Guest Post: The Pedestrian Beg Button: Why is It Still a Thing?

Cars don’t have to press a button to cross the street, so why should pedestrians?


This guest post originally appeared on the Denver Urbanism Blog.

Ah, the joys of the pedestrian signal button. Joe the pedestrian approaches an intersection. The traffic light is red in his direction. Just has he approaches the crosswalk, the traffic light turns green. Oh, too late! Joe presses the button, but the red hand remains lit. Joe must wait for the traffic light to turn red and then green again before the walk signal will beckon him to cross. At some intersections, this can amount to several minutes.

Traffic lights without automatic pedestrian signal phasing are inherently biased against people on foot. Cars don’t have to press a button to cross the street, so why should pedestrians? If a car approaches the intersection just as the light turns green, it just sails on through. The pedestrian? They must press a button and wait, essentially begging to legally cross and unnecessarily lengthening the time it takes to get to wherever they are going.

Denver has set goals to get people to take more multi-modal trips. In order to accomplish this, substantial investments will need to be made in our walking, biking, and transit infrastructure; and land use changes are needed to bring more destinations within walking distance of more people. Accomplishing all of this is expensive and politically difficult. Automatic pedestrian signals, on the other hand, are low-hanging fruit. No capital investment or new infrastructure is necessary and changing this particular status quo would be uncontroversial. A reprogramming of traffic lights is all that is needed.

Making intersections more pedestrian friendly doesn’t just further Denver’s sustainability goals. It also furthers our city’s Vision Zero goals, a global movement to eliminate all traffic fatalities. Every day, countless pedestrians, frustrated by unfriendly signals, cross the street against the light. This is illegal and dangerous, but nearly all of us have done it. Why? Because it is the logical course of action. Walking is already the slowest mode of travel. Not many of us are willing to add several minutes to our trip time by waiting at an intersection for the traffic light to go through another full cycle. For most urban residents, the delay is intolerable and as soon as they see an opening in traffic, they cross. Creating fair and equitable conditions at our intersections for both motorists and pedestrians will make them safer and bring Denver closer to achieving Vision Zero.

When asked for the city’s policy on pedestrian beg buttons, Denver Public Works provided this statement:

Denver provides automatic pedestrian walk cycles in locations where we have more pedestrian activity and where we see the greatest demand from pedestrians to cross. At other crossings, people can activate the walk cycle by pushing the button and, by doing so, are given more time to cross than they would if they did not push the button. In places where we don’t see a lot of pedestrian activity, we don’t automatically provide pedestrian crossing time as it unnecessarily adds to vehicle idling time and increases air pollution.

How does the city measure pedestrian activity at an intersection? What is the quantitative threshold for “more pedestrian activity” to qualify for automatic pedestrian walk cycles? How frequently is an intersection evaluated to see if it meets the threshold? How does the city reconcile this policy with Mobility Policy #3 from the newly adopted Blueprint Denver that states: “On all streets, prioritize people walking and rolling over other modes of transportation”?

Following are examples of two intersections in neighborhoods where I have lived that I think are no-brainers for reform:


Colfax and Downing is a heavily trafficked intersection in the heart of the city. It is surrounded by the most dense and walkable neighborhoods in the entire metro area and is adjacent to the bus stops of the 15 and 15L, the busiest of all of RTD’s transit routes. This area is teeming with pedestrians and yet, despite the policy statement above from Denver Public Works, this intersection does not have an automatic pedestrian phase to cross Colfax, which is ridiculous. It is probable that every intersection on central Colfax has significant pedestrian through traffic and deserves a pedestrian phase.


Another example is the intersection of University and Buchtel. On one side of this intersection is the University of Denver campus and a light rail station. On the other side are over one thousand apartment units and a parking lot for Richie Center events. There are a tremendous number of people who cross University Boulevard every day in this neighborhood but, contrary to the city’s policies, there are beg buttons at both Buchtel and Asbury. Consequently, many people jaywalk across University because of the inconvenience of crossing these intersections.

There are many similar intersections all over Denver that pedestrians cross on a frequent basis. If Denver truly wants to become a safer and less car-dependent city, it should reprogram these signals as quickly as possible. There is no good reason for the city to drag its feet on this cheap fix.

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  • TM

    Yes! And give more time to the walk signals, the timing they use is too fast for a lot of people, especially older, kids, disabled, etc. People in cars can wait, safety of people crossing the street is always more important.

  • TakeFive

    Walk buttons can work nice in suburban settings. I can think of one residential two-lane that has a light (instead of not having one) that cycles fairly quickly. Pedestrians have enough time to scoot across but if you’re in a wheelchair or using a walker, press the ped button and you’ll easily have the time you need. Ped buttons are also good when four-lanes intersect with a busy six-lane road for similar reasons.

  • Camera_Shy

    Barnes Dance anyone?

    Began in the 1940’s ended in 2011. What if anything could we learn from it?

    • TakeFive

      Having grown up in the mid-west, country barn dances were great. 🙂

    • Kyle

      Holy cow. From wikipedia:
      “Research at Transport for London has suggested the installation of a diagonal crossing can reduce pedestrian casualties by 38%”

      “It was first used in Canada and the United States in the late 1940s, but it later fell out of favor with traffic engineers there, as it was seen as prioritizing flow of pedestrians over flow of car traffic.”

      That sums up the last 50 years of city engineering nicely.

      • David

        One downside of the Ped scramble or Barnes Dance is that it often gives the excuse to engineers to restrict peds from crossing the intersection with vehicles. Because they give pedestrians their own phase, they restrict peds during vehicular phases to increase the efficiency of vehicular turning movements. Because this scramble phase typically needs to be fairly long to provide sufficient time for most pedestrians to cross an intersection safely (upwards of 30 seconds), cycle lengths have to be increased. And to me, one of the worst things for a pedestrian is a high cycle length. Ultimately you wind up with an intersection that gives you more pedestrian delay. Solutions to this are to a) obviously fight back against not allowing pedestrians to cross with vehicles b) double serve pedestrians so that the sequence is: mainline, scramble, sidestreet, scramble.

        • TM

          What they’ve done in downtown Denver is kind of the worst of both worlds. We no longer have the Barnes Dance, so you don’t get a long enough walk signal to cross diagonally, but they still do the walk phase in all directions at once. So we still get the problem you just described, where pedestrians get the Don’t Walk signal even when cars get the green.

  • There are ways to have pressing the button immediately give the walk signal, this is how it is done by many municipalities in NY…if there is enough time left in the cycle, you will get the walk signal immediately without having to wait.

    Buttons can also be useful in cases where they extend the light cycle (e.g. give pedestrians more time to cross than is typically allowed for cars), or even interrupt the cycle to stop traffic and allow the pedestrian to cross.

    Also, accessibility requirements dictate that information on crossing status be dictated audibly to the people who can’t see the signs. The buttons signal when this should be played (so there isn’t noise pollution at all times) and the unit typically doubles as the speaker.

    It’s not always about slighting presidents to favor cars.

  • Todd Bradley

    I live and work in Capitol Hill, and don’t have to push buttons to cross any intersections I regularly use.

    • mckillio

      So you never cross Colfax?

      • Todd Bradley

        I wouldn’t say “never” but when I do have to cross it, I just stumble out into traffic like everyone else.

        • Stephen Simac

          that’s called traffic calming, or speed humps if it doesn’t work

          • Todd Bradley

            I don’t know. The people who honk and yell at me out their SUV windows, “GET OUT OF THE ROAD, CRACK-HEAD” don’t seem very calm to me.

          • Stephen Simac

            I would hate to be a pedestrian in that. You’re right, traffic calming just pisses some drivers off. “Ride on the sidewalk” used to be their favorite shout out.

  • Cars are inanimate objects, so they can’t press buttons anyways, but the points here are spot on and well made.

  • Trinkar

    The walk lights are very short, usually about 30 seconds. I have to cross Colo. Blvd. frequently (total nightmare), and the signals do not give enough time to cross six lanes of traffic and a median. Yesterday, after waiting for what seemed like forever, I finally got a walk signal. The cars on 9th Avenue had a red light, but many took the opportunity to turn left onto Colorado just because traffic was stopped for the signal. We are reaching the point of total traffic anarchy in Denver. I am almost afraid to leave my apartment.

    • Wranger

      I had a foot injury in December and could barely make it across streets like Colfax in the time allotted for pedestrians. I wasn’t even in a cast or brace or anything, but had to limp along as fast as I could. It made me very aware of how disadvantaged anyone who is not completely able-bodied and fit is when navigating our city.

    • Emmeaki

      Even on streets with fewer lanes, there’s never enough time. When walking relatively fast, you end up still having to run for your life to get across the street in time. I was hit by a car before, so crossing streets are always a state of anxiety for me. It would be so helpful if they gave pedestrians more time.

    • TakeFive

      What they should do with streets like Colo. Blvd is have a regular walk cycle time as a default; then use the button to add say 15 seconds to the walk cycle. That’s what they do down here (in PHX) at many intersections .

  • Wranger

    Another great example of an intersection on Colfax with lots of very regular pedestrian traffic is at Garfield. You have National Jewish with thousands of employees and patients, a very busy Sprouts grocery store on another corner, along with multiple restaurants and bars, a B cycle station, bus stops on either side of Colfax, and Colorado Blvd just a couple of blocks down, resulting in LOTS of pedestrian traffic. Yet all of us wait and wait…and wait.

  • delong

    You can always tell who is a local and who is a tourist in downtown Denver based on whether they jaywalk or not. Locals jaywalk like bosses. Sad, but true.

    • mckillio

      There’s nothing sad about that at all.

    • TakeFive

      lol, yup, regardless of any light design many (including me) will walk whenever they see the chance.

  • Barrett

    Cars do have similar requirements. Sure they don’t have to push a button, but how would they? But many smaller streets won’t automatically change the light until a car approaches the intersection, and turn arrows won’t be given to you if you get there just after the light turns green.

    I don’t see a problem with having to push the button to get a walk signal, but like Patrick said, it would be nice if you just miss the signal, it’ll still give you the walk signal immediately if it’s early enough in the cycle. He says other major cities have this feature, and I would get behind Denver implementing this.

  • Tyler

    On a similar note, there is a signaled crosswalk on 15th St at the Platte River. The light doesn’t change until 30 seconds (maybe 60?) after the pedestrian presses the button. I can’t think of a single traffic, safety, or other reason the light wouldn’t immediately allow the pedestrian to cross. The flow of traffic is going to be interrupted either way, so why make the pedestrian wait?

    I’m guessing these are all over the city. I know there are two more on Pecos St north of 38th Ave.

    • David

      The signalized crosswalk is likely coordinated with the adjacent signals. In this way, the platoon of traffic that is coming from the upstream signal that just turned green, and is advancing towards the downstream signal that is about to turn green, doesn’t have to stop at the crosswalk and then arrive on red downstream. This signalized crosswalk is timed for the pedestrian to cross when the upstream and downstream lights are or are about to turn red. Sure the flow of traffic is interrupted either way, but you can do it in an efficient way to interrupt less vs more vehicles.

      • Tyler

        That could be the case on 15th St, my although my experience at the intersection has been waiting at a red crosswalk while looking at an empty street.

        I use the crosswalks on Pecos much more frequently and I’m sure those have a fixed delay without coordination with street traffic.

  • JZ71

    The reason intersections have beg buttons is the same reason elevators have call and floor buttons – nobody wants to stop and wait when nobody is there!

  • jcwconsult

    Pedestrian demand buttons are properly used where pedestrian use is lower and vehicle use is quite high on major collectors and arterials. It is not justifiable to have a pedestrian sequence on a high volume collector or arterial when no pedestrians are present. It causes more congestion, hurts commerce, increases air & noice pollution, etc. — all for no reason.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

    • Camera_Shy

      I think you are confusing “pedestrian demand” and “too many cars.”

      Too many cars cause “more congestion, hurt commerce, increase air & noise pollution, etc. — all for no reason.”

      The way around all of those issues is to get people out of their cars, and turn them into pedestrians (or cyclists). Increasing the safety and expedience of being a pedestrian/cyclist, especially in large cities, is a good step toward doing so.

      • jcwconsult

        A noble “pie in the sky” wish in most places.

        High levels of commuters are often due to real estate prices. One example of well-planned pedestrian demand buttons is near me at the intersection of the east-west business routes of two major freeways that carry about 44,000 average daily trips and a major north-south arterial. Pedestrians can initiate signal phases as needed, but pedestrian use there is low. Ann Arbor has about 120,000 permanent population plus about 45,000 University students and we have some 70,000-80,000 daily commuters and visitors – many because rental and purchase prices for real estate in nearby areas are half or less those of the city. Many of our service workers cannot afford to live in town, and the draw of visitors for the University, high-tech businesses plus two Level 1 Trauma hospitals guarantees high levels of visitors by car. The distances the visitors and commuters come from make cycling impossible, and the numbers from each area are too small to make establishing transit practical.

        James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

        • TM

          You mean “high levels of visitors by car guarantees that Level 1 Trauma hospitals stay very busy.”

        • Camera_Shy

          “A noble “pie in the sky” wish in most places.”

          I agree, and it’s a wish we should all be striving to achieve.
          It’s always good to have great goals, this one is no different because it is a wish/goal for improving everyone’s lives.

          • jcwconsult

            I agree with having long term goals for overall improvements.

            But they must not be used to throw monkey wrenches into the current status quo that would cause even more chaos and disruption of peoples’ lives. Find a way to have decent 2000 sq ft homes in SF for $400000-$60000 instead of $1.2 million so decently employed people can afford them. But DO NO choke off the necessary ways these people must use to get to work because they cannot afford $1.2 million dollar houses.

            James C Walker, National Motorists Association

    • TM

      Just die already.

  • Camera_Shy

    Technically, cars DO press a button when they pull up to a traffic light. It’s just that the “button” is “wireless”: sensors buried beneath the pavement detect the presence of a (large) metal object in the lane. During the day, there are so many cars that this system isn’t necessary. Late at night, on lower volume streets where cars are not expected regularly, these sensors give the go ahead to side-street traffic by changing the light when a car approaches.

    In either case, I would term this “on-demand signaling” and in the case of pedestrians, if we’re not going to give them their own phase of the light (see: Barnes Dance) it seems like a great way to let pedestrians interact with traffic, ha!

  • My favorite are the intersections with very long intervals for motorists, but there’s still no automatic light for pedestrians. The button doesn’t provide *added* time, it just provides a “go” light – period. Why the heck not just add an automatic ped crossing if the motorists are going to get such a long interval? What would that hurt? But no. Pedestrians must beg to cross.

  • TM

    In an urban area signals should be red in all directions until a car is detected. Default condition should be all walk signals all the time.
    Yes, this might delay car traffic. That is a good thing.

  • GRY

    Thoughtful traffic lights help reduce traffic congestion/air pollution. Thoughtful pedestrian lights help make crossing safer. Both have a place.