Streetsplainer: Do crosswalk buttons do anything?

     Some crosswalk buttons are placebos. (Jim Saksa/PlanPhily)

    Some crosswalk buttons are placebos. (Jim Saksa/PlanPhily)

    Is it control you have, or just the illusion of control?

    Welcome to Streetsplainers, an occasional series of answers to those often overlooked questions about our beleaguered/beloved transportation systems: Just what the heck is that thing in the road? Why on Earth would PennDOT build that? How does that weird doohickey work? E-mail Jim your questions (and photos if you have them!), and he will chase down some answers, hopefully in a fairly on-time fashion.

    When temperatures spike across Pennsylvania, many office drones, complaining about rigid dress codes and vacationing bosses, will turn to their thermostats for a bit of air conditioned relief.

    But while setting the dial to MAX may make the workers feel better, at many offices, it won’t actually make them any cooler. Often, office thermostats are mere placebos, unconnected to the HVAC systems controlled by the building manager. They help control tempers, not temperatures.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    In some places, its not just office managers playing mind games: traffic engineers install crosswalks with traffic signal-changing buttons that don’t actually make the light change any faster. They’re called placebo buttons.

    Placebo buttons provide what psychologists call the illusion of control. Faced with the stochasticity of life and the absurdity of happenchance, our minds trick ourselves into believing we have some semblance of control when none truly exists. It’s the same thinking behind your Grandma’s lucky lotto numbers, the methodological manner your craps-obsessed uncle approaches each roll of the dice, and the endless examples of athletes’ superstitions.

    The illusion of control can be seen as a psychological coping device for those moments in life that you’re helpless to control –- the feeling of helplessness can trigger depression. The illusion of control makes us think we’re still in the driver seat even when God’s at the wheel, and that helps us cope with the bumps we come across on the journey called life. Combined with the “roadway illusion,” the illusion of control is why we try switching lanes to the “faster” lanes in bad traffic.

    Placebo buttons are a fact of urban life. Most elevator “close door” buttons do nothing besides provide illusory control. They are either unconnected to the rest of the controls or only effective when a fireman or repairman uses an elevator key to activate those functions. The door-close button is a benevolent lie, deluding you into a false sense of agency over your rudderless existence.

    In Philadelphia, the efficacy of crosswalk buttons was brought into question by this NewsWorks essay. The author counted how long it took the traffic lights to cycle and compared results when the crosswalk button was pushed and not pushed, measuring two minutes, 10 seconds every single time. He noted how pedestrians would hit the button, wait a few seconds, and then cross against the light, concluding that the buttons, either “simply broken” or “never actually connected” were more dangerous than nothing: “These crosswalk buttons, which set out to make it safe for pedestrians to cross, actually do the opposite. They force walkers to take matters into their own hands and simply cross at will.”

    So, are you a self-duping rube wasting your time pressing crosswalk buttons, or are you actually making things speed along? And even if the crosswalk buttons are placebos, is that such a bad thing?

    Well, it depends on where you live.

    When asked if the city of Erie used placebo buttons, the city’s Traffic Engineer, LeAnn Parmenter, exclaimed: “I don’t know why people would waste money for that!”

    I also spoke with traffic engineers in Bethlehem and Philadelphia, and they also said that their crosswalk buttons work, or at least should. The Lancaster Public Works department did not respond to my request for a comment.

    The anti-placebo effect: why do people assume the buttons don’t work?

    Part of the problem is that there are many cities across the US and abroad where the buttons are vestiges of past traffic systems. As New York City has moved to a centralized, computer controlled traffic signaling system, the old buttons were disconnected, but not removed, because of the added labor costs weren’t worth it. That’s also the case in across the United Kingdom and a few other cities. If crosswalk buttons don’t work there, the inductive fallacy goes, then they probably don’t work here.

    And even where they are functional, crosswalk buttons don’t work like most of the other buttons we press, explained Richard Montanez, chief traffic and street lighting engineer for Philly’s streets department. If you press a doorbell, it rings; press a keyboard, a letter pops up; press Chip Kelly’s buttons, he’ll send you packing.

    But crosswalk signals operate on cycles. The lights are timed to support the flow of traffic at certain speeds – it’s 20 miles-per-hour on Pine and Spruce Streets, for example. By pushing the crosswalk button, you’re putting a call into the cycle to get the next available light. On a 60-second cycle, you can wait anywhere between one second to 59, depending on where the cycle is at the time the button is pressed. That gap between cause-and-effect tricks us into thinking there is no causal relationship between the button and the light.

