Cities 101: Do Crosswalk Buttons in NYC Actually Work?

2-crosswalk buttons-cities 101-nyc-untapped cities-wesley yiinA crosswalk button in Midtown Manhattan

Any longtime New Yorker should be skeptical of crosswalk buttons. We’ve all been there, furiously jamming away at the button in a rush to cross the street, only to be halted for what seems like forever. There are few city-dwellers who still believe in the effectiveness of the buttons, although many still push them out of habit. The truth is that more than three-quarters of New York City’s crosswalk buttons are actually nonfunctional, according to Kate Ascher’s 2005 book The Works.

They did, however, once serve a purpose. The New York Times explained that, in 1964, when the button was first invented, city traffic was much lighter. Traffic lights for major roads would remain green until either a pedestrian pushed the button, or a car on the minor intersecting road was detected. After 90 seconds or so, the light would then change. As the city became more populous and reliant on automobiles, the button-pushing system became more and more inefficient until now, when it has been all but phased out.

So why doesn’t the city remove the archaic buttons to save pedestrians from confusion and embarrassment? Of course, the decision comes down to money. According to Ascher, the buttons each cost $400-$500 to remove, so if the city were to remove all 3,250 buttons, it would spending well over a million dollars. Thus, the buttons remain; as of 2005, only approximately 750 still worked.

Elsewhere, most experienced city-walkers have also dismissed the buttons as broken, or some sort of “placebo.” Still, there are other compelling theories of how they might operate. Some, for instance, claim that the buttons only work at certain times of the day. Reportedly, there are some cities with mostly functional crosswalk buttons, including Orlando, FL, and Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

There’s some good reading on Quora regarding how the system works (when it’s functioning). If you have any information on crosswalk buttons that actually work, please do let us know!

Read more from our Cities 101 series about how stuff works in the city.  Get in touch with the author @YiinYangYale.

2 Comment

  • N.Y.C.D.O.T. continues to install pedestrian push buttons at certain locations that are adequate for them to be in use. Consider several that were installed throughout Prospect Park in Brooklyn 4 years ago or so.

  • Not just Victoria. Vancouver has a considerable number of well maintained pedestrian buttons, with only the occasional broken one. We also have numerous bicycle buttons that are accessible to cyclists without having to jump over to the sidewalk. In general, intersections that always present a pedestrian signal won’t have buttons. If there are buttons it means you won’t get a crossing signal unless you press it.

    Toronto also has its share of functional pedestrian buttons, but what they don’t have is Vancouver’s strange invention: intersections where the main road has a blinking green light and cross traffic from the minor street has a stop sign that must be obeyed at all times. Cross traffic can proceed when safe but never gets a dedicated signal. However pedestrians or cyclists can press the button to force a red light sometime in the next few minutes and get a crossing signal. The consequence is, you’ll often see passengers leaping out of cars to press the button and jump back in – or call out to ask if some stranger will press it for them – so they can make their left turn more easily.