Pedestrian signals: Faster than never

A community-supported blog, thank you.

A reader asks:

“Hey, my kids want to know if those cross-walk buttons do anything. So, do they?”

Snarky response:

No, not really. The buttons are there to give you something to do while people with real purpose, and thus in a proper transportation machine with an engine and a big-gulp between their legs, are allowed to go about their day as un-encumbered as possible. There is no value in continuing to push the button other than to feel like you are doing something.

Longer, less snarky, response:

Most, if not all, of the pedestrian signals in Traverse City simply alert the computer that a person un-encumbered by a car is waiting to cross the street and instead of remaining “red” through the next light cycle will show the little green guy for an allotted time. I’m not aware of any “placebo buttons” found in other cities. The time of the cycle is generally calculated by a walking speed of 3.5 ft per second (lowered from the previous 4 ft/second). There is some discussion among wonks that a more universal, and slower, speed of 3 ft second needs to be instituted more regularly. This would accommodate older people who average 3 ft/sec or lower.

Recently, MDOT and the County Road Commission have begun using countdown signals around town. These are a welcome improvement as they reduce the anxiety of previous lights that flashed green to go and then started the strobe warning light for the rest of the cycle. These flashing “don’t walk” signals often send pedestrians back to their starting point or cause them to finish the crossing in a nervous jog. Note to people on foot: You have the right to cross the street at your own pace, lights be damned! People in cars can wait an extra second.

Other than downtown and around schools, pedestrian signals in Traverse City do require a button to be pushed to actuate the light. To continue answering the original question, pushing the signal does not typically alter the sequence of the main traffic signal. It simply ensures that the pedestrian light will turn-on and that a walk phase will be used, which might lengthen the entire cycle at the intersection.

As a community becomes more walk focused, new pedestrian lights may include “leading pedestrian intervals” that when actuated give the people crossing on foot a green light several seconds before the people in cars at the same intersection. This not only helps the driver be more aware of people crossing the street, it improves the appeal of walking in otherwise uncomfortable situations.

A local example where a leading pedestrian interval might have a huge dividend is at Division St. and Grandview Parkway. This is an intersection with a lot of conflict points and, as a result, a lot of stressed out people. Crossing Grandview from south to north would be greatly improved with a leading pedestrian interval light.

For more about the leading pedestrian interval light or delayed vehicle green, the following StreetFilms Video is recommended.


Do pedestrian signals do anything? Yes, some things. For one, in many places, as a person on foot they may not give you a priority light cycle, but they do give you a light cycle…and, that is certainly faster than never.

Have any other questions? Send them in.


  1. August 22, 2012 at 11:41 am

    That explains alot! How can we get the City to install cross walk buttons that actually decrease pedestrian wait times?

  2. Me
    August 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Wow, did not know that, thanks for the education. That explains nearly being run over several times by left turning traffic while trying to cross Woodmere at 8th. Grandview/Division, what a nightmare. The only time I bother with that is if there are a large number of people crossing, which there usually aren’t. So instead I go through the beach parking lot to just west of it, get off my bike and cross. I shouldn’t have to do it that way, but it’s a lot safer to cross in the middle of Grandview away from the light and conflict with turning traffic. Walk lights need to do a better job to help stop those conflicts, IMO. The only one that does it around here (that I’m aware of) is Woodmere and 8th, when you are crossing north/south. Apparently not for crossing east/west, though :(. The sign they have at Grandview/Division needs a wording change. Instead of “yield to pedestrians” it ought to just say “no turn on red” and turn to red when that button is pushed. Even better, maybe people could just stop driving like jerks and wait 15 or 20 seconds until someone is across. It’s not going to take that much time out of your drive.

  1. June 13, 2013 at 11:01 am

Send MyWHaT a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: