City Informer: Do Crosswalk Buttons Actually Do Anything?

I thought I was living in a progressive city, where women can do anything men can do—and yet every time I want to cross the street I have to wait for a little man to give me “permission” (barf) to cross. And of COURSE he’s white.

During a recent independent scientific study that did not pass any ethics committee requirements (even after I offered to sleep with them!), I came to the shocking conclusion that the average Vancouverite (me) crosses anywhere from zero to 400 streets a day (adjusted for inflation). That means I’m constantly pressing buttons at street corners and waiting to be granted safe passage from one sidewalk to another by an illuminated boy. Crosswalks? More like boss walks! #banbossy!

But what really pushes my buttons is that I haven’t ever been 100-percent sure that pushing the crosswalk button actually does anything. Sometimes the signal reacts right away, much like the world did to the sensual beats of “Buttons” by the Pussycat Dolls ft. Snoop Dogg when it was released in 2006. But in other instances, the light change takes its sweet time, much like the Pussycat Dolls have done ending the “hiatus” they took after their sophomore album. (The world is waiting, Nicole Scherzinger and… the other ones!)

So do crosswalk buttons actually do anything? Or has our municipality been gaslighting us? According to the City, there are only five pushbuttons in the network that don’t affect the traffic lights at all (for all the Intersection Heads in the house, that’s Hornby and Helmcken, Quebec and 1st, Nanaimo and 33rd, Joyce and Vanness North, and Joyce and Vanness South). But those buttons aren’t there for decoration: they’re there to activate an Accessible Pedestrian Signal. So while the lights themselves are on a timed loop, pressing the button will add audio and tactile signals to the mix when it’s time to cross.

All of the remaining 663 pushbuttons in the city do have an impact on the lights… at least most of the time. About 30 of the signals are programmed so that a button-press at busy times of day isn’t required—at Broadway and Heather, for example, if you were rushing from the Scouts Canada HQ to the medical supply store across the street at rush hour after a terrible tenting accident, a pedestrian crossing would be queued up and ready to go for you.

Otherwise, crosswalks are either Pedestrian/Cyclist Actuated (stays flashing green on the major street until receiving a pedestrian/cyclist actuation), Semi-Actuated (stays green on the main street until there’s action on the side street from a cyclist, pedestrian or vehicle), or Fully Actuated (the signal responds to demand from all legs of the intersection and green time varies according to demand). It should be noted that none of the crosswalks are Fully Actualized—if they were, they probably wouldn’t be so controlling.

Even when a pushbutton is responsive to your touch, you’ve gotta be patient. (Ugh, who has the time when you’ve got a deadline from your Pussycat Dolls fan fic writing group?!) The system still needs time to wrap up with traffic and get to your signal, which is typically about 30 seconds during busy times of day. Pressing it more than once isn’t going to help, much like pressing “repeat” on “Buttons” won’t ever let you relive that glorious moment when you first heard it… I’m sorry, what were we talking about?

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