Why We Need the Pedestrian Push Button

We’ve been working with pedestrian advocates on a better understanding of the complexities of traffic signal timing in the city, ever since a local campaign called #GivePedsTheGreen started last spring. The campaign proposes removing pedestrian push buttons in all urban villages. Here’s why that’s not a good idea.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

We used to have a policy in which pedestrian push buttons were removed in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic – however, that contrasts with our obligation to provide effective communication to people with visual and/or hearing impairments wanting to cross the streets. Because of this obligation under the ADA, we strive to provide that communication using accessible pedestrian signals (APS). Deaf, hard of hearing, blind, and visually impaired pedestrians may rely on these buttons to move freely throughout the city. The signs that go with these signals are required to help that movement.

Right Treatment, Right Place

Our ongoing dialogue with pedestrian advocates prompted us to improve our guidance around pedestrian treatments at traffic signals. It’s not a matter of either having them or not having them. The fact is, we need these pedestrian buttons. But we can use them differently depending on the circumstances of each location.

Other Ways to Help Pedestrians

Traffic signal technology is constantly improving and that means there are many different treatments our signal engineers are looking at to help improve the pedestrian experience.

  • Passive pedestrian detection – we’re testing thermal imaging to detect pedestrians so that someday, maybe they won’t have to push buttons to be detected. This tech is similar to how vehicles, buses, and bikes are detected at signals. The challenge is that pedestrians are not as predictable as a vehicle, bus or bike in a travel lane.
  • Soundscapes is an amazing example of how new technology could help deaf, hard of hearing, blind, and visually impaired pedestrians navigate a city. We visited researchers at Microsoft who developed a pilot that uses a headset, smartphone, and outdoor beacons to immerse users in an audio-rich environment, to help people with vision loss move with more confidence and independence on city streets. This is a prototype for now.
  • Not all treatments are universal. We have a lot of different tools in our tool box and we look at the specifics of each intersection to determine the right tool to use.

A quote from a Soundscapes engineer hits home:

“We were born as a company of engineers building products for other engineers and geeks. That’s no longer the case. This notion of design empathy, or being able to build something for someone who is not like you — it’s much, much harder. You really need to adopt a perspective other than your own to pull it off.”

As an operational agency we have many different advocates who want us to create a safe and efficient system for vehicles, buses, bikes, pedestrians, and freight. We’re pretty sure that the majority of people can understand that. Our commitment will always be to constantly look for opportunities to improve. Our advocates are a huge piece of that commitment, helping us in the right direction.