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Stop Touching Pedestrian “Beg Buttons”

A DIY prescription: Taping a rock to a beg button might guarantee an automatic pedestrian phase–but this doesn’t always work. Photo from Twitter user Ollie

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

We have all heard the public health messages about the importance of washing hands and avoiding touching "high-touch" surfaces without sanitizing or using gloves, such as doorknobs and shopping carts handles.

That list should include the buttons pedestrians use to get a "walk" signal at some intersections.

These buttons have long been decried and criticized by advocates for walking, anyway. The buttons' purpose is less to keep people safe than to reinforce the primacy of cars on the street by forcing people who want to cross a street to "beg" for a walk signal.

Now, with drastic action necessary to slow the spread of COVID, some cities are de-activating buttons where they can. The National Association of Transportation Officials (NACTO) recommends this. Sydney, Australia did so last week, and a few days ago Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that L.A. would be rolling out button deactivations in places where a lot of people are walking, starting in downtown. The city plans to expand the work to Westlake, Hollywood, and the MacArthur Park area this week.

Other cities around the world have also taken action, such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Calgary and Keremeos, Canada. Sadly, most of the California cities Streetsblog reached out to haven't considered the issue.

Sydney, Australia, may have been the first city to address this. But it deactivated its "beg" buttons only during the day. The state's Minister for Transport and Roads tweeted out a warning not to touch them, and the city put up signs telling people to keep their hands off.

L.A. Mayor Garcetti announced the rollout of automatic pedestrian signals on Monday, saying it was important for people to be able to walk safely and not expose themselves to the highly contagious virus. A spokesman for the city said that the pushbuttons cannot be switched off automatically, but need to be programmed individually by engineers, which is why this is being rolled out neighborhood by neighborhood rather than citywide all at once.

In San Francisco, the number of beg buttons has been decreasing over time, in recognition that signals should automatically include a pedestrian phase without people having to ask for it. But it might not be obvious that the city is doing this, because at the same time it has been increasing the number of Accessible Pedestrian System, or APS, buttons. These give an audible signal--frequently a loud, rhythmic clicking--to let sight-impaired people know they have the signal to cross.

There doesn't seem to be any indication that the APS buttons don't actually call a pedestrian phase, however, or that people who don't need the sound don't need to touch the buttons.

In other cities, some advocates have pushed to get rid of the beg buttons altogether, but that has been a longer process that seems to have been interrupted by the virus. In Oakland, for example, advocates had pushed for this, and the city was in the process of hiring an engineer to build a signal operations team to address the issue. Without a team in place currently, the city doesn't seem to have the nimbleness to respond quickly.

In Emeryville, City Councilmember John Bauters had been trying to create a policy to remove the buttons during routine maintenance work, even before the virus. Given the difficulties city councils are having holding meetings, and the ongoing question of which work is considered essential, that effort is likely to be delayed.

One planner in another city reached by Streetsblog pointed out that other concerns may take priority. For example, adjusting traffic signals from controller boxes might require traffic maintenance staff to work in close quarters or increase their hours during the shelter-in-place order. That increases their risk of exposure to the virus, and planners are aware that asking lower paid staff to do what could be seen as non-essential tasks while higher paid staff are working from home is an equity as well as a public health issue.

In his announcement, Mayor Garcetti also spoke of the dramatic changes that have been happening on streets just because everyone is staying home. With fewer people driving, he said, "emergency personnel are responding to fewer traumas, freeing up badly needed trauma rooms" for COVID patients.

"But," he said, "the accidents that are happening have been horrific. People are speeding, going too fast [for conditions.] It must be amazing to drive without the usual traffic," he added. "It's like we rewound the clock several decades. But you still have to obey all the speed limits, and remember that there are still people out there walking."

People are taking over the streets. Photo by Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

It has been truly strange to walk on some of neighborhood streets in the last week or so. People have taken over space usually only safe for someone encased in a steel cage. In some places the beg button issue may seem moot, as usually heavily traveled streets now have large gaps in traffic flow and are much easier to cross safely.

It's not like a green light or a painted crosswalk ever guaranteed safety, anyway.

Seems like the best option, if you're out walking, is not to touch the beg buttons, unless you have to cross a wide intersection with fast traffic. Then maybe use your elbow.

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