MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Do Crosswalk Buttons Actually Do Anything?


Crosswalks rarely give you the green light (or, to be more specific, the human-shaped white light) after you press the button, so you’ve probably wondered if those buttons even work. The answer is…it depends.


The first thing you should know: crosswalk buttons aren’t designed to be immediate. They just tell the system someone’s waiting to cross. Some systems around the country won’t give pedestrians the crossing signal at all unless someone presses the button. Others shorten wait times for walkers once the button’s been pushed. But, no matter what, the traffic light system still has to cycle through all its programmed phases to give vehicles enough time to go through the intersection. Regardless, you’re probably gonna have to stand there a while.


During busy traffic times, or under other extenuating circumstances, cities can switch the system to something called “recall mode”. That’s where pedestrian crossings are already part of the cycle & pressing the button makes no difference whatsoever. Unfortunately, there’s no way you can tell if a particular button’s in recall mode…unless you were to call up city officials & ask a tech to come inspect it. (Good luck with that.)


If you feel like a button isn’t doing anything, it’s a safe bet that it’s been permanently deactivated. As congestion’s increased & the systems managing it have become more advanced over time, some cities have moved away from using crosswalk buttons at all. Like New York City, which CNN reported in 2018 had only about 100 of its 1000 buttons still functioning. And, since removing the crosswalk buttons would cost a pretty penny, cities usually opt to leave them intact, just waiting to be pounded by exasperated pedestrians who are none the wiser.

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