beg button signs

The Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), and the California equivalent, are standards for the design and placement of traffic control signs. They have the force of law for any federal or state funded roadways, but there is no enforcement mechanism, so signs that do not meet these standards can certainly be found, both in places that just decide they know better, and in places where the public right-of-way and use is evolving rapidly and the glacial pace approval of new signs is not keeping up.

The MUTCD has 14 signs related to the use of beg buttons to cross the street, in the R10-1 through R10-4 series. One of these is shown below, the most complicated one, R10-3e. Of the 14, none offer any information about whether the beg button is required or not. This is not an oversight; it is a direct expression of traffic engineer’s disdain for pedestrians. California could, of course, add other signs with better information, after approval by FHWA, but it has not seen fit to do so.

Noting the lack of good signs that actually address real-world situations, some entities have designed their own. One example is below, which came via Don Kostelec, of whom I’ll have more to say shortly. (original source not known)

Why is the distinction between these two types of signs important? Buttons can be used by limited vision or blind people to trigger the pedestrian signal, and the auditory and sometimes vibratory message that goes with it. When the conversation started about removing beg buttons, many disability advocates were up in arms, understandably. If there is no button, there is no message.

Except, of course, for automatic detection of pedestrians, and even pedestrians types, that many other countries and a very few places in the US are installing. Traffic engineers routinely resist automatic detection as “too expensive and not practical” despite spending much larger sums on vehicle detection. Which in the case of bicyclists, often doesn’t work anyway.

Traffic engineers also frequently place buttons in places where people with disabilities, as well as everyone, can’t find them and/or can’t reach them.

So, is there a way to preserve the function of buttons needed by disabled people, while not discriminating against all pedestrians? You bet. Just label the button for its function. And put it in an accessible location.

So, Don Kostelec. He is one of my heroes, as he has done a better job than anyone I know of documenting the failures of transportation agencies to install safe and usable pedestrian facilities. Sidewalks too narrow, or that end where you really need them; ADA ramps to nowhere; crosswalks that can’t be safely used; and on and on. I highly encourage you to check out his blog (http://www.kostelecplanning.com/blog/) and Twitter feed (@KostelecPlan). He does not hesitate to call out road and traffic engineers for their failure to think, and for their failure to follow their professional code of ethics. Though he didn’t originate it, I think he is responsible for popularizing the expression “Hold my beer!” in the transportation world, implying that only an engineer drinking beer, and momentarily designing a roadway or facility before going back to drinking, could have done something that stupid.

And on this topic of beg buttons, I particularly encourage you to read his recent post, Push buttons: The good, the beg, and the ugly.

There has also been a lot of discussion about whether it is hard to change the buttons from required to not required, which is called auto recall, or just recall. A number of cities have changed hundreds of buttons in very short order because they prioritized it. Newer signal control boxes allow changes to be made remotely, changing the function and timing of pedestrian signals. Older control boxes may require that someone go out and physically change them. The older boxes are sometimes derisively called squirrel cages because they had large physical clocks with rotating dial, with pegs to change the signal on or off, as it came around. They made noises like a squirrel or hamster cage. A few idiots have been saying that pedestrian signals should not be changed remotely because of security issues. That is the whole point of modern signal controllers, part of Integrated Traffic Systems (ITS), that they can be can sense and respond to actual traffic, and can be adjusted remotely to respond to changing conditions and for changing flow when crashes occur.

There is also the issue that many transportation agencies don’t know what is at the intersection. Does it have pedestrian signals or not? Does it have pedestrian countdown or not? What is the timing of the pedestrian phase, in terms of countdown? Is the beg button required or not? They simply don’t know. Locally, Sacramento County is the worst on this issue.

Previous post on beg buttons: Don’t touch that button! Then, there are locations where pedestrian crossing is simply prohibited, for reasons having everything to do with speeding traffic and nothing to do with pedestrian safety: and crossing prohibitions, and no-ped-crossing in the grid.

Don’t touch that button!

Here in the city of Sacramento, most signalized intersections have beg buttons, the button you press to get the pedestrian crossing. Some of these are on auto-recall, which is what it is called when the pedestrian crossing (the white walker symbol) comes on every cycle. Most of them are not; the pedestrian crossing will never change unless you press the button. A few of them won’t ever change because the beg button is broken. You would think that the city would label the buttons with their function: is it required, is it not required, does it only affect the disability audible signal? Who knows. The city can’t be bothered to tell people walking how it works.

This is a huge frustration for walkers ALL the time, but now it is more, it is a public health hazard. Is there corona virus on that button? Probably yes. Is the city cleaning the buttons? Certainly no. So the city is allowing and encouraging a public health hazard by requiring walkers to use the buttons in order to cross the street. This must stop now! The city must set all pedestrian crossings to auto-recall, at least until the end of the pandemic, and hopefully forever.

I have been going on two long walks a day, or sometimes a bike ride, since self-isolating (no, I’m not sick). The only thing I have to touch in the outside world, other than my door knob when exiting and my door knob when returning, is beg buttons. Of course I don’t touch them. I cross when it is safe; I don’t waste my time waiting to see if this is one of those required, or simply decorative buttons. Because I won’t touch the button, I have to assume that every signalized intersection is broken, not accessible to pedestrians, and I therefore have a right to cross during gaps in traffic, no matter what the pedestrian signal says.

Fix this, city. Now.

Corona virus? Your guess.

Grid 2.0 pedestrian comments

The City of Sacramento Grid 2.0 project is requesting specific input on ways to improve the pedestrian experience in midtown/downtown. I encourage you to go there and add your pins.

Pedestrian beg button on a commonly used crosswalk, this location should have a pedestrian signal on every cycle, not just when someone presses the button.
Pedestrian beg button on a commonly used crosswalk (K & 9th), this location should have a pedestrian signal on every cycle, not just when someone presses the button.

Dropping pins on a map, however, doesn’t allow some more general comments that I think are very important, and perhaps just as important as any of the corridor improvements shown. For me, these points are:

  1. All signals and pedestrian signals in the grid should be set on automatic recall by default. That means that pedestrians get a walk signal on every cycle without having to find and press the beg button (many of which can’t be accessed by disabled people). If the city thinks that a particular crossing should require a button, they should have to do a traffic study to justify it, which includes both the requirements that 1) the level of pedestrian use if very low (unlikely in the grid, but possible), and 2) that there is a demonstrable delay in traffic due to automatic recall. This does not mean that pedestrian buttons will not be present, as there may be valid ADA benefits to having them, including the specific announcements now being included, but they should never be required.
  2. In heavy pedestrian use area, if pedestrian buttons are present, pressing the button should actually shorten the signal cycle to provide for pedestrian crossing on demand, rather than just changing the pedestrian signal head when the signal goes through its regular slow cycle. No regular cycle should be longer than 90 seconds because long cycles unnecessarily delay pedestrian (and bicyclist) travel in favor of motor vehicle traffic.
  3. All three-lane one-way roads should be reduced to two lanes. This will make street crossings safer (by about 1/3 – what other improvement could make such a difference!) and more comfortable. There is no excuse in a walkable urban environment for there to be three-lane one-way streets.
  4. All no-pedestrian-crossing locations should be removed and replaced with regular high visibility crosswalks. Though these prohibitions are often justified by safety concerns, they are really just for the convenience of motor vehicle drivers, so that they don’t have to slow down or wait as long at signals. If a crosswalk is not safe, it means the roadway design is unsafe, and the correct solution is to change the roadway design, not to prohibit crossing.
  5. The ability to safely and comfortably cross streets is just as important to people walking as the ability to walk along streets. I don’t know that this is the case here, but transportation agencies often get so focused on travel along corridors that they forget about the need to cross corridors. The grid pattern in midtown/downtown eases this problem, and is in fact one of the major benefits to a grid, but nevertheless, significant attention must be paid to crossing.