Photo by Neil Carpenter.

[This piece originally ran in 2008 in Time Out Chicago magazine.]

Q: Do those push-to-walk buttons at intersections work or are they just a placebo?

A: The New York Times reported that NYC deactivated most of its pedestrian switches in the ’80s, but thousands of sucker buttons were still in place in 2004. Chicago Department of Transportation’s Brian Steele assures us this isn’t the case here. “When you press it, it activates the walk signal [into the don’t-walk cycle] and lengthens the green,” he says. Does rapid-fire jabbing help? No, says Steele. “It’s like an elevator— pushing once is enough.”

Some newer stoplights are programmed so that, late at night, side streets never get a green unless a waiting motorist or ped is detected. Under-pavement sensors automatically register cars, but if you don’t notice the button, you’ll never get a signal. Yes, it’s unfair, but Steele promises CDOT is researching pedestrian-triggered automated-walk signals. [It appears nothing happened with this – it might be worth looking into again.]

Around midnight, stopwatch in tow, we tried to cross busy Chicago Avenue at sleepy Paulina Street and found Steele’s right. If we pushed the button in any manner, or if a driver was also waiting to cross, we’d get a walk signal in about a minute. Not pressing meant our light stayed red indefinitely. So as Curtis Mayfield sang, “Keep On Pushing.”

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  • Lisa Curcio

    If you don’t push the walk button at Lake Shore Drive and Monroe, there will never be a red light for northbound traffic and you will never get a walk signal!

  • Adam Herstein

    There are many intersections in Vancouver, BC where the walk signal will never activate until the button is pushed – even in the middle of the day. The green lights are always flashing to let people know this is the case.

    • Steven Vance

      Sighted people…

      • Jason Marshall

        Good point.

        The audible signals at Roosevelt and Wood seem to sound regardless if someone has pushed the button or not.

      • AKA60643

        Good point. The signals in Toronto had an audible component.

  • Melissa

    Moving from NYC, I was thrown for a loop at Chicago and Paulina, where I stood there for quite some time like an idiot until someone came and pressed the button. Apparently walk doesn’t even show up unless you press it.

  • C L

    I hate the buttons. I doubt anyone ever cleans them, so people just touch them with germy hands all day. I do whatever I can to avoid pressing it — waiting for the walk signal to appear on its own, or walking when there would be a walk signal (when traffic is stopped) if I had pressed the button. Often someone else will press it. I know that sounds ridiculous.

  • AKA60643

    I use the buttons when I need to, but sometimes the wait is long enough that I wonder if the button push has registered.

    On a recent visit to Toronto, I encountered a fair number of button-activated walk signals at major crossings – but with a difference. A little light above the button would turn orange after the button had been pushed. Wait times were shorter than at many comparable Chicago intersections.

  • John

    “Under-pavement sensors automatically register cars, but if you don’t notice the button, you’ll never get a signal. Yes, it’s unfair, but Steele promises CDOT is researching pedestrian-triggered automated-walk signals.”

    How is this unfair? What’s wrong with pressing a button to cross the street? It’s normal in every city I’ve been to in Europe and North America.

    To be blunt, if you wait an age for a walk signal without thinking ‘oh, maybe there’s a button I need to press’, then maybe your kinship with the lotus eating hayseed brigade is closer than expected.

    • Steven Vance

      Consider this scenario, which is real and present across city and suburbs at intersections with push-acuated signals:
      You arrive at an intersection to make a crossing and the green light for the roadway is on for the same direction you are headed. No one had come before you so the crosswalk signals says “don’t walk”. You push the button. The green light might be on for X more seconds, plenty of time for you to be given a “walk” signal and cross. Instead, you must wait for the your direction’s traffic to be given yellow, then red, then cross direction traffic is given a green to go and that phase goes on. Only after that phase will your direction will be given a green light and a “walk” signal.
      Basically, it degrades the pedestrian experience when at all non-signalized crosswalks and driveways pedestrians have the right-of-way.

      • Mark

        I had this happen to me on the North Branch trail on Sunday. I had a green light, but not the “Walk” signal, and a car honks at me for interrupting their right turn.

  • efe

    Still waiting for the new “walk” buttons to start working at the intersection of Franklin/Harrison. Speaking of messed up pedestrian environments, I am not a big fan of the changes they made in this area, including left and right turn arrows at Wells/Harrison, much longer crosswalk distances, and curbs that make it easier for drivers to whip around the corners when turning right. I thought the city was trying to make crossing the street more safe. You’d never know it, judging by this project.

    • Steven Vance

      The City, County, and State also apparently have “Complete Streets” policies. Actually, Cook County’s is a law, and I think the State’s is a law.

  • Jass

    Heres what I dont get.Say you’re trying to cross Chicago Avenue at sleepy Paulina Street.

    Say Chicago has had green for 10 minutes, as no one has needed to cross.

    Why does pushing the button result in an additional 1 minute wait, instead of an immediate change? Theyve had 10 minutes of green, why do they need eleven?

    • Steven Vance

      I don’t know. Perhaps it’s linked to the next signal and the other signal influences it. The minimum additional wait time is only the yellow phase and all-red phase.

      • John

        Yes, the wait time depends on exactly when you press the button in the signal cycle. If you’re lucky, it could be just a few seconds. If unlucky, maybe a minute.

        • Jass

          But thats the thing, if theres no cycle (its been green for 10 minutes as no one has needed the change) why further add to the delay?

  • Matt Grosspietsch

    On a recent trip to Ottawa, ON I came upon an intersection with a countdown timer showing that I had 80 seconds (and counting) to go before the don’t walk signal would switch the walk signal in the direction I needed to go. When I pressed the walk signal button it immediately shaved off 50 seconds and I got my walk signal that much faster. Brilliant!

    • Jass

      Sadly, the bureaucrats in DC have outlawed countdowns that show how long until you get the green (or walk).

      • John

        Not sure what you’re talking about. Countdown signals are required now in the US.

        • Jass

          Countdown to red, required.
          Countdown to green banned.

  • John

    “Brian Steele assures us this isn’t the case here.”

    …except at Riverside Plaza. Those buttons (just little white stubs, but with signs attached) are completely useless.