A Typology of Beg Buttons

The mid-august sun is hastening the sweat down your back as you frantically walk-run towards the bus stop where you will catch a bus to your job interview.  Finally the stop comes into sight, and your bus is just pulling into it.  But the stop lies across an intersecting street, and a traffic signal stares back at you with beady demonic eyes.  Finally, a spot of luck – just as you approach the signal turns green, holding the bus at the stop and allowing you passage.  But what’s this?  Instead of the White Man allowing you to cross the street, the Red Hand commands you to halt with the force of law.  You look at the pole and see the hated button that before which you were required to prostrate yourself if you’d wanted to cross with this phase.  Beg button!

Let’s be honest about the purpose of beg buttons.  They don’t exist to make it easier for pedestrians to cross a street.  They don’t exist to accommodate pedestrians with disabilities – even people with impaired vision would be able to cross the street more easily if they didn’t have to push a button first to get an audio signal.  Beg buttons exist so that signals can be timed to pump more cars through.  Here is a field guide to these little monsters:

Double Button

MnDot promotes begging in North Minneapolis

What do you do when a road is too wide for pedestrians to cross in one phase without annoying motorists more than usual?  The Double Button provides a simple answer:  make ‘em cross in two phases.  Whereas a regular beg button guarantees you’ll never make a light, a Double Button smacks you a second time when you get to the median and see the Red Hand still lit up for the second roadway, and so it is the product of a particularly sadistic engineering mind.  Thankfully, they’re mercifully rare in skinny-roaded Minnesota, only popping up in a few spots on Olson Hwy and select other locations.

Snow Buttons

Uphill both ways

These, on the other hand, are cruelly common in Minnesota.  Since “pedestrian amenities” often aren’t high on the priority list, oftentimes a traffic engineer isn’t paying attention to beg button placement, and oftentimes a Snow Button is created.  It’s not uncommon for cities to use sidewalks for snow storage, and sometimes the snow dumps grow until beg buttons are inaccessible.  Hennepin County helpfully added many of these devices, like the one pictured, to Lake Street a few years ago.  In those situations, removing snow from through lanes can also mean removing legal options for crossing the street on foot.

Faux Buttons

Beat up old button

Traffic engineers so love to make pedestrians beg that sometimes they install beg buttons without even connecting them to the signal controller.  You don’t actually have to beg to cross the street in this situation, so they are called Faux Buttons and apparently are just for practice.  Minneapolis doesn’t like idle threats, so unlike Boston, most of our beg buttons are actually functional, although the Faux Button in front of Lee’s at Glenwood and Royalston was only recently connected.

Show Buttons

Just in case you've never seen a walk signal before

So you’ve just finished designing a nice wide four-lane road, with plenty of room to weave in and out of lanes when the car in front of you gets annoying.  You’ve included wide parking lanes on both sides, so the pedestrians will have a buffer from the screeching car traffic.  But parking lanes aren’t the only pedestrian amenity on your road – you’ve also placed beg buttons on every signalized corner.  Unfortunately, due to the generous width of your road, no one can see how ideal for pedestrians the beg buttons make it.  What’s an engineer to do?  Luckily, there are giant reflective signs you can hang above the beg button, that though they’re designed for people who have never seen a walk sign before, are big enough to distract motorists into noticing all your luxurious beg buttons.

No Beg Button

Some pedestrian-actuated signals are meant specifically for visually-impaired people.  For example, the one at Franklin and Lyndale will produce an audio version of whatever the signal cabinet is displaying (either “wait” or “walk sign is on”).  These are not beg buttons, but neither do they seem to be particularly respectful of the people who are visually impaired, in that they represent an extra step that only applies to them.  Also because these features are the exception (there is only the one that I know of), they are of no use to people who haven’t come across this intersection before.  So I would think that if we really want to make our streets less deadly for visually-impaired pedestrians, we would add audio to every signal, as some Japanese cities have done.

Ban Beg Buttons!

Beg buttons don’t criminalize pedestrian activity exactly; they’re more of a fascistic control on it, a permit required for a certain class to travel.    And beg buttons do encourage criminal activity (or rather civil disobedience) by eliminating the possibility of serendipitously approaching a light and being able to cross with the current phase; many people will not wait to cross when the light is in their favor just because of a Red Hand, although many will, giving beg buttons the distinction of simultaneously making it less convenient to walk and also more stressful.  A city that is interested in encouraging pedestrian activity should discourage beg buttons, or ban them if possible.

Since beg buttons are a very personal issue for me, I’ve cross-posted this at my personal blog, Getting Around Minneapolis.


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24 Responses to A Typology of Beg Buttons

  1. gml4 February 13, 2012 at 4:22 am #

    Great insights on the buttons. I've never thought too much bout them before, but that I am attempting to teach my kids proper street crossing procedures, and never realized how intimidating walking by all those vehicles can be until I'm attempting to teach my seven year old with Down Syndrome the need to watch for cars, and when to cross, and when not to cross.

  2. Ian Bicking February 13, 2012 at 4:32 am #

    I have a peculiar kind of beg button next to my house that I've yet to understand. Well, first the buttons do get the light to change – the light only changes when the button is pressed or if there's a car waiting. As such they are somewhat necessary, though rather hostile to the bikers that also frequent the intersection and will wait forever unless they go up on the sidewalk and hit the button. (Also I'm pretty sure a couple of the buttons aren't hooked up, meaning that you are at the mercy of a car arriving – but the whole system is so unpredictable and without feedback that I can never quite be sure, and though I've complained I have no idea if it's been fixed or not because I can't be entirely sure what behavior is intentional.)

    Anyway, that's the first part… but curiously once the light changes only the side that hit the beg button gets a walk sign. There is no turn arrows, nothing about the intersection that makes it asymmetrical, both sides of the street get exactly the same amount of green light. But in an effort to make everyone beg out of principle, if the person across the street hits the button you still don't get a walk signal.

    • Mike Hicks February 13, 2012 at 5:02 am #

      Yeah, I've come across a number of intersections where the beg buttons only activate walk signals on one side. That gets pretty annoying when you're basically trying to go diagonally — I've come up to intersections, hit the button for the direction that's currently "Don't Walk", realized that I can cross in the perpendicular direction, and then expect the "Walk" light to come on on the other side when the signal changes. I already hit the button — why should I have to do it again? It's all pretty silly.

  3. Ian Bicking February 13, 2012 at 4:35 am #

    Also, please no audio on every light. It means eternal tweeting, never a quiet moment.

    • Mike Hicks February 13, 2012 at 9:55 am #

      I hate the modern beeping, talking beg buttons too. I'm sympathetic for the need to help blind and sight-impaired people get around, but my gut just screams that there must be a better way. I haven't really found a solution yet, other than perhaps to suggest that certain towns and city districts go car-free and basically eliminate the need for stop lights entirely.

      • Anders February 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

        The beeping is standard in a lot of cities worldwide, in my experience. If done at the right volume, it's really not that noticeable except when you're at the intersection. I lived near a "beeping" crossing for a year and never really noticed it except when I was actually on the street. Seemed that the benefits outweighed the costs.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke February 14, 2012 at 9:06 am #

        WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WAIT….. WAIT…… WAIT…. WALK SIGN IS ON TO CROSS……… .CEDAR AVENUE

        percentage of people here who actually wait: 18%

  4. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg February 13, 2012 at 9:12 am #

    Indeed, one needn't "apply" to cross the street on foot!

  5. Cedar Phillips February 13, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    I hate those buttons (never knew what they were called until now!) with a passion. Last year's snow was especially brutal, and we encountered multiple intersections where the walking signal would ONLY turn if you pressed the button, yet the button was out of reach to anyone unwilling to risk life and limb clambering over a mountain of snow to reach it. Even when there isn't snow, these buttons are often placed in a location requiring getting off the sidewalk and into the dirt and weeds.

    These things seem to be growing in popularity (and seem to be disguised as being of BENEFIT to pedestrians), while I'd like to see them completely eliminated. At the very least, can't the default always be that the walking man signal turns green, even if not pushed? Oh, have also run into the faux signals. The one at 34th and Hennepin used not to work (although I couldn't help pushing it anyway), but today I discovered that now it actually does.

    RE: the Franklin/Lyndale button, I assume that it gets special attention because the Vision Loss Resources Center is located near there, and therefore has a much higher than average number of crossings by those who can't see the light.

  6. Jeb February 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Maybe I'm strange, but "beg buttons" (or walk buttons) are probably the best way to address most intersections. Design flaws such as the snow walk button aside, assuming that there's always a walking pedestrian at an intersection when there's a car at the intersection (and that there's never a pedestrian when there's not a car at the intersection) seems ill-advised. There may be times (probably plenty of times, depending on the intersection) where there's no pedestrians needing to cross, and the additional time being used unnecessarily is wasted time for people who choose to drive. Likewise, unless the intersection is manually timed (in which case they should have the walk signs timed in also), there will be times where there's a pedestrian but no car waiting to cross. How is the pedestrian supposed to signal that they want to cross?

    I really don't see a better solution on the horizon; better to fix a few of the implementation flaws of current walk buttons than to try and get rid of them entirely.

    • Scott February 16, 2012 at 8:30 am #

      Jeb, the one major objection Alex (and many of us) have with beg buttons is summed up in the second paragraph: "Let’s be honest about the purpose of beg buttons. They don’t exist to make it easier for pedestrians to cross a street. … Beg buttons exist so that signals can be timed to pump more cars through."

      In other words, beg buttons make pedestrians (and bicyclists) second-class citizens. They make driving more convenient, and walking less convenient. That's a problem if you believe, as I and many here do, that our transportation system is overly slanted in favor of cars. Ask yourself why such an overwhelming majority of Americans choose to drive. Hint: the interstate highway system is the biggest, most expensive public works project in human history. It's the infrastructure – it's biased towards driving. And beg buttons are another (admittedly smaller) example of that.

      Also, on a personal level, it's just annoying to walk up to an intersection as it turns green and not get a walk light.

      • Jeb February 16, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

        I'm curious, though, if the problem with walk buttons is the implementation instead of the button idea itself. I don't think that there's a better way of signifying at an intersection that a walker wants to cross other than a button; the problem is that it's set up so that pedestrians are simply allowed to cross the next full cycle, instead of trying to have them cross during the current light cycle, if possible.

        I worry that if we try to make walking easier without regarding people who wish to drive that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, we should make it easier for people to walk, even if there is some inconvenience to vehicle traffic. However, the cost allowed should be proportionate to the amount of pedestrian traffic versus vehicle traffic in a certain area.

        • Xan February 19, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

          The best way of signifying at an intersection that a walker wants to cross is to step into the street. That makes it pretty obvious. The crosswalks in the UK work like this, much to my confusion. There are stripes, lights that mark it is a crossing, and you step into and cars stop.

  7. Jessica Schoner February 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

    Great post! The call buttons always make me feel so devalued as a traveler and a person, especially when you get there just as the light turns green and you have to wait through the entire next cycle because the call button won't turn on the walk symbol mid-phase.

    Franklin and Lyndale is an awful intersection in so many ways. Even if you had no buttons and every vehicle phase also had a pedestrian phase with auditory announcements, you'd still have to deal with the jungle of permissive left-turning vehicles who think squeezing through too small of a gap between cars is way more important than the pedestrian in the crosswalk, blatantly ignored NO RTOR signs, yellow- and red-light runners, and drivers who seem to think they're still/already on the freeway. But yes, the buttons are also frustrating.

    Another one of my favorites is 19th Ave & Riverside near the U of M West Bank campus. If you're crossing Riverside on the east side of the intersection, you get an automatic signal. If you're crossing on the west side, you don't. Crossing 19th is perilous no matter what the signal says because the turning geometry is so wide that the drivers fly through at ridiculous speeds. The parked cars on Riverside block a pedestrian's view of potential turning vehicles on the NE corner.

  8. Steve Gjerdingen February 13, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    I wish that at intersections where they install beg buttons, they would install some type of overhead sensor for determing when a cyclist is at the intersection. I also wish that when they provide extended green signals for cars "pulling up" to the intersection from a ways back, that they'd also provide extended greens for pedestrians who hit the button just after it turns green.

    Also, on some signals the green left turn arrow goes off first while the light is still red, but if the pedestrian presses the button during this phase they are still left out completely on the green phase. What is up with that?

    What if people in their automobiles had to press beg buttons or turn their radio to a particular frequency (displayed on an overhead electronic sign) to signalize their presence at an intersection? Let's put everyone on the same level.

    • Jeb February 13, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

      Yes, let's take cars a step down so that they're on the same level as pedestrians. Never mind that at most intersections many more cars than pedestrians need to cross.

      The timing issue is legitimate: there should be a way for the stoplight controller to allow a pedestrian to cross if they come up at the beginning of a green light.

      As for bicyclists, that idea would be okay for intersections with lots of bicyclists, but I wouldn't want to see how much the cost would be to install those sensors on all traffic lights, especially those that get little to no bicycle traffic.

  9. Faith February 14, 2012 at 5:13 am #

    The buttons can make crossing more dangerous or walking much slower. It is hard to know how long you have to cross the intersection you are 1-50 feet away from the button when you get a green light and the walk light only goes on after a beg button is pressed.

    It would be a waste of time to wait at the intersection for another full cycle when the light is clearly green so I often just go anyway and the light turns red when I'm halfway across the intersection. The results: most of the time I make it across without a problem. Other times, I've ran across the second half of the street when the light changes too soon (although this likely wouldn't work for everyone). I've also gotten stuck in the middle of Washington Avenue downtown a couple times too.

    When walking, I could make better choices about when to cross and when not to cross if the beg buttons are replaced with countdown timers.

  10. kb February 14, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    what about the beg buttons for bikers, like on the 40th st. bike boulevard?

  11. Joe February 15, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    A roll of clear packing tape can solve you beg button worries. I taped all the beg buttons on my daily walking route and now I can always cross with the light!

  12. Xan February 19, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    Here's what I know:

    1) in Auckland, NZ the intersections downtown allow diagonal crossing. The lights are green one direction, green the other, then the pedestrians go and all the cars stop. No beg buttons. Here the audio signals work because you don't have to know which direction they are signaling, since you can go in any direction.

    2) There is a way for sight impaired pedestrians to know when to cross by using an app in their cell phones. It vibrates the phone, or makes an audible signal when it is ok to cross. Every one does not have to listen to it.

    3) The streets belonged to the people before the cars were there. It was a consortium of auto companies and advocates that got jay-walking laws on the books. Those crossings were never put there for the benefit of pedestrians. They were to facilitate cars to encourage their use and sales. Take the streets back. Cross where you want.

    4) Much of the on-street parking spaces that 'buffer' people from traffic are on land that used to be the sidewalk. If the sidewalks are wide enough, no buffering is needed. I do not feel the need for buffering when walking down Nicollet Mall or streets in Europe.

  13. Marco March 19, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    We live in California and one day my neice and I were on our way home and my neice was driving . We were on a 4 lane city esrett and stopped at a crosswalk . As soon as it was their time, the waiting peds crossed the esrett and when they had made it to the center divider my neice went ahead and made her turn . Well we did not get very far when we were stopped by a motorcycle officer . My neice was not only ticketed for not waiting until the crossers had gone all the way to the other side of the esrett but the front wheels of her car were over the crosswalk line so that her car was a few inches inside the crosswalk . I never knew that you are supposed to wait till the crossers had gone all the way to the other side of the esrett before you go and not just to the center divider . I did mention to her that I didn't think she was supposed to be over the crosswalk lines and especially not inside the crosswalk . We learned a valuable lesson that day . I believe it cost my neice $100.00 for that ticket .

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.

  14. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary March 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    I think some other commenters are right that the buttons aren't necessarily a bad thing — just that the implementation is unaccetpable. Outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul, almost all of Minnesota's traffic signals are actuated, not timed — and quite a few in the Cities are actuated, too. For actuated lights, the "beg buttons" are essential. The problem is that there is not also an automatic pedestrian cycle on every vehicle cycle. From my perspective, the best option is:

    1. Lights are timed. No buttons. Pedestrians received a walk signal on every green light.

    The compromise would be:

    2. Lights are actuated (by vehicle loop sensors). By default, the light stays green for the busier street. When a vehicle is waiting, or when a button is pushed, the minor street gets a green/walk cycle. Every green cycle includes a walk cycle. The button is still necessary if there are no cars to trigger the green/walk.

    In reality, how it works is:

    3. Lights are actuated. If a pedestrian walking along the minor street approaches the major street on a green, s/he must wait through two full cycles after hitting the button in order to get a walk signal. In fact, sometimes even the major street does not give pedestrians a walk cycle.

  15. David Tinjum April 3, 2012 at 4:51 am #

    How about a "Cross Now" button that would allow a ped to bush the button and have the lights cycled to green and walk within a few seconds after being pushed? That would change the bias in favor of peds…

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