The Pedestrian Beg Button: Why is This Still a Thing?

Ah, the joys of the pedestrian signal button. Joe the pedestrian approaches an intersection. The traffic light is red in his direction. Just has he approaches the crosswalk, the traffic light turns green. Oh, too late! Joe presses the button, but the red hand remains lit. Joe must wait for the traffic light to turn red and then green again before the walk signal will beckon him to cross. At some intersections, this can amount to several minutes.

Traffic lights without automatic pedestrian signal phasing are inherently biased against people on foot. Cars don’t have to press a button to cross the street, so why should pedestrians? If a car approaches the intersection just as the light turns green, it just sails on through. The pedestrian? They must press a button and wait, essentially begging to legally cross and unnecessarily lengthening the time it takes to get to wherever they are going.

Denver has set goals to get people to take more multi-modal trips. In order to accomplish this, substantial investments will need to be made in our walking, biking, and transit infrastructure; and land use changes are needed to bring more destinations within walking distance of more people. Accomplishing all of this is expensive and politically difficult. Automatic pedestrian signals, on the other hand, are low-hanging fruit. No capital investment or new infrastructure is necessary and changing this particular status quo would be uncontroversial. A reprogramming of traffic lights is all that is needed.

Making intersections more pedestrian friendly doesn’t just further Denver’s sustainability goals. It also furthers our city’s Vision Zero goals, a global movement to eliminate all traffic fatalities. Every day, countless pedestrians, frustrated by unfriendly signals, cross the street against the light. This is illegal and dangerous, but nearly all of us have done it. Why? Because it is the logical course of action. Walking is already the slowest mode of travel. Not many of us are willing to add several minutes to our trip time by waiting at an intersection for the traffic light to go through another full cycle. For most urban residents, the delay is intolerable and as soon as they see an opening in traffic, they cross. Creating fair and equitable conditions at our intersections for both motorists and pedestrians will make them safer and bring Denver closer to achieving Vision Zero.

When asked for the city’s policy on pedestrian beg buttons, Denver Public Works provided this statement:

Denver provides automatic pedestrian walk cycles in locations where we have more pedestrian activity and where we see the greatest demand from pedestrians to cross. At other crossings, people can activate the walk cycle by pushing the button and, by doing so, are given more time to cross than they would if they did not push the button. In places where we don’t see a lot of pedestrian activity, we don’t automatically provide pedestrian crossing time as it unnecessarily adds to vehicle idling time and increases air pollution.

How does the city measure pedestrian activity at an intersection? What is the quantitative threshold for “more pedestrian activity” to qualify for automatic pedestrian walk cycles? How frequently is an intersection evaluated to see if it meets the threshold? How does the city reconcile this policy with Mobility Policy #3 from the newly adopted Blueprint Denver that states: “On all streets, prioritize people walking and rolling over other modes of transportation”?

Following are examples of two intersections in neighborhoods where I have lived that I think are no-brainers for reform:

Pedestrians at Colfax and Downing in Denver

Colfax and Downing is a heavily trafficked intersection in the heart of the city. It is surrounded by the most dense and walkable neighborhoods in the entire metro area and is adjacent to the bus stops of the 15 and 15L, the busiest of all of RTD’s transit routes. This area is teeming with pedestrians and yet, despite the policy statement above from Denver Public Works, this intersection does not have an automatic pedestrian phase to cross Colfax, which is ridiculous. It is probable that every intersection on central Colfax has significant pedestrian through traffic and deserves a pedestrian phase.

Beg buttons in the pedestrian-heavy DU area of Denver

Another example is the intersection of University and Buchtel. On one side of this intersection is the University of Denver campus and a light rail station. On the other side are over one thousand apartment units and a parking lot for Richie Center events. There are a tremendous number of people who cross University Boulevard every day in this neighborhood but, contrary to the city’s policies, there are beg buttons at both Buchtel and Asbury. Consequently, many people jaywalk across University because of the inconvenience of crossing these intersections.

There are many similar intersections all over Denver that pedestrians cross on a frequent basis. If Denver truly wants to become a safer and less car-dependent city, it should reprogram these signals as quickly as possible. There is no good reason for the city to drag its feet on this cheap fix.

By |2019-08-18T14:36:02+00:00July 6, 2019|Categories: Infrastructure, Pedestrians, Walkability|12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Danny Fritz July 6, 2019 at 9:58 pm

    I reported an intersection without pedestrian recall to 311 and they turned it on for me within the week. No questions asked and no push back. The intersection I reported was 38th and Brighton.

    Report your intersections to 311 and hope for the same treatment.

