Mixed Signals: Do Chicago’s Crosswalk Buttons Actually Work?

Does that button actually do anything?
Liz Stanton / WBEZ
Does that button actually do anything?
Liz Stanton / WBEZ

Mixed Signals: Do Chicago’s Crosswalk Buttons Actually Work?

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On a cold and rainy night, Chicagoan J.R. Kulik was waiting at an intersection not far from his home in the Edgewater neighborhood. He’d crossed there countless times before but, that night, things were different.

“There was sleet coming down, and just pelting me in the face and it was just one of those moments when you are like ‘I really, really want this thing to work,’” J.R. says.

That thing was the crosswalk button. You know the ones — the buttons placed at some Chicago intersections that trigger a pedestrian walk signal when you push them. Or, at least that’s what J.R. expects the buttons to do. He says he waited for a walk signal at Arthur Avenue and Sheridan Road for about five minutes — enough time for him to think hard about that button and allow the frustration to steep. After a bit, he wrote Curious City about it, asking: 

What’s the deal with the ‘Push button and wait for walk signal’ devices at some Chicago intersections? Do they actually work?

Yes, we’re going to find out if this button is in fact malfunctioning and — if so  — whether the city’s somehow addressing that. But we’ll be going farther than that because, as J.R. puts it, the stakes could be high: “Are we really trying to be a pedestrian-friendly city, where cars will have to wait when there are a couple of people trying to cross the street?”

In other words, J.R.’s question about the mechanics of one button actually translates into question about safety and of civil responsibility.

The debut and decline of the push button

First, let’s understand why push buttons are on Chicago’s streets at all. Push buttons started popping up across the city in the 1970s. Their appearance reflected traffic engineers’ preference for cars to move, move, move, according to Melody Geraci, deputy executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, a group that advocates for safe streets.

The buttons, Geraci says, were placed at intersections with high volumes of car traffic and low volumes of foot traffic. And car traffic essentially wouldn’t stop unless a pedestrian pushed a button. In other words: Vehicles had priority over everything else on the road, and the city had found a way to ensure that.

“It was a practical solution, but it also makes the pedestrian kind of a second-class citizen,” Geraci says.

It continued like this for decades; cars — not pedestrians — were the priority.  

Melody Geraci of Chicago's Active Transportation Alliance says pedestrians shouldn't have to ask permission to cross the street. (WBEZ/Liz Stanton)
But that started to change in Chicago between 2011 and 2013, when Gabe Klein was at the helm of the Chicago Department of Transportation.

“We actually put a modal hierarchy in place for all of our projects going forward, and it specified that the pedestrian is first in all projects that we design,” says Klein.

In 2012 the city’s Pedestrian Plan laid out a goal of ending all pedestrian deaths within ten years, and reducing “serious injury crashes” by half within five years. The initiative, called “Zero in Ten,” involved creating pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in every new project the city starts.

Part of putting pedestrians rights front and center also included phasing out the crosswalk push buttons.

“In an ideal world the pedestrian should not have to hit a button to cross the street. The pedestrian should have priority and the cars should stop,” says Klein. “That’s why we were trying to get rid of them as much as possible.”

It might sound counterintuitive, but push buttons basically force a pedestrian to ask permission to cross the street. Pedestrian advocates like Geraci say in most cases that’s not fair.

“More and more pedestrians expect to have themselves serviced as an equal user of the roadway,” she says. “It’s a better idea to have a consistent approach that people can come to expect and their expectations are met.”

Pedestrians as a priority?

Many of these crosswalk push buttons have been reprogrammed. Now, walk signals come up every time the lights change, regardless of whether there’s a pedestrian waiting to cross the street or not. Push buttons are still active in some areas with heavy car traffic and few pedestrians; in others, the buttons work intermittently, depending on the time of day. And at some intersections, push buttons trigger absolutely nothing.

In many cases, the physical buttons remain no matter the outcome. While the reprogramming of select push buttons was intended to benefit pedestrians, it also sends mixed messages about how they function. This can confuse and frustrate pedestrians, but it can also result in risky behavior.

