(NEXSTAR) – Have you ever found yourself at a crosswalk, waiting for the walk sign to appear as traffic buzzes by. And even though you press the crosswalk button – maybe multiple times – it seems to take forever for the light to change in your favor.
While some slow-changing stop lights just need you to tell them you’re there, some crosswalk signals don’t care how many times you press the crosswalk button – it’ll change when it’s ready.
It’s not exactly clear when and where the first walk/don’t walk signs were installed, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Records show it likely occurred in the 1930s, and they were much like they are today.
“When it was on, all traffic approaching the intersection stopped so pedestrians could cross the streets in all directions, including diagonally,” the DOT writes. One early system gave pedestrians 20 seconds to cross the street every 100 seconds. Another gave pedestrians the walk signal while traffic moving in the same direction had a green light.
About three decades later, crosswalk buttons began appearing. They were intended to allow vehicle traffic to continue moving smoothly until a pedestrian came along rather than frequently stopping traffic for nobody.
Today, many of those buttons are useless.
In Austin, Texas, for example, most of the downtown intersections have walk indicators that are part of the normal traffic cycle, the city’s Transportation and Public Works Department told Nexstar. This means pedestrians don’t have to push a button at all (however, outside of downtown Austin, almost all signals do have buttons).
In San Francisco, there are 1,286 traffic signals operated by the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency, 610 of which have a version of a pedestrian push button, a spokesperson told Nexstar.
At just 264 of those, pedestrians need to press a button to get a ‘walk’ signal to cross some or all of the streets at the intersection. San Francisco has 490 signals with Accessible Pedestrian Signal buttons – which verbally tell pedestrians what streets they’re on and when to cross – at 143 intersections, those buttons are also used to activate a walk signal at some or all of the crosswalks, a spokesperson explains.
Few work in Boston as well, where city officials told the Boston Globe there is too much vehicular and foot traffic to let one person influence the whole traffic light setup. Only about 100 of the roughly 1,000 pedestrian buttons in New York City work, according to reports. High costs of removing some of the non-working buttons prompted city officials to leave them in place, The New York Times reported, prompting many to find themselves pushing a useless button.
In addition to the impacts the buttons can have on interrupting traffic, some cities have cited their required maintenance when opting to abandon them.
Crosswalk signals that are actuated, meaning they are triggered by a pedestrian hitting the button or loop detectors, generally require more upkeep, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Still, actuated signals could be beneficial “where vehicle and pedestrian volumes vary considerably throughout the day.”
While some cities may leave you confused about whether the crosswalk button actually works, San Francisco has placed signs at intersections that require you to hit the button.
Unless you’re instructed not to push the crosswalk button, it’s likely in your favor to press the button to get the ‘walk’ signal. If you find yourself waiting for an extended period of time, you can cross the street when safe to do so. You can also report a walk signal that should be functioning but isn’t to your city, sometimes by calling 311 if your community uses that number.