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:
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.
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.
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.
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.