Making a Case to Phase Out “Beg Buttons” in Santa Monica’s Pedestrian Action Plan

A tagged over Santa Monica pedestrian button instruction plate. (Photo: Gary Kavanagh)

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Regulating and designing around the assumption everyone drives leads to highway expansions and parking garage build outs that make it easier and more convenient to drive. Despite temporary traffic relief, we frequently arrived back at the congestion situation that justified expanding before.

Our Santa Monica weekly column is supported by Bike Center in Santa Monica.

The assumptions we make influence the outcomes we get, and induced demand in highway building is frequently railed against by advocates of transportation reform. On the flip side of the driving assumptions that inform our land use and transportation policies, we also have a range of baked in assumptions in our infrastructure about how people won’t be walking or biking. When we do plan for walking, we still assume that the amount of walking isn’t very high.

Sometimes these assumptions are subtle and unquestioned, such as the very existence of pedestrian crossing push buttons at signalized intersections.

These devises are sometimes disparagingly referred to as “beg buttons” by many pedestrian activists because you are essentially having to ask for permission to have a crossing signal phase. Beg buttons are one of the more subtle means by which we degrade the urban environment for walking, and Streets.MN has a handy typological guide. The buttons exist for driver convenience, not walking convenience. The absence of an assumed pedestrian phase permits greater optimizations of green times for the prioritized vehicle travel direction. It took me a long while to realize this relationship, but now I take note of everywhere I see them, or don’t see them.

Within certain blocks or for portions of some streets in Santa Monica, we do assume an appropriate pedestrian crossing phase every cycle without buttons, mostly notably around the more tourist drawing downtown and promenade. One of the things about Washington D.C. that most impressed me as a city, was the distinct absence of beg buttons everywhere that I went all over the city, and intersection signals that all assumed people on foot would cross. This was consistent throughout my experience for nearly a week wandering around until finally finding a few beg buttons near the D.C. Union Station.

You become a lot more aware of how annoying certain aspects of the status quo are once you experience a place operating under differing paradigms. Sometimes a beg button is in a awkward spot to reach, sometimes you walk up and think the person in front of you hit, but had not, and you don’t want to reach across them to do it or presume they had not and tell them to. Then you end up missing an entire crossing phase.

These kind of little indignities add up, along with far worse offenses pedestrians deal with, to send the message that be a human is secondary to being poorly trained automobile pilots. When I step back from our culture for a second and ponder this, it feels so incredibly backward. Tom Vanderbilt rightfully referred to this state of affairs as a “crisis in American walking” in his series for Slate, a worthwhile long read if you missed it.

There is also a secondary benefit for bike riders as well by assuming that pedestrians exist at intersections, and providing the appropriate crossing phases as such. Intersection signals which continue to not properly detect bicycles, would always cycle through, instead of sometimes holding green to only one direction until triggered otherwise. Super short minimum green times that some intersections have would also no longer be an issue if you start from assuming a pedestrian crossing sufficient phase. There are some residential streets where the green time to cross as a bicyclist is so short, hardly green for a moment, that even as someone who can accelerate quickly I barely get through before yellow is going to red.

Then there is the matter of the pedestrian crossing durations, which are not always adequate, even when you have appropriately begged the infrastructure for a glowing icon of permission. In a few such cases I’ve observed,  it was reported using the GoRequest app, and I was happy to see the signal time was later extended (the city of Santa Monica is pretty good about responding to obvious issues with quick fixes), but I have no doubt many places still exist where the crossing time remains rushed and certainly inadequate for someone slower.

If you see a crossing time that is clearly too short, I urge that you report it, even if it might not be a big deal to you personally. For someone in other circumstances it could become a stressful or potentially dangerous experience if they encounter such a crossing. I have certainly seen sketchy moments with someone crossing and not making it in time despite walking right at the signal change.

I know that for the traffic engineers, they are in a position of trying to meet obligations we’ve structured around private automobile centric “level of service”, but the whole paradigm of level of service needs to be confronted. Level of service for whom, and why? The “level of service” for street users that aren’t driving needs to be on a more level playing field. There is always going to be some vocal push back to anything that dares threaten even half a second of green time for a driver, but there are also many potential gains to made for everyone if we encourage more non-automotive trips. We need more vocal pushing and pulling in the other direction.

A recent beg button post added to 14th St. & Broadway in the middle of the sidewalk (photo: Gary Kavanagh)

If any municipality in the Los Angeles region can advance a strong model of truly pedestrian oriented principles, it’s Santa Monica. However seeing beg buttons go up at 14th St. & Broadway not long ago, an intersection I walk frequently and where pedestrian crossing phases were default previously, was at least one small step backward. The street light pole being set back far, because of the location of the drain, resulted in this weird small post placement right in the middle of the sidewalk. I doubt there was any ill will intended to pedestrians in this routine change, but changes that might negatively impact a pedestrian’s “level of service” have often become just standard operating procedure in our society.

Pedestrian prioritization and crossings without begging should be becoming the norm in more places, not fewer. Especially in anticipation of a post Expo Line Santa Monica with potentially tens of thousands of more people walking to and from transit connections we want people to utilize over driving. So let’s stop assuming pedestrians will not be present until they push to indicate otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    1. The “beg button” serves the same purpose as inductive sensors that detect cars stopped at traffic lights. Should those be eliminated also? Or maybe the pedestrian crossing buttons should be replaced with sensors to give pedestrians the illusion that they are not “begging.”

    2. Pedestrian crossing durations wouldn’t matter so much if the police properly enforced right-of-way laws. If a pedestrian enters the intersection on the “walk” signal, that person continues to have the right of way until he/she reaches the curb, even if cross traffic gets the green light. We need more crosswalk stings (pedestrian decoy operations).

    3. The flashing “don’t walk” signal has the same meaning as the solid “don’t walk” signal: don’t enter the crosswalk. Why don’t pedestrians get their equivalent of a “yellow” phase, instead of two “red” phases?

  • Button Pusher

    All Beg Buttons should be removed. I am tired of people in cars who can travel 20 times faster than me say that as a pedestrian I am holding them up. I shouldn’t have to push a button to cross the street. Cars can wait a few seconds.

  • Anonymous

    +1

    This is definitely some of the low-hanging fruit for improving pedestrian facilities. Another would be to start eliminating the “three-legged intersections” (I’m sure someone can come up with a more clever name than that!) where crosswalks are only provided on three of the four approaches and there’s that maddening “don’t walk here” sign. Santa Monica doesn’t have many of those but in LA they’re all over the place, like Venice/Robertson, which I pass through twice a day and I always seem to have the worst timing!

  • I have been emailing my local Alderman in Chicago for months about this.

    There’s an intersection where the traffic is one-way and there is a “beg button.” If you don’t push it before the signal change, the pedestrian crossing light won’t come on. So some people end up waiting more than 3 minutes to cross, or they cross without knowing how much time is left to cross a 4-lane street. It’s next to a park and church too, with lots of people crossing it.

    Then one day, after I got an email saying the problem was fixed, it worked like it should – the pedestrian signal always came on, no button required! Then I got another email saying that they found a problem that was fixed, and for months now, it’s back to the same old push-button-to-walk nonsense. Apparently the traffic engineer “fixed” the “problem” – the problem being that pedestrians didn’t have to push a button to walk.

    It says a lot. I wrote about it twice:

    http://transitized.com/2013/06/19/no-more-push-to-walk-at-lelandashland/
    http://transitized.com/2013/06/20/false-alarm/

  • Anonymous

    I believe in Spain I saw a different set-up for ped phases:
    solid walk (everybody walk)
    flashing walk (don’t start walking if you’re a slow walker and you know you need the full time to cross)
    solid don’t walk (don’t start crossing, but if you’re already in the street, finish)

  • Sirinya Matute

    Thanks for bringing this up, Gary!
    My personal favorite beg button is located at the corner of Wilshire and Westwood, by UCLA. That intersection is amongst the busiest in the city, as counted by cars, bikes, and people. I don’t quite understand it (for there is probably no good reason for it), but there are beg buttons there. And if you do not press them, the system will skip the pedestrian phase altogether. This has happened to me before, and I was astonished – there were maybe a dozen people waiting with me, and I guess not one of us pressed the beg button (or maybe one of us did, but the system decided not to detect it). And then we all had to wait an additional 3.5 minutes, which is quite long for a complete traffic cycle. The presence of beg buttons there is nonsense because that intersection has super very high pedestrian counts like 15 hours a day. There will *always* be people seeking to cross between at least 6am and 9PM.

    The Streets MN article says that there are “fake” beg buttons, which sadly validates my hunch that some of the beg buttons I come across really are just for show. Mind you, I should have learned this in the course I paid to take in traffic engineering in graduate school. They simply told us that if someone doesn’t press the button (they did not use the word “beg”), the system will skip the pedestrian phase. Never mind that if a ped sees that he should have the right-of-way (because the cars do) and crosses = poof, jaywalking ticket. Somehow that just seems wrong.

  • Anonymous

    In my area, the beg buttons with countdowns clocks for crossing higher-traffic roads have a couple of other nasty habits:
    (1) they don’t give you a countdown for the full green light, they only give you the say 30 seconds they think you need to cross.
    (2) they start flashing the don’t walk hand about two seconds after they give you the walk, so the only people that can cross in full compliance with the ped signal are people who had to wait on the red light.

  • Evan G.

    There are a few areas of LA where the signals assume that someone is waiting to cross, and the normal alloted time is extended…for the Jewish sabbath:

    http://www.thefreelibrary.com/TRAFFIC+SIGNALS+CHANGED+FOR+THE+SABBATH.-a083607896

    Perhaps we all need to convert to Judiasm to get some decent treatment!

  • Anonymous

    As someone who walks the streets of Santa Monica each day, I am frequently assaulted by cars. They do not stop at red lights for a turn even though I have a walk sign. They do not stop at stop signs. They do not stop at cross walks. Most drivers race from stop sign to stop sign even in a residential area. Fifth Street north of Wilshire is a drag strip with cars exceeding 45 miles an hour most of the time. My point is that beg buttons or not makes no difference. Unlike places like the Netherlands where people walk, bike and share the road the attitude of American drivers is terrible. Since American drivers act like children who can not learn to share, then they should be treated like children and banned from large stretches of Santa Monica’s shopping district with a high pedestrian traffic. After the rail comes to Santa Monica we will be flooded with even more pedestrians. Lets ban the cars and take back our city.

  • Anonymous

    I got skipped at 5th and Figueroa the other day; I didn’t even think to look for a button there! Turns out you get the walk automatically on the east side of the street, but not on the west side.

    I don’t think anyone would put in a beg button just for show, but it’s possible that the intersection was originally set up with beg buttons, and then later changed to have the ped phase come up every time (“automatic recall” if you want to use traffic engineering slang), and that they just left the buttons in place.

    The other possibility is that the ped phase is on automatic recall part of the time (like during the day), and activated only on request at other times (like at night). This often applies at intersections that are semi-actuated, like where a minor side street intersects a major road. At night, the side street will *never* get a green light unless a car is detected, so if there was no button, you’d never get a walk sign until a car showed up.

    (You could argue that in a city, you shouldn’t have that kind of semi-actuation and that the ped phase should automatically come up all the time; on the other hand, stopping traffic on the main road does have an impact on air quality, and in a quiet neighborhood, the number of people driving and walking on the side streets at night is going to be pretty small.)

  • John

    While I really would prefer that the pedestrian phase goes on by default, with the buttons used only for pedestrian detection at night when the arterial keeps the green until a car is detected on the minor street, this is not the biggest problem. I have been at many intersections waiting to cross a minor street (I’m crossing parallel to a major street) and the major street keeps the green phase for a very very long time, but the pedestrian walk signal would not turn on until the next cycle. If the arterial’s green is going to last 3 more minutes, they should turn on the walk signal as soon as the button is pressed.

  • ron d

    Santa Monica should designate downtown as a ped/bike zone similar to Claremont’s Bike Priority Zone. Then they can set some standards that prioritize non-motorized modes.

    Aside from what has already been stated about “beg” buttons, an additional irritation from these devices stems from the excess noise pollution when pedestrians, of all ages, push these buttons repeatedly. Its as if they become hypnotized by the little ‘beep’ ‘beep’ on every depression of the button. There is one such button outside the bike center at 2nd & Colorado and at almost every signal phase peds stand there and push it continuously until its time to cross. We’ve put signs on the post “begging” people to only push the button one time, but the allure of the noise seems to overcome adults and children alike and they stand there like drones pushing the button. I’ve asked the city to remove it and have a dedicated ped phase to no avail, even though there are probably no less than 50 people crossing that street at any given phase during the peak summer season. Please, until these devices are eradicated, push the button one time and act like an adult.

  • Meghan

    I am absolutely opposed to having beg buttons at all, much less operating them only at certain times. How am I supposed to know when to push and when not to?

    Another issue: I’m crossing the street. Someone on the other side of the street going in my same direction pushes the button. I hear the beep. Then the light changes and they get a walk sign and I do not. Why? Why would it not change on both sides.

    Beg buttons are ridiculous. They say to the pedestrian, “Hey, we know you have the ‘right of way’ but really the drivers of cars do.”

  • Darin Raynolds

    As a jogger and walker I personally don’t bother with intersections at all, I just wait for the traffic to clear or stop at a light and then cross. I’ve never been hit, honked at, or harassed by the cops. Oh course, I wouldn’t advise this for everyone, especially kids.
    I don’t see a problem with the buttons except that they don’t hurry the lights in anyway but if there isn’t a ped trying to cross why lengthen the light?. In the heavy ped areas they should be automatic but I don’t believe that they discourage walking, its just a button after all.

  • Charles A-M

    Automated sensors for motor vehicles are very reliable (mixed results
    for cyclists, depending on setup and cyclist behaviour). There is no
    reliable way to automatically detect a pedestrian waiting at an
    intersection: is someone there waiting to cross, or just standing? Which
    direction? Strong weather (not that you have too much of that in LA)
    plays a real number on most ways of automatically detecting pedestrians.

  • calwatch

    In the East Coast most major cities don’t have “beg buttons” but their signals are all on fixed timers. Santa Monica, given the amount of auto and pedestrian traffic present, should probably be the same, with timing dependent on daypart rather than vehicle actuation.

  • james

    Another problem with begging for the permission to cross the street is that it is usually given only when cars have a green and in a city with a strange lack of left hand turn signals that means you have to share space with motorists who don’t believe you have the right to be there or who are so fixated on finding a gap in traffic they don’t notice the pedestrian. It seems that every time I cross the street in LA a left turning motorists fails to yield to me and overtakes me after I have already walked past the center of the street. Several times a week I find myself in a situation in which two cars turn left at the same time – meaning I will have one passing in front of me and one behind me. This seems to happen most frequently at the intersection of Vermont and Sunset and on first in Little Tokyo (while the LAPD watches and probably thinks I’m an asshole for walking on their streets).

  • Pedestrian buttons are often added as an afterthought, so they are not even located where a pedestrian will see them, or can get to them. Here is one of my favorites:

  • These are all pretty valid points – thank you for replying!
    I’ll have to explore the history of the beg buttons at Wilshire & Westwood. This particular instance I was recalling here was at a major intersection – Wilshire & Westwood has some of the highest vehicle counts in the city – so the circumstances are a bit different than, say, one street east (Wilshire & Glendon). Then again, Wilshire & Westwood has all sorts of issues: lame crosswalk markings, a ped phase where the red hand goes up 2 seconds after it starts, two left turn and two right turn lanes, so invariably somebody is trying to enter your right-of-way… oy vey.

  • John Montgomery

    I understand the need for a beg button to trigger a light change, much as the automated sensors do for cars. That seems sensible to me.

    But for the life of me, I don’t understand why the signage doesn’t always change to WALK at the start of a light cycle. If the WALK always went on, cars can still turn through the walk if there is no one in the crosswalk. But it’s so incredibly annoying as a pedestrian to be at the light before it changes, yet not be able to cross because the WALK light didn’t go on.

    imho, the only explanation is the goal is to prevent pedestrians from being able to cross the street, always giving preference to cars. That’s bullshit.

  • Anonymous

    There seems to be certain assumptions made about loop-detectors, crosswalks and pedestrian crossing push buttons.

    That all cars and bicycles have the needed amount and type of metal to activate the loop-detectors. Cars yes, bicycles–not necessarily (carbon fiber wheels will not work since it contains no metal).

    Crosswalks are frequently put in on streets with the assumption that its safe for drivers to be able to turn towards pedestrians when they have a walk signal and that pedestrians have vision and can see whether something is approaching or in their way. Some pedestrians are blind and cannot see whether a vehicle is approaching. If a crosswalk is placed at the crest of an incline then drivers may not see if anyone is in the crosswalk until their motor vehicle is a few feet in front of a pedestrian and a person walking in the crosswalk would have to look backwards as they are moving forward to make sure that a vehicle will not hit them as they go through the crosswalk.

    This is exactly the case at the freeway on-ramp on Campo De Cahuenga that is west of Universal Studios. The motor vehicles approach the freeway on-ramp at a very high rate of speed and the drivers cannot see if there is anyone in the crosswalk until they are almost upon them. A sensible way to reduce the odds of a motor vehicle hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk is to have separate left and right turn only traffic signal phases for motor vehicles at freeway on/off ramps and at all major intersections. This would also reduce motor vehicle collisions with bicycles going through the crosswalk and also the odds of a motor vehicle right hooking a bicycle going straight through the intersection.

    An assumption about using pedestrian push buttons is that all people have arms and hands. Some people do not. There are people who activate the wheelchair by head movement only and cannot use their arms.

  • calwatch

    John, most people walk on the green light and ignore the walk sign. Maybe look around and not walk if you see an officer around, but I routinely cross on green lights.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I believe the WALK sign doesn’t turn on automatically because the car-centric powers that be want the ability for the light to change at a moment’s notice if needed. An active WALK signal, with its flashing DON’T WALK phase, would take several “precious” seconds to cycle through before the light can turn. :-S

  • Alex Brideau III

    Now that I have a 5 year old at home for whom I want to set a “good example”, I hardly ever walk on a DON’T WALK signal anymore, but I agree that most folks do not follow my practice.

    I believe CA law states that pedestrians are allowed to cross on a green light unless a pedestrian signal is present. Off-the-wall idea: Could replacing pedestrian signals at most “standard” intersections with yellow-light countdown timers actually help give priority back to pedestrians?

  • Don Ward

    I think this article is well intentioned and I completely respect my fellow ped / cycling comrade Gary Kavanaugh, but asking to remove “beg buttons” is no bueno. Whom ever labeled them “beg” buttons was probably from the same marketing department that came up with the word “road diet.” Instead of asking to remove “beg buttons” we should be asking for enhanced button features now that the technology exists.

    The button offers empowerment if it is designed correctly. Lets think of them as “traffic pause buttons” not beg buttons.

    First the walk phase should ALWAYS be enabled on all lights. I agree on that, however the button should exist to give priority to pedestrians over cars.

    One should be able to call up a pause in traffic within 10 seconds of pressing after a given built in agreeable delay from the last press to prevent egregious car traffic disruption though that delay should not be longer than 30 seconds or, pressing the button should reset the walk signal if a ped decides to cross during the flashing phase.

    Removing the button all together would disable any of those options and place the discretion in the hands of the DOT which nearly always favors car traffic and will undoubtedly take months to justify quickening a light phase on a major street or argue the infeasibility based on current pedestrian numbers. Or at best base the walk signal on a study that at best doesnt give peds any power at all.

    Lets give pedestrians the power to pause traffic at will, (light timing be damned,) and when there is no request, the light returns to its timed default spacing but always with a default walk sign.

  • davistrain

    In some locations, if there is no traffic on the side street, pushing the button will bring up the WALK indication for those walking along the main street. It may depend on how sophisticated the traffic light control system is.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Or, if the buttons must stay, only the first press makes the beep noise. All subsequent presses should remain silent.

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