Opinion: ‘Beg buttons’ make Berkeley’s pedestrians less safe

Berkeley is revising its Pedestrian Plan. It should reset signals to give pedestrians a Walk signal automatically when the traffic light turns green, without pressing a button.

I was walking west on Durant Avenue, and when I reached Telegraph, the pedestrian signal was red. I could not see the traffic light since it only faces the eastbound cars coming up Durant, but I assumed that I could cross since cars on Telegraph were stopped and cars on Durant were crossing Telegraph.

From long experience, I knew that it would be useless to press the pedestrian pushbutton. Those buttons only give you a Walk signal if your press them before the traffic light turns green. If you press them even a couple of seconds after the light turns green, they make you wait for the next phase, even if there is plenty of time to walk across the street.

So I did what I had done many times before: started crossing on what I thought was a