I was standing Southwest on the corner of East Second Street and North Third Avenue East, with the First Presbyterian Church of Duluth in the background.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg? Views on Pedestrian Call Buttons

Some urbanists describe pedestrian call buttons as “beg buttons,” equating their use with a humiliating or shameful experience rather than the practical tool they were meant to be.

Others say the buttons may actually discourage pedestrian safety because drivers might assume they have the right of way once the light-colored “walk” signal goes off but the traffic light itself remains green.

As a frequent pedestrian in Duluth, and as someone who appreciates the convenience of call (or beg) buttons, I wondered how other walkers view this debate. So I put on my reporter hat and asked editors and contributors at Streets.mn the following question: When you cross a road or street do you push the pedestrian call button, or not?

Call Buttons Are Good, Could Be Better

Erik Ruthruff, board member and content manager: “I live in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis, and I encounter these buttons most often when I use bicycle or pedestrian trails to cross busy roads. Depending on who I am using the path with, I’ll be walking 70% of the time or on a bicycle 30% of the time.

“I personally love the beg buttons, but I have one person in my walking group who is either a little OCD or just chooses to be irritating, and they push a beg button exactly 7 times when they come to it, even if they know the button has already been pushed. I assume that once the button has been pushed, the signal has been sent and additional pushes do not make the option happen any faster.

“I agree with the author of the historical article you shared… I prefer beg buttons that operate like an elevator button and go on the first time they are pushed to visually indicate they’ve been pushed. Where I live, the beg buttons don’t have a light.

“I also agree with the author of the article that it would be nice if a sign at the light indicated which street you are crossing rather than just an icon walking and a directional arrow.”

Practical Applications

Pat Thompson, contributor: “My experience of our beg buttons in St. Paul is that you have to push them to get a walk sign and also a longer green cycle with the countdown. We also get a leading pedestrian interval. So I push them.

“For instance, to cross University Avenue at Raymond along the Green Line LRT route — four driving lanes, plus two train lanes and space between those — if you don’t push the button and try to cross on the green light (even with the red ‘don’t walk’ hand showing), you will have less than 20 seconds to cross. This is barely enough time to cross at a brisk pace from a standing start.

“In general the beg button programming gives a pedestrian not just the Walk signal and audio accompaniment, it also gets you the countdown and about twice as much time to cross, which many kinds of pedestrians need. Even at smaller intersections, where I have helped a friend who is less physically able than me to cross, I note that we barely get across the street after pushing the beg button.

“I understand that Minneapolis disabled the beg buttons during the main COVID wave so they automatically came on. I wish they would do that in St. Paul, because I can’t tell you how many times I have been approaching an intersection on foot only to just miss the point where I had to push the button, and so had to either wait an entire light cycle or run against the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign on a green light.

“It would be even better to disable the buttons automatically from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., if the constant sound of the ADA accompaniment is a problem during the nighttime, as I have heard.”

APS beg buttons in snow
An “accessible” crossing that isn’t (file photo).

Less Practical Realities

Andy Monserud, board member, copy editor: “I use these occasionally, but I’ve never been certain that they actually do anything. If I press them it’s out of a combination of boredom and a kind of superstition. You sit at an intersection long enough, you get tired of waiting, you hit the button, and then you wait for more or less the same amount of time that you would have anyway, but feel like you’ve done something.

“I’d be delighted to hear that they actually change light timings in any way, but if they do, the fact that I went this long without noticing those changes probably doesn’t bode well for their usefulness. I figure they exist chiefly to tell visually impaired people when it is safe to cross.”

Regardless, Pedestrians Should Beware

Amy Gage, managing editor: “I walk about 16,000 steps a day, with and without my dogs, and consider walking among my primary forms of transportation. I always use the call button and particularly appreciate the feature that gives pedestrians a 7-second-or-so head start on vehicular traffic. I also like the countdown feature, showing me how much time I have to cross the street until the light turns red.

“That said, I assume nothing as a pedestrian, because I am going to lose in any altercation with a motor vehicle. I don’t brazenly cross on the ‘walk’ sign without first making sure any drivers have seen me. I never walk wearing headphones or earbuds. And I always smile and vigorously wave at drivers who stop for me at a crosswalk, whether it’s painted or not and with or without a call button. Yes, vehicles are supposed to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, legally defined as wherever two roads meet, but I also hope that my courtesy promotes an awareness of pedestrians among drivers.”

The Last Word

With thanks to those who offered their perspectives, here is mine:

Depending on the amount of traffic I see, whether it is daytime or nighttime, along with the width of the road or street: I more often than not push the pedestrian call button. I think of them as I would an elevator call button, or ringing a tiny bell at a customer service counter.

None of these strike me as humiliating or as begging. In fact, an extra five or 10 seconds to walk or ride my bike across a street is convenient. During harsh weather conditions, I am slowed down by slippery pavement, covered with puddles of rain or coated with ice and snow. Walking in strong and unpredictable winds, sometimes with falling rain or snow, further reduces my ability to quickly, yet safely cross a street or road. 

At these times, I appreciate the pedestrian call buttons for giving me those few extra seconds to cross the street or road.

About James Buchanan

After earning my University of Minnesota communication major and journalism minor, I am currently looking for a full-time position to use my skills in writing, photography, and page design. I am also seeking an environment that offers inspiring and new opportunities that challenge and strengthen my skill set, as well as opportunities to help my future company advance efficiently and productively. I was the top student in my Communications and Creativity class. I’m the professional artist to turn to for your creativity needs.