Is there any point in pushing the walk signal button?


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.”