves on the back for increasing the usage of pedestrian infrastructure.
posted by klanawa at 5:38 PM on January 30 [6 favorites]

I think you would start teaching drivers that the lights are broken and they stop looking for pedestrians.

This also assumes that individual drivers think the solution to gridlock is to get a bike or take the bus* or whatever. In my experience drivers don’t think like that.

*Note that any gridlock would also punish anyone who takes the bus or any other public transit that uses the street.
posted by Ookseer at 5:41 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure why you or your friend think these things are evil

Personally, I think beg buttons are insulting as a pedestrian. If -- as is adopted policy in many places, including Toronto -- pedestrians and pedestrian safety is important, then people should not have to ask to safely cross a road as soon as possible. Cars don't have to take an affirmative action to get access to cross the street; why do we require this of pedestrians? In particular, it puts pedestrians at disadvantage at the widest, busiest roads which have long signal cycles; you might arrive with enough time to safely cross with the light, but because you didn't hit a button a few seconds before you got there when the light changed, you have to stand in a dangerous, unpleasant location for two minutes waiting for the cycle to come around again.

Anyways, my personal opinion aside, whether they even work can be situational. Some never worked, some have been disconnected but left in place, and some may be in places where the lights operate on fixed time sequence to maximize throughput from 6 AM to 8 PM, and then on the beg button overnight.

Pressing them all of the time, he'll (very slightly) slow down traffic, as SaltySaltcid points out, and he'll slightly reduce the time until the button breaks and some poor bastard gets stuck on the side of the road with no way to get a walk signal. And he might feel better, which is worth something.

All of that said, I think your friend has a roughly equal chance of getting Toronto to be more serious about flood mitigation by pissing into Lake Ontario to make its level rise.
posted by Superilla at 5:41 PM on January 30 [7 favorites]

I think the better thing for your friend to do is to speak with the local councillor as they can actually get things done as opposed to everyone pushing the button which may have an effect but as BlueSock notes might make the situation worse.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:57 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]

I am a civil engineer who works in signals engineering (amongst other things). I have programmed how pedestrian buttons work at specific intersections.

Every intersection is programmed differently. Many have different rules for time of day, days of the week, and holidays. Some intersections are coordinated, some are not. There are times set for how long a green will be, and a yellow (the yellow is based on what's called the kinematic equation, found in various vehicular traffic standards). There will be a time set for how long the pedestrian crossing will be, including the "walk" and the flashing "don't walk" or "clear" time. All of those times can vary based on pre-programmed rules, as well as various demand sensors (magnetic loops, radar, pushbuttons).

Pushing the pedestrian button puts in a call to the signal, which then does different things depending on how that specific signal is programmed. It could:

* Tell the controller to shorten a green time to switch over to that phase/movement earlier
* Lengthen the pedestrian crossing time the next time it comes up
* Add a leading pedestrian interval (LPI) allowing peds more time on their own phase before vehicular traffic is allowed to go
* Switch over to a pedestrian-only phase, if that's something the controller can do and the municipality supports

Because each phase - a phase is a period of time in the signal clock that determines which movements are permitted, typically even phases are major streets, odd phases are minor streets and/or turns, and then peds have their own phases that can go with vehicle phases or separately - has its own timers, it's impossible to say what would or wouldn't happen. Generally we're talking about the adjustment of a few seconds, which can make a world of different for a person crossing a street, but gets lost in the noise when you consider the vehicular traffic of an area as a whole.

I don't know Toronto signal rules so can't say for certain what this would or wouldn't do there; my guess is that it's like most cities, and even if every button was pushed at every signal, simultaneously, it would all come out in the wash. Pedestrian phases are generally programmed around vehicle phases, not the other way around. You might get a little extra queuing, but probably not enough for anyone to really notice.

Now! That's about pedestrian buttons in general, not these specific "beg buttons".

It's highly unlikely that a targeting action using these buttons will have a citywide effect; if there's too much of a queue, drivers will route around it, take sidestreets, etc. Generally there's going to be a buffer involved, too, so that even if someone just hammers on the button, at some point it will stop accepting calls and try and let some drivers through. Again, without knowing the specific rules at the specific crossings, it's impossible to say what this would do in real counting-seconds terms.

I don't know what the Canadian laws around this information are; in the US, people can request any of this timing information from municipalities. Your friend could request the timing sheets and programming logic for any crossings they are specifically interested in and see how they work and answer for themselves if this is likely to have an effect.
posted by curious nu at 6:08 PM on January 30 [32 favorites]

One possible very-bad-for-pedestrians outcome if everyone did this is that the lights would be adjusted so that the amount of crossing time dispensed by pressing the button was reduced.

Different lights dispense different amounts of crossing time when the button is pressed. Many lights already dispense an inadequate amount of crossing time, especially for parents with strollers/prams, elderly people, or wheelchair users. The last thing pedestrians need is to have the crossing time allowed reduced further.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 6:18 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]

Oh! Also, there's almost never tracking data on these things, or any other signal. Cities generally only respond to complaints. So there's probably no upside to doing this from either a planning or engineering angle (separate things!) because the people that care the most, and WANT to prioritize peds, won't have the data needed to make those changes. Someone will be highly annoyed they're waiting an extra 2 minutes to get home, but then immediately forget about it when they walk in the door and are trying to connect with family, get food sorted out, or simply collapse from their commute. Many people don't even know who to complain to, or how to complain, and so give up.

I'd suggest asking (or "asking" via local press) for pedestrian and vehicular counts, alongside requesting the timing/programming information, and getting active with local political groups. The infrastructure is unlikely to be able to support the kind of protest action your friend is looking for, which in and of itself could be an interesting avenue to pursue.

Also also, investigate if there are different rules/laws between the city and your province or other larger-entity, and if any of these crossings are in someone else's right-of-way. In my city, some large roads are technically state-managed right-of-way and that causes an endless number of problems when we're trying to prioritize pedestrian safety, and the state is prioritizing moving cars, and we're legally hamstrung about what we can/can't do.
posted by curious nu at 6:25 PM on January 30 [7 favorites]

I'm not into Toronto but in Ottawa they use button pushes to determine level of use for walk signals that aren't automatic (ie that require the beg button to be pressed). If someone tries to make a case that a particular intersection should have an automatic walk signal (one that doesn't need anyone to press a button), those button pushes your friend is doing could contribute to that if they are frequent enough that it pushes that crosswalk into a higher level of use category.

That said, no one is actively looking at these things. It would take someone seeking to make the change.

Honestly, 99.999999% of drivers have no idea how intersection light changes are triggered (especially for pedestrians) or timed so it wouldn't even occur to most people that this is what was happening. It would just be another red light for a mode of transportation woefully ill-suited to an urban environment like much of Toronto proper.
posted by urbanlenny at 6:29 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]

I doubt anything will happen, and people won't really notice. A city near me made all their beg buttons automatically activate on every cycle for the pandemic, regardless of the amount of pedestrian traffic, and hasn't changed many of them back. There has not been a driver or pedestrian revolt. The only real impact is that drivers are slightly more inconvenienced.
posted by meowzilla at 6:59 PM on January 30

From what I understand, many crosswalk buttons are essentially placebos (i.e., they're not actually connected to anything). This article supports this view.
posted by alex1965 at 7:08 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]

Cecil Adams addressed this in 1993. Maybe things have changed, but his tests suggested that during prime driving hours (at one crosswalk on a busy street in downtown Chicago) the buttons did nothing at all, but at nighttime they did.
posted by zompist at 8:17 PM on January 30

My guess is no. I was told by someone in traffic control that the majority of the buttons are dummy buttons, whose purpose is to convince pedestrians that they can speed up the sequence. If a pedestrian things they have been given priority they will wait. Otherwise they may just look both ways and dash through. The purpose of these pedestrian crossing buttons is to lower the number of people jaywalking and that is all they are meant to do. I suggest you take a stop watch and time it to see if pressing the buttons actually causes the pedestrian crossing to light up sooner or if the buttons in Toronto are dummy buttons too.

The buttons that do work - hopefully - are the ones that immediately start flashing to stop traffic when a pedestrian pushes them in order to cross at a cross walk that is not at an intersection. The design of those buttons positions the lights so that the drivers can see them but the pedestrian who pushes the button has to take it on trust that they have begun flashing. A few years back they installed one of those button sets on a busy street in my city so that it could be used by children and their guardians who wanted to cross the street to get to the school. But they installed the buttons in midsummer and only activated them at the end of August, by which time there had been two people serious injured, who had assumed the buttons and lights they could not see were working, as well as several minor injuries and near misses.

Very likely if your friend were to press that type of button that has an immediate response he could disrupt traffic. But I would strongly discourage him from doing so. Drivers are already prone to decide they had better not stop lest they get rear ended or injured by halting too rapidly. Pressing buttons and then not crossing will encourage more drivers to ignore the lights and just keep going, assuming that there is never really a risk of hitting a pedestrian.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:38 PM on January 30

General policy: don't take advice from people who are so mad at the world that they stomp around pressing all the buttons they can find.
posted by foursentences at 9:15 PM on January 30 [8 favorites]

Where the number of pedestrians wanting to cross is sufficiently large, install a beg button for drivers to press to cross a pedestrian cross-walk. That would work wonders!
posted by rongorongo at 3:43 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]

Increasing the time cars spend idling at red lights increased pollution, so please don’t.
I moved to a much quieter area; if I was still a daily pedestrian, I’d probably have a paint gun by now. Self-defense.
posted by theora55 at 4:51 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]

I do this.

There's a footpath and cycle lane I use every day (UK). Where it crosses a street, there's a set of traffic lights with a button which triggers a red light. I press it every time, even if there are no cars coming and I can safely cross without it.

This is a tiny, petty, insignificant habit which obviously won't change a lot — but:
- if a car does come along, then some cyclist or pedestrian a bit behind me might benefit from the red light.
- my city provides great bus service and pretty-good cycle infrastructure, and it's still not nearly enough to incentivise drivers out of their cars. They need a bit more "stick". Making driving in the city more frustrating is a public good.

But then, I also support the trend of deflating the tyres of SUVs in cities. YMMV.
posted by Klipspringer at 12:48 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]

(For those interested in just how much of a difference there can be between life in a city which promotes non-car transport and one which doesn't - I recommend NotJustBikes - for example "The Only Car-Free Neighbourhood in Canada (and why you can't live there)" - which talks specifically about Toronto. He is an American (I believe) living in the Netherlands, so is not short of examples to use as contrasts.)
posted by rongorongo at 10:44 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]

... here is his description of the traffic light priority on a business park in the Netherlands - and which is typical everywhere in the country.
1. Top priority is given to buses - because they are carrying many people.
2. Next priority goes to bikes and pedestrians - each in the own separate section but crossing together.
3. Third priority goes to cars.
- Note that there is no beg button; all three transport modes are given a green light on their approach to the junction, if nobody else is already there. That means no one is waiting pointlessly AND it avoids cars or buses having to waste energy stop/starting, waste energy idling and emitting more fumes the whole time.
- Less busy crossings always default to green for cyclists and pedestrians, rather than cars.

So, returning to your question: there is not really any logic to pressing the pedestrian beg button when passing the crossing - for the reasons others have noted. However there is considerable mileage to be had from lobbying planners about the health and environmental efficiency - as well as the lower cost - of installing infrastructure like this.
posted by rongorongo at 4:40 AM on February 1

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