Take a look at the photo to the right. It depicts a sign and a button at an intersection on Eastlake Avenue in Seattle–one of hundreds of similar set-ups across the city. To me, the message is pretty clear and simple. To cross the street safely as a pedestrian, push the button to which the sign is affixed and wait for the “walk” sign to light up on the other side of the street. Then cross.
Well, maybe not so clear and simple to everyone in Seattle. Over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly aware of many pedestrians who don’t push the button. They become puzzled and then frustrated when the traffic lights cycle without flashing the “walk” sign in their favor. Since it’s often raining, they’re standing outside and generally wearing no weather garb, the stranded pedestrians are getting wetter, which doesn’t help their demeanor at all.
As usual, I have no data on my proposition other than my own eyes, although a serious academic study published in December on the topic of–amazingly enough–Seattle pedestrian interactions with call buttons seemed to find plenty of problems. But to me, button ignorance certainly is curious, especially given the recent anointing of Seattle as the third most nerdiest city in the country. I always thought nerds had above-average intelligence.
A few days ago, I was operating a car stopped in the left lane at a red light on a one-way street along a distant edge of downtown Seattle. A well-dressed young woman on foot waited to cross in front of me–standing next to a call-button sign and a button. The light cycled back to green for me without giving her a crossing signal. She clearly had ignored the instructions right beside her. A confused expression crossed the woman’s face, followed, for some reason, by a dirty look in my direction.
Since I was in a car and she was not, I was not intimidated. “Next time, push the button!” I shouted as I sportingly roared off.
Fifth Avenue N. along the eastern edge of Seattle Center is among the strips where more than once I have seen pedestrians waiting and waiting at button-controlled intersections. I have also encountered this in South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, Ballard, University District and Beacon Hill.
I guess this is the flip side of something I wrote about here a few months ago, pedestrians at marked crosswalks without lights (and thus without buttons) who act like Superman and blithely cross without looking both ways. Even if they’re in the right, that can get them killed from an inattentive driver. Not crossing out of button ignorance is a lot safer, although both scenarios might be cited in support of Charles Darwin’s famous “survival of the fittest” proposition.
Like the academic study cited above, most of the published material I find on call buttons deals more with pedestrians who are aware of them than pedestrians who are not. In some other places like New York City, where I lived long before becoming New To Seattle, authorities disabled buttons years ago thanks to computerized traffic signals and those remaining are essentially placebos. Seattle city officials have admitted in the past that pushing buttons at certain high-foot-traffic intersections downtown really isn’t needed. But suspicion of government being what it is, a Seattle PI blog post three years ago actually assured a reader that, yes, the buttons really do work and were not a mere social experiment. Seattle also has experimented with foot-activated crosswalk signals.
Now, I’m not discussing directly the issue of how buttons should be programmed–to work 24/7 or only during daylight hours, or peak hours or whatever. Such considerations have occasioned talk in Seattle. I’m just commenting on what strikes me as the inability of some folks to look around and use what’s available. You might say I just want to push their button.
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