Luke Klipp: Pedestrian Beg Buttons Exist to Serve People in Cars

Pedestrian beg buttons are designed to speed up driving and to make people walking wait longer. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.
Pedestrian beg buttons are designed to speed up driving and to make people walking wait longer. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Friend of the blog and Streetsie award winner Luke Klipp recently posted a dozen tweets exploring the various reasons that pedestrian beg buttons are awful. SBLA will give Klipp the floor, and add a few points after his tweet storm:

Let’s talk for a moment about beg buttons…

First: beg buttons are NOT there to serve pedestrians. They exist to serve people in cars. They exist so that car traffic signals can minimize the car travel “delays” associated with people who need to cross a street on foot. (/1)

In order to save people in cars from waiting upwards of 30 seconds for crosswalk signals, city traffic engineers force people on foot to press beg buttons and wait. Always waiting. It’s worth comparing the experience on foot versus behind the wheel. (/2)

People in cars either (a) have the green or (b) wait, typically under a minute, but longer at a few places. They’re in climate-controlled spaces, and the city has spent millions installing in-street coils to automatically detect them without any added effort by a driver. (/3)

Traffic lights are set up to minimize car delays (e.g. “Signal Sync”), with zero consideration for people walking or biking. However, a couple cities (not L.A.) have added “green wave” lights that align with biking speeds on key streets. (/4)

Cities like L.A. have installed beg buttons in part because they have widened their roads and, thus, the time to cross on foot is substantially greater than if those roads were narrower. People crossing on foot require ~3 seconds for each 10-11′ lane they must cross. (/5)

The dirty secret of road widenings is that they require longer ped crossing times. This, of course, undermines the whole “purpose” for adding lanes in the first place. It’s also why road “diets” actually can move more cars, because narrower roads have shorter red lights. (/6)

Beg buttons are a reflection of the lengths to which traffic engineers have gone to save people in their cars a few *seconds* here and there, at the expense of added *minutes* here and there for people walking. Beg buttons add minutes of delay for pedestrians. (/7)

Another example of this? All those intersections where there’s a “NO PED CROSSING” sign on one of the four crosswalks. That design saves drivers a minute, maybe two, max. Meanwhile, it forces people on foot to cross three legs of an intersection instead of only one. (/8)

In the past decade, L.A. has instituted two meaningful interventions designed to serve pedestrians and not drivers: (1) zebra-striped crosswalks and (2) Barnes-style all-way crosswalks (like at Hollywood and Highland). (/9)

That the former required a major lift to become city policy (even though it’s relatively cheap) and the latter has been implemented at maybe only a half-dozen crosswalks in a 500 square mile city says a lot about the priority we give to these life-saving interventions. (/10)

Meanwhile, @LADOTOfficial has been adding beg buttons at intersections all across the city, including (and this is the reason for this discussion in the first place) locations with so many pedestrians that it defies logic to even require them at all. (/11)

These actions defy logic, unless your priority is moving cars. And for those of us who walk on a daily basis, it is abundantly apparent that moving cars – above all else – is LA’s number one priority, and has been for many years. (/12)

Beg buttons are inconsistent in their timing, often quite dirty, hard to tell if they’re working, and also not ADA friendly, but then they don’t exist for people walking. Beg buttons exist to make the drives of people in their cars more convenient. (/end)

Well said. 

Sadly, L.A. is still adding beg buttons, even along MyFigueroa, a complete streets upgrade meant to connect two highly walkable places – a downtown and a university. Readers have recently reported that downtown pedestrians at 7th Street and Figueroa Street (a very heavily walked intersection at the portal where four Metro rail lines and numerous bus lines converge) have been delayed for a phase, because nobody expects to have to push a button there. Mercifully, LADOT, after constructive criticism from advocates, is upgrading several of the busiest intersections – removing beg buttons – in the northern end of MyFig.

In this writer’s Koreatown neighborhood, the most heavily-walked intersections generally don’t have beg buttons, so thanks LADOT for not doing them everywhere.

There are plenty of reasons not to widen roads. Not the least of which, as Klipp points out, is that wider roads mean drivers have to wait longer at intersections while pedestrians get across. Theoretically, road widening is supposed to add car throughput and capacity, but the increased time to walk further across negates this supposed advantage. In an email, Klipp stated “road widenings may do about as much harm to their intended purpose as any good, but they do certainly give people free license to drive faster in between signals, which makes streets less safe.” Nonetheless, L.A. is still widening streets, making them harder to cross, less safe, and more expensive to maintain – even along transit-rich corridors like Wilshire Boulevard. Metro and Caltrans are still spending billions to widen freeways, too – which includes making lots of nearby surface streets wider and even more hostile to walking.

A minor caveat that doesn’t negate Klipp’s overall point: in tweet 9 he mentions only two meaningful L.A. City interventions to serve pedestrians – scrambles and zebra crosswalks. While the city’s interventions have, on balance, favored people in cars, there are several other worthwhile interventions that LADOT has implemented, including: leading pedestrian intervals, road diets, mid-block crossings, and People St plazas. More of these, please! And fewer beg buttons.

  • embarcadero

    But when 90% of the population drives, where are the votes coming from to support slowing down traffic and causing congestion and frustration?

  • Sean Hussey

    If I drive somewhere to shop and it is difficult to cross the street, I may go shop somewhere where it is easier. If a mall where it is easy to cross the parking lot is built excessively far from my house, I may buy the things online instead.

  • rqila

    Hmmm…. that’s really interesting and I’d have to think about it a bit. But at a minimum, not going into the specifics of what you’re saying, really, the equation you’re referring to isn’t accounting for the tangential effects of constricting throughput 33% (going from 3 lanes to 2). To the extent that this forces traffic out of the roadways altogether and onto different routes that result in heavier crossings or traffic on other roadways, the reduced lanes will have an effect overall.

    You’re doing this math in a closed system, but real life traffic conditions aren’t closed. Traffic squirts everywhere. Collateral damage is a thing. Even with more numbers as you’ve provided, I still doubt it’s enough to do the calculation well-enough because while it may be tempting to claim the collateral effects are trivial, I think empirical evidence shows them not to be.

  • Stuart

    it also involved widening nearly all of the the streets for those newfangled horseless carriages

    It sounds like we’re in agreement about my point, which is that the degree to which cars are a fixture of American cities is something that can and does change over the course of the life of cities, rather than—as the person I was replying to claimed—a pre-existing and unalterable property of being a city. LA was a city before its streets were widened, and it will continue to be one if some of them are narrowed again, or if some of the light timings change to shift the balance slight in favor of pedestrians instead of cars.

    I wasn’t trying to say that LA and other cities haven’t made a lot of decisions over time that prioritize cars; they obviously have. Acknowledging that is very different than asserting that cars are the sine qua non of American cities though.

  • That’s your metric, “a European luxury vehicle”? I have news for you: they’re not the prevalent vehicles on the road by a long shot and the used ones are dirt cheap. Furthermore, again, in DTLA which is a main part of the subject in the first place, living ain’t cheap. Someone living there and walking around almost certainly makes more than the chap driving in the 2002 3-series.

  • embarcadero

    Doubtful. There is a pretty clear correlation between expensive assets and value. In fact in LA even medium earner like to have nice wheels because you spend so much time driving.

    Anyway, my point was that it’s not just the raw number of people that is a factor, but also the value of those peoples’ time. Not every man-hour is the same so the quasi-communist idea that we are all “equal” in some way is suspect.

  • embarcadero

    At least in LA most stores have their own parking so driving involves very little walking. You might have a point in very dense places like Santa Monica or downtown SF. But in most of the Bay and LA areas, people drive and park at their exact destination, often not having to cross any traffic other than what is in the lot.

  • Courtney

    Has it occurred to you that fossil-fueled powered vehicles are contributing to climate change and we can mitigate that by investing in transit, biking, and walking? Has it occurred to you that we can move lots of people more efficiently via public transit and biking versus having one person in a car and dedicating tons of valuable land space to moving cars that will typically sit unused most of the time? Has it occurred to you that someone’s worth is not dependent on their financial status?

  • Sean Hussey

    Most of the 90% of people who drive probably agree with you. Hence why LA, to relieve congestion, has been surprisingly building a lot more subways and light rail than SF.

    Cars to Subway systems – total overhaul

  • Sean Hussey

    Unfortunately these shops with their parking lots seem to get built further and further away, leading to me buying more things online.
    So less traffic, but less brick and mortar. :(
    If only they could build them closer with more pedestrian access. Like not having to drive at all…

  • ExpoRider

    Who’s talking about “constricting throughput”? The article is about pedestrian buttons, pedestrian wait time, and the effects of widening streets, not contracting them.
    By the way, do you know what “throughput” is? It’s not street capacity used to serve the people who live, work, shop or play in your community. It’s street capacity used to serve the people who drive through your community, as fast as possible, to get somewhere else.
    If streets were designed only to handle the traffic generated by people who have an interest in the community, they wouldn’t need to be wider than two lanes.
    When we widen our streets, and raise the speed limits, we’re inviting people from other communities, who have no desire to live, work, shop or play in our community, to drive through our community as fast as possible, with little care for the safety of our families, friends and neighbors.

  • embarcadero

    You are basically arguing that we should re-start the nation from scratch. I don’t think we can get there from here. People like their cars, their lifestyle and will vote accordingly.

  • embarcadero

    And what percentage of LA travel is subway-mile versus vehicle-mile?

  • embarcadero

    Electric cars

  • J. Geoff Rove

    As a driver I like when a walker hits the button. It gives a 20+ second green light to my cross street, versus a 6 second green otherwise due to pitiful Dupage County IL highway engineers. I guess the higher GPA students went into Electronic and Computers instead of civil.

  • jcwconsult

    Pedestrian demand buttons are used primarily in areas where most light cycles do not have any pedestrians, so running the pedestrian walk cycles impedes vehicle traffic efficiency for NO reason.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    Ideally, if traffic lights are designed properly, no user should get a red light if nothing is crossing. If there is a red light, it should only last for as long as the crossing takes. Dumb, timed pedestrian signals, which this article seems to be advocating for, cause all sorts of pointless delay for both motorists and cyclists during most of the day when few pedestrians are crossing. Timed cycles only make sense when you have lots of pedestrians and lots of motor vehicles. Here they have to take turns. Or if feasible for can install an underpass or overpass and eliminate delays for everyone.

  • Stuart

    From the article (you don’t even have to click any links, just read it before commenting):

    Meanwhile, @LADOTOfficial has been adding beg buttons at intersections all across the city, including (and this is the reason for this discussion in the first place) locations with so many pedestrians that it defies logic to even require them at all.

    I wonder the NMA’s only contribution to this discussion is to try to ignore the context the author is actually talking about and focus exclusively on the cases that support the talking point that they are a harmless way of improving vehicle efficiency?

  • jcwconsult

    If there are no pedestrians at corner X at traffic sequence Y, why would any pedestrian signal cycles be correct to include?
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    Arguably, a very wealthy person’s time is worth less because they already made enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. They really have no hurry to get anywhere.

    On the other hand, a poor or middle class person who has to work should have more value placed on their time. If they’re late, they can lose their job. Many of these poor or middle class use bikes or walking or public transit. Hence all three modes should be prioritized over private automobiles. There are also efficiency reasons for doing this. A street has more capacity in terms of moving people per hour when the people are in buses, on bikes, or walking, instead of in private autos.

  • Joe Linton

    Though there’s a lot that’s been re-done it’s just wrong to say that “L.A. has been “*completely* redeveloped since 1900. Little or nothing exists of the old Pueblo de Los Angeles.” Also, much of the development in the early years of the 20th century were transit/pedestrian oriented.

  • Stuart

    If there are no pedestrians at corner X at traffic sequence Y, why would any pedestrian signal cycles be correct to include?

    You can’t think of any reason not to put beg buttons in areas with “many pedestrians”—which again, is the context of the post you’re commenting on, and specifically highlighted in the comment you are replying to—so long as there exist any light cycles where there is no pedestrian? You can’t think of any reason this would be problematic for the pedestrians who are there for light cycles?

    Well, since you feel that way, obviously you must agree that it’s also incorrect to include a signal cycle for cars when there is no car present at the intersection, “impeding [pedestrian] traffic efficiency for NO reason”. I look forward to seeing the NMA lobby for the elimination of all timing-based lights, in favor of intersections where cars always have to stop on a sensor at the red light and then wait until they are scheduled into the next cycle.

    Unless, of course, you do see the problem with that and were just being deliberately obtuse to make a disingenuous argument to push a pro-car, anti-pedestrian agenda.

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