    • Scott Ramming August 7, 2019 at 11:07 pm

      I’ve reported 32nd & Tejon multiple times to 311. Most recently, the traffic engineer said “you’re the only one whose complaining.” I’d think the Highlands would qualify as having “more pedestrian activity.” BTW, pushing the button to cross Tejon doesn’t change the phase lengths at all.

  2. Freddie July 7, 2019 at 2:33 am

    That was a good read, Ryan. Denver Public Works’ response was seemingly well calculated and difficult to poke holes through — yet you know the city (and its Blueprint Denver plan) well enough that you were able to pretty much pick it apart.

    I agree. Colfax in particular is one of my least favorite streets to cross. It really is a barrier to pedestrians. I have found myself walking a great length of it just hoping a convenient opportunity to cross will magically develop — perhaps at an intersection that isn’t light-controlled but there’s a nice gap in the traffic, or perhaps at one that is, but I just happen to reach the intersection during the right phase of its light-cycle for pressing the button — but alas, no opportunity develops, and once again Colfax Avenue manages to gobble up the entire east/west portion of my walk. Now I have no choice but to press that damn button and wait — and wait and wait.

  3. Sarah McGregor July 7, 2019 at 7:22 pm

    Oh, yes!! You are so right. Anyone who has walked for transportation has been frustrated by this. And another thing: cyclists are also affected by this, since bikes are not sensed at a lot of intersections, so you have to get out of the traffic and go push the dang button if you want a green light. Or run the light.

  4. David July 8, 2019 at 12:54 am

    In some places getting run over is the least of pedestrian worries. Colfax and Downing is a busy intersection indeed. The bus stop is major trouble stop. The police probably get more calls to this stop than any other. People will continue to drive until these issues are dealt with.

  5. Anthony July 8, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    I work on East Colfax, and nearly all of the lights that cross an intersecting road of Colfax have automatic walk signs, but the signs to cross Colfax itself requires a button. I emailed public works about this, noting how many people cross Colfax just at the intersection next to my office as well as the large volume of kids from East High School. Public works responded that the walk signal requires more time than the regular non-walk green light, so retiming the lights would be inefficient and difficult.

  6. Geoff July 8, 2019 at 7:55 pm

    At intersections with a very high pedestrian volume, I agree that the pedestrian cycle should be automatic, but at the overwhelming majority of intersections the button is just fine. In fact at a lot of intersections, especially ones where a small street intersects a much larger street, the pedestrian button will actually cycle the traffic signal, and is thereby a benefit to pedestrians. Also your argument that cars don’t have to wait and/or request a green signal is simply wrong especially in the case of left turn arrows. Many intersections will not activate protected left turn cycles unless they detect a vehicle in the left turn lanes. There are plenty of times where I have experienced the exact scenario described by you, I approach an intersection just as it cycles, and it doesn’t detect my vehicle in time, and then have to wait a full cycle for a protected left turn, its a minor annoyance but its part of life regardless of weather your in a car, on foot or a bike. Signal cycle time is a finite resource, and activating long pedestrian crossing cycles weather there is a pedestrian present or not is a silly waste of a finite resource. Furthermore doing so at large intersections with long crossing times not only would increase air pollution as mentioned by DPW, but would also harm pedestrians and bicycles because if they are trying to cross in the opposite direction they have to wait for a long, empty pedestrian cycle, just like everyone else.

    • Scott Ramming August 7, 2019 at 11:14 pm

      The column isn’t arguing that cars making minor movements don’t have to wait, but they don’t have to travel out of direction to intentionally press a button. They’re automatically (passively) detected. And while detection has historically used inductive loops that require large chunks of metal to change the electromagnetic properties, many modern intersections now use video detection. Video detection should work the same way for a bicycle or a pedestrian.

  7. mckillio July 8, 2019 at 9:33 pm

    How much do these devices cost? Surely it’s cheaper not to have them in the first place? If DPW’s argument is that cars would have to wait too long then clearly the intersections are too wide. Every single street with street parking should have curb extensions to shorten these distances and it should be city policy that if the curbs on a block are getting redone (like on much of Downing recently) that extensions should be implemented as SOP.

  8. Dan Myers July 9, 2019 at 8:38 pm

    http://k-ksystems.com/crosswalk-systems.html
    We have lots of solutions for crosswalks. Push buttons of course, but can also incorporate bollards with motion activation and other triggers. We can help.
    K-ksystems.com.

  9. […] guest post originally appeared on the Denver Urbanism […]

  10. Brett August 7, 2019 at 2:29 am

    I only wish there were some of these on Colorado Boulevard!

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