Permission to Cross

Crosswalk button 1This past summer, my wife and I went to see one of the Walker Art Center’s movies in Loring Park. We took the bus instead of biking because of a recent injury. When we left the park, we walked to pick up the #6 at the south-east corner of the Sculpture Garden. We got to the Loring-Park side of the mess that is Hennepin/Lyndale/I-94 between the Walker and the park and hit the pedestrian crossing button.

When the walk signal blinked on, we started across and saw our bus approaching from the north. Because of the injury, we did not move faster than a normal walk speed. As a result, we discovered that the walk signal (and green light) provided just enough time to make it to the center median, but not across the entire street. We watched our bus arrive, load up, and depart, and we waited for the light to change again.

The anecdote above highlights plenty of problems with the City of Minneapolis, including poor crossing times, the absurdity of the Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck width, and unnecessary impediments to walking between downtown Minneapolis and Uptown Minneapolis, two of the more walkable parts of the city. But I would like to reflect briefly on a much smaller detail in the story: that we had to push a button to get a crossing signal at all.

Pushing a button is a minor act. It may not even rise to the level of inconvenience. Yet pedestrians are almost entirely alone in their need to regularly take an extra step just to cross the street (imagine the chaos of ‘green-light buttons’ for cars). By requiring pedestrians push a button to cross the street, the city relegates pedestrians to second-class citizens. The buttons imply that pedestrians are so rare that traffic engineers’ default is to ignore them.

In addition, requiring that pedestrians request permission to cross creates an inhospitable environment for visitors. Some cities provide pedestrians with an automatic walk signal at every intersection. Even in Minneapolis, some neighborhoods are peppered primarily with automatic walk signals. As a result, those unfamiliar with our system or even with a specific intersection can spend a full light cycle innocently waiting for the signal.

Some of these ask-to-cross buttons are active in pedestrian-heavy neighborhoods. For example, one has to push a button to cross Lyndale at 31st Street. In a relatively pedestrian-friendly neighborhood like Lyn-Lake, why not let pedestrians cross with the light? The only motorists inconvenienced by pedestrians in the crosswalk are turning vehicles, which already have a right-turn-on-red advantage.

Perhaps not all walk-signal buttons are equal. Where there is an underutilized pedestrian-only crossing (ie where there is no corresponding vehicular cross street), maybe it does not make sense to stop traffic flow at regular intervals. However, even this scenario creates a dangerous cycle wherein an intersection is unfriendly to pedestrians because there are few pedestrians, and there continue to be few pedestrians because that intersection is unfriendly.

The City of Minneapolis supposedly “places a high value on creating and enhancing pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.” Yet walking to the store can seem like a tactical mission in which a person must trot across a street to avoid being caught in a rush of automobiles, dodge signposts lodged in the middle of the sidewalk, scurry down an unlit block at night, and pray that the push of a button results in permission-to-cross from a “pedestrian-control signal” (sounds like a Soviet brainwashing tool, but it is what the State of Minnesota calls a walk signal).

Pedestrian push buttons are annoying. More importantly, they are emblematic of a system that actively discourages walking. Walking should be easy, even enjoyable. But unless we systematically prioritize walking in our mix of transportation options, traveling by foot will remain a pain in too many parts of our community.

19 thoughts on “Permission to Cross

  1. Adam MillerAdam

    That intersection is a nightmare. It’s even worse on the south side, crossing from east to west, where you get to the second of two center islands, the light has changed, and there’s no button to request a walk signal to cross the third stretch of roadway. Not to mention light sequences that are counter-intuitive and involve long stretches with a “don’t walk” but no crossing vehicles, which leaves the pedestrian wondering if the signal hasn’t changed simply for the lack of having requested it.

    The pedestrian bridge is probably the way to go, but the way the paths crossing the park go, if I’m heading south or west, using the bridge requires back tracking that I will often forgo.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The City of Minneapolis is relatively fortunate, in that even in locations with beg buttons, pedestrians crossing the minor legs of the intersection still get a walk signal. To use your example on Lyndale, Lyndale pedestrians are fine. It’s 31st Street pedestrians who need to beg.

    In most locations in Minnesota outside Minneapolis and St. Paul, you need to beg at all legs of all signalized intersections. A green light could well last two minutes for that major street, and you still would not be permitted to cross without pushing a button.

    The arguments in favor of requiring a beg button, ranked from somewhat legitimate to ridiculous:

    1. At many locations, it would require a longer green cycle to include pedestrians by default. (This is especially true where intersections are very large, in a place like Maple Grove, or along Hiawatha Ave.)

    2. Due to longer pedestrian clearance (flashing hand) requirements, it’s desirable for emergency vehicle signal override. Rather than taking 20 seconds or so to do the pedestrian clearance interval, they only need 3-4 seconds for the yellow light.

    3. If you install it in some locations and not others (e.g., for major legs but not for minor), then pedestrians become “complacent” and do not use the buttons when they need to.

    4. Because new buttons are APS, it improves accessibility for pedestrians to push the button and actuate the accessibility features.

    I’ve wrangled with Hennepin County about this, since they control a huge number of signals around Minneapolis, and they’re refused to consider including pedestrians by default. (The actual term for this is “pedestrian recall” — including pedestrians on each cycle.) They did say they would consider it on specific high-volume pedestrian corridors. In St. Louis Park, pedestrian recall is enabled on the Excelsior Blvd/CSAH 3 signals during the day time.

    And for what it’s worth, Sam, I agree with your argument that beg buttons are a major symbolic problem. But I think there are more substantive arguments you can use against them. My personal favorite (although it didn’t win me anything with Hennepin) is that the the purpose of pedestrian signals and countdown timers is to provide pedestrians information about when it is safe to be in the intersection. If pedestrian recall is not enabled, you see the same upraised hand whether you have 30 seconds left on the green (and it would be safe to cross) or 2 seconds left (and thus it would not). We need to provide information to pedestrians. Especially when they’re abused by the beg buttons (like not getting a signal when they push just after the light turns green), pedestrians tend to ignore these buttons, and then also lose the safety features of modern pedestrian signals.

    1. Froggie

      Pedestrian countdown timers can be a mixed bag. Yes, they help pedestrians, but on the flip side, FHWA (and by extension as I recall, language in the MUTCD) doesn’t like them because they encourage motorists to speed through an intersection in order to “make the light”.

  3. Zach Lockner

    Normally you can distinguish between where you do need to press a walk signal and where it is automatic, just by the presence of a beg button. But some places have beg buttons and automatic walk signals most of the time but not all of the time, further confusing matters.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I expect to see more of the buttons at automatic (ped recall) signals in the future. The City of St. Paul already does this on all new signal installations. City of Minneapolis does it on many.

      And I don’t really mind it: it turns on the audio queues only when needed, and it provides the option of whether or not to use pedestrian recall at all times. There are many signals where it’s 100% ridiculous not to have pedestrian recall at 4pm, but at 2am, engineers may decide that a car’s mobility getting through an empty intersection faster is more important.

  4. Sue

    my favorite of these:
    Perhaps not all walk-signal buttons are equal. Where there is an underutilized pedestrian-only crossing (ie where there is no corresponding vehicular cross street), maybe it does not make sense to stop traffic flow at regular intervals. However, even this scenario creates a dangerous cycle wherein an intersection is unfriendly to pedestrians because there are few pedestrians, and there continue to be few pedestrians because that intersection is unfriendly.

    is on my regular nightly walking route. At 46th and Oakland, there is a button to push to make lights flash by signs that say “Stop for Pedestrian in Crosswalk”. Of course, cars rarely stop there, when I’m in the crosswalk, whether or not the light is flashing.

    What’s interesting to me is that Oakland gets one of these flashers. It’s between two busy streets: Park and Portland. But Columbus, between Park and Chicago (also busy) does not have a flasher.

  5. Faith

    Beg buttons can be dangerous too. How many times does the light turn green when you are 2-40 feet I can make it to the other side before the light changes. More of than not I’m fine but sometimes I get stuck in the middle of the intersection with cars having a green light and I’m not done crossing yet. If I don’t quite make it to the intersection before the light turns, need I wait through an entire light cycle on the 20% chance that I don’t make it to the other curb in time?

    When the countdown timer isn’t on, I’ve noticed other people, both adults and kids, walk 1/2-3/4 of the way through an intersection and have the light change on them, leaving them scurrying across the last segment. I wonder how many people have had close calls when a driver looks only at the light and not at the street in front of them?

    It seems that the improved predictability of crossing the street with the countdown timers is negated by the beg buttons which prevent the countdown timers from turning on every light cycle.

  6. Janne Flisrand

    You forgot about the places where a beg button exists, but it doesn’t actually do anything. That used to be the case at the intersection you highighted, Sam, although in the other direction crossing 15th.

  7. Monte Castleman

    I guess I never got the extreme hatred for beg-buttons (and they’re required on all new intersections, even if it always gives a walk sign, due to ADA requirements). Although I agree they’re inconvenient to push when I’m on a bicycle (on city trails, or the areas where riding on the sidewalk is legal). At actuated intersections cars need to “beg” for a green light by being registered by an inductive loop or video cameras so I don’t think even if you’re anti-car it’s a philosophical problem for a pedestrian to push a button to do so, although microwave pedestrian sensors have just come out that would eliminate it (and you can point more sensors in the street that will extend the pedestrian clearance interval if there’s a pedestrian that hasn’t made it across.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      For me, what bugs me is not as much situations where a minor street crosses a major, where you have to “beg” like a car. You’re right, cars also “beg”, although I do think there’s a fundamental difference in your presence being detected versus having to actively push a button. For one, it creates a certain awkward in high-volume pedestrian areas. When someone is already waiting at the light, it isn’t clear if they’ve actuated the button yet (although the modern WAIT… WAIT… eliminates this question). You’re either pushing the button an extra time — thus indicating you don’t believe the other person competent to cross the street properly — or you’re putting your blind faith in the stranger to have pushed the button already.

      But what really gets me is not including pedestrian signals when the signal cycle already has plenty of time for pedestrians for cross — requiring them to “beg” just cuz. A good example might be the new light at 76th and Nicollet (controlled by Hennepin County). 76th is only 32′ wide, so about 9 seconds pedestrian clearance interval plus 7 seconds walk sign. The typical green for Nicollet is 90-120 seconds. Yet somehow, nowhere in 120 seconds do they find time for a 16-second pedestrian crossing cycle. To put it in a car context, imagine that every traffic signal displayed red in all directions, until a car approached, waited a minute or two, and then was granted a green. That’s essentially what we do at most lights outside the Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

      1. Monte Castleman

        I’m a traffic signal nerd (I have my own setup in my basement, complete with a controller that was retired from Pekin Illinois.) I agree there’s a lot of improvements that could be made without really degrading things for cars. But there’s both a philosophical and technical problem.

        Philosophically, I don’t know why they don’t give a Walk with a green at 76th, or any number of other intersections like it. Maybe engineers just automatically put everything on such intersections as actuated only- all vehicle phases and all ped phases. Or maybe they decided it’s no big deal for pedestrians to push a button, and there is a disadvantage- you cannot shorten a ped clearance interval, so if there’s an ambulance coming down 76th it wouldn’t get a green light as fast. I don’t see that as a big problem, but it is a reason as opposed to no reason.

        Although I’m pro-car I do lurk around this blog from time to time being interested in transit things going on in the cities., and I hear things like “leading pedestrian intervals are great and don’t really affect cars, why don’t we have them everywhere”. The answer isn’t necessarily malignance on the part of traffic engineers, but that Minneapolis has a lot of very ancient controllers, some are electromechanical ones dating from the 1950s! Only the newest ones can do things like leading pedestrian intervals, or give an immediate Walk if you push a beg button after the vehicle green. Similarly 99% of the time the default setup is used if you buy a cabinet, so you can’t give a Walk one direction only if the same direction has a green arrow. To change this you’d have to program additional phases on the controller, rewire it, and maybe the cabinet doesn’t physically even have room for an extra load switch. Whether we should replace a bunch of equipment to add these amenities might be a good discussion, but it’s usually not a dumb traffic engineer refusing to go out and flip a switch.

      2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I’ve heard the emergency vehicle override issue as well, and it is something, although I think worth the price, especially since metro-area signals also have Opticom warning lights.

        Your point about dated equipment is a good one. But I think what’s mainly frustrating to people is that the new signals seem to be making things worse, rather than better, for pedestrians. If you look at Lyndale, prior to the reconstruction of the last five years, basically every light was on a fixed timing, and there were no beg buttons at all. Now all the signals south of Lake Street have been replaced, and there is not a single location you can cross Lyndale without a button. I’m sure these handle vehicular traffic flow better, but it’s frustrating that this improvement for cars has a clear cost to pedestrians. (These signals, unlike the 76th and Nicollet ones, do at least have the decency to give pedestrians along Lyndale a walk signal by default.)

      3. Rosa

        or how about the fact that most of the signals have “don’t walk” lights when cars have green turn arrows, but no corresponding “don’t turn” lights when pedestrians have walk signals?

        There are a lot of intersections where it’s actually never safe to walk because cars are always turning – often without even looking (like the street-level crossing that parallels the Sabo bridge, or most of the places you have to cross streets with the LRT trail).

        And of course the “it’s too short to actually cross this street anyway” problem is not just at Lyndale-Hennepin – it’s clearly true at Lake/55 under the elevated LRT station.

        1. Monte Castleman

          In theory cars don’t need to have “no turn arrows” because pedestrians have the right of way on a walk signal. A car not giving way to a pedestrian is being just as illegal as a pedestrian crossing during a protected left, or for that matter a car from the opposite direction running the red light.

          In practice if that’s actually a problem, having a flashing yellow right turn arrow can reinforce the fact that right turning traffic needs to yield.

          1. Rosa

            But in actuality, they very rarely do. And the drivers who do, get honked at by drivers behind them who don’t like being slowed down.

            Just try walking 10 crossing down Lake or Hiawatha or Lyndale and crossing at all the side streets, parallel to tthe main flow of traffic – whether it’s a place with a light or not, if you cross 10 streets you’re going to get nearly run over and/or honked at by people trying to turn off Lake at least once in those 10 streets.

  8. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Sorry, but this is a corner that needs to have GREAT (not just decent) ped facilities. Think about the civic investment in the Loring Park / Downtown –to–> Walker / Uptown scenario. It’s a big deal! We need to make it easy for people to stroll from the Hyatt to the city’s #1 museum. It’s a no brainer, and the current situation really loads the deck against anyone trying to cross the street.

  9. Steve Gjerdingen

    Am I understanding pedestrian recall correctly?

    The way I see it, there are 2 ways it could go down:

    * If I have a signal where pedestrian recall is enabled, does that mean the signal will automatically flip every 3-4 minutes just to make sure a pedestrian can get through?

    * Or does it mean that if a car flips a signal that new green signal will automatically include a pedestrian phase?

    If we are talking about the first option, I can see why some traffic engineers would want to ditch it. As a cyclist and an automobile driver, it is a pleasure being able to zoom down Lake Street at night and hit greens from Uptown all the way to the Mississippi River. If there were automatic walk phases mixed in for the cross streets, that wouldn’t be possible. I do agree though that pedestrians should also automatically get a walk signal when travelling in the dominant direction.

    PS: I feel better driving down Lake Street than I-94 because a busy Lake Street inconveniences pedestrians less than I-94 does.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      What you’re describing in the first option would just be fixed-timing lights, which is very common in the City of Minneapolis, but not that common elsewhere. Pedestrian recall simply means including a pedestrian signal with a green that will come on anyway. (Although I think the automatic cycle included with fixed-timed lights would also be called ped recall.)

      Of course, engineers are also reluctant to include ped recall for pedestrians crossing a major (wide) street when on a minor street. You’ll note that the new “beg button” lights on Lyndale have only ~5-8 second greens when a single car is waiting to cross Lyndale. You’d need something more like 20 seconds to get a pedestrian across.

      But yes, I agree with your basic point. In some high-volume pedestrian areas, it makes sense to include pedestrian recall on both legs, possibly on a fixed timing. But even in less pedestrian-dense areas, enabling pedestrian recall for the major street is such a minor inconvenience to the system, it seems crazy not to do it.

      (And you truly will see it in areas that are not pedestrian centers, like most of the lights along Cedar Avenue in Dakota County, and along County Road 42. It’s pretty ridiculous that pedestrians get more favorable signal treatment along these 50 mph would-be-freeways than they do at pedestrian/transit nodes like 66th and Lyndale in Richfield or Park Pl Blvd in St. Louis Park.)

    2. Alex

      The pleasure a driver gets from a green wave does not cancel out the displeasure a pedestrian feels when arriving at a signal that is green for cars traveling in his or her direction but not for pedestrians. If you think it does, please be aware that you’re trading fairness for convenience.

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