The intersection of Loyola Avenue and Sheridan Road on Chicago’s far North Side. It’s about a half-block from where J.R. Kulik spent too long of a cold night waiting for a walk signal. (WBEZ/Liz Stanton)
“There are some studies that show that pedestrians only push buttons 50 percent of the time,” says Geraci. “When they do push the button, they’ll only wait about 30 seconds and, after that, they start to take matters into their own hands and look for that gap in traffic and just shoot across.”

Remember our questioner, J.R. Kulik?  He says on that cold night, after waiting for what seemed like forever for a walk signal that never came, he did something he normally wouldn’t do: “Finally, I just kind of just took my life in my own hands and crossed the street, Frogger style.”

Pedestrian advocates such as Dan Burden, who studies the walkability of cities, says he’s seen behavior like J.R.’s in every city he’s visited. To him, removing buttons from places where they aren’t needed is the right step; they’re just another reason for pedestrians to avoid crosswalks. When Burden conducts “walkability” audits of a city, the first thing he checks are the push buttons. And inevitably, there is something wrong with them.

“We are seeing that most towns in America have outdated systems,” he says. “Either they aren’t being maintained or they were put in at a time when the attitude was ‘Let’s have the pedestrian ask permission to cross the street.’”

Pedestrians are already a vulnerable population. While CDOT reports the overall number of pedestrian deaths are down from the period between 2005 and 2014, preliminary 2015 data from the Chicago Police Department suggest an uptick in pedestrian deaths: 46 pedestrian deaths in 2015, over just 35 pedestrian deaths in 2014.

Relics and responsibility

According to CDOT, there are about 3,000 intersections that have crosswalk signals, and about 400 of those have active push buttons. Luann Hamilton, Deputy Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, says the city doesn’t know how many crosswalks might have legacy buttons that are disabled.

For example, the push button that prompted Chicagoan J.R. Kulik to write in to Curious City … Well, that button no longer works, and it hasn’t for at least five years. A new development went into the area, and it was determined that there were enough pedestrians that the light cycle should always include a walk signal for them. No pushing necessary.

So, if the button was essentially turned off years ago, why is it still there, along with the ‘Push button, wait for walk’ sign? Hamilton says “that’s one of those clean-up jobs that should have happened at that time and didn’t.”

Those relics are most likely scattered along the routes pedestrians walk and they’ll remain there; the city doesn’t have immediate plans to remove them. Hamilton says it comes down to funding: The city’s focused on constructing pedestrian refuge islands, high-visibility crosswalks and other pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

Almost everyone I talked to for this story said you should call 311 if you encounter a button you suspect doesn’t work. Hamilton says resources are limited and 311 calls are the mechanism the city uses to track outages.

Regardless of how many complaints there may or may not be, Burden thinks removal is important: “Systems are antiquated, the equipments old, and it’s not even the right design. … Now that we are trying to get back to supporting all ways of moving, we need new equipment, better maintained, and to pull out the buttons that aren’t needed.”

Our questioner, J.R., agrees: “I do see improvements in some of the crosswalks in the city, but this certainly isn’t one of them.”  

He’s going to be a bit more discerning when it come to which buttons he does or does not push. If they look old, he says, he’s not going to waste his time, and he suggests CDOT reconsider its decision not to prioritize crosswalk button updates and signage.

“Part of me wants to say take the damn sign down or [place] a sticker or something,” he says. “I want to put a sign up there that says, ‘Don’t bother,’ with an arrow that points down.”

About Our Questioner

J.R. Kulik at the crosswalk that inspired his Curious City question. (WBEZ/Liz Stanton)
J.R. Kulik lives in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. He’s a federal law enforcement agent who works on foreign and domestic projects. And while he won’t say he never jaywalks, he does his best to be a law abiding pedestrian. J.R. helped report on this story by meeting us on the corner of Arthur Avenue and Sheridan Road to test out his noisome crosswalk push button. If you happen to see stickers around town that say ‘Don’t bother’ with an arrow sticking down towards a push button, then you know J.R.’s been in your part of the city.

Liz Stanton is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. Follow her @ElizAnnStan.