    Crosswalk buttons, or semi-actuated signals as engineers call them, are most prevalent at intersections between a major thoroughfare and a minor street. Lights stay green for the bigger road unless a pedestrian hits the crosswalk button or a car triggers a roadway sensor, explained Erie’s Parmenter. “If there are no cars, you won’t get the cross until you push the button.”

    Erie is also home to a mid-block crosswalk signal removed from any intersections; those purely pedestrian crosswalk signals only operate when someone pushes the button. Bethlehem has one of those as well, noted Tiffany Wells, the traffic superintendent there. That signal, located along a fairly busy Elizabeth Avenue on Moravian College’s campus, is also lighted along the crosswalk; there’s little doubt about this flashier model’s efficacy.

    Wells said that, aside from a few malfunctions here and there, all of Bethlehem’s crosswalk buttons are active and operational.

    As with most cities, not every intersection in Bethlehem or Erie has a crosswalk button. At most intersections, the traffic signals are entirely controlled by timing and you will be hard pressed to find a crosswalk button to press, futilely or otherwise.

    That’s also the case for most of Center City Philadelphia, according to Montanez. The car traffic signals – the green, yellow and red balls -– and the pedestrian’s red hand and white walking figure are all linked together. Center City is essentially crosswalk button free.

    Outside of Center City, you can find a number of crosswalk buttons, and they all work. At least, they’re supposed to – the essay-inspiring button on Columbus Avenue and Race Street was found to be malfunctioning. Like many of the crosswalk signals in town, that one isn’t ADA compliant, and so it’ll need to be replaced with an upgraded model the next time the Philadelphia Streets Department can scrounge up the cash. Until then, it’ll sit broken.

    Philadelphia isn’t entirely placebo-button-free, though. There are some crosswalk buttons that put in part-time placebo duty

    Along Roosevelt Boulevard, a dangerous stretch of fast moving highway that cuts across Northeast Philadelphia, crosswalk buttons only work during the day. At night, the actuated traffic signals are replaced by a constant call – in other words regularly occurring red lights at the crosswalks, regardless of any pedestrians looking to cross. The reason? “To slow down traffic and reduce accidents,” says Montanez.

    Whether a placebo button would be better than no button at all depends on whether the illusion of control inspires more patience or only serves to frustrate pedestrians into crossing sooner. There doesn’t seem to be any studies or experiments on this idea directly, but test subjects under the illusion of control were more likely to stick with their illusory “choices” in an experiment involving lottery tickets. The subjects that picked their own numbers were less willing to trade their tickets for those with better odds, erroneously feeling that by picking the numbers they somehow had improved the odds.

    If button pushers enjoy the same sort of confidence boost as the deceived lotto players, then placebo buttons probably encourage the pressers to stay put and wait for the signal to change. That’s merely an untested hypothesis, but maybe some PhD candidate desperate for a thesis topic will read this.

    Then again, the nonfunctional button’s efficacy as a placebo hinges on the illusion of control existing. If enough residents seem to think all the buttons are bunk, including the working ones, then no illusion will exist. We’ll just ignore the buttons as we go on our merry jaywalking way.

    If that’s the case, a city like Philadelphia would do well to follow Bethlehem’s lead by installing a few crosswalks with LED flashers embedded in the pavement; maybe they can go on Roosevelt Boulevard.

    Meanwhile, Philadelphia is experimenting with some alternatives to the buttons, placebo or otherwise. As signals are replaced, the city is working to creating a fully computer-controlled traffic signal system. And at some crosswalks, like the pedestrian and bicycle crosswalk on the South Street Bridge connected to the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, the Streets Department is testing out cameras that will detect a rider or walker and automatically trip a signal change.

    The challenge there has been pedestrians and cyclists who are passing by parallel with the road, rather than looking to cross. It’s a difficult technical challenge, one that certainly won’t be solved just by the push of a button.

     PlanPhilly is now a project of WHYY/NewsWorks. It began in 2006 as an initiative of Penn Praxis inside the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Though now part of WHYY, PlanPhilly still works closely with Penn Praxis in covering planning, zoning and development news.


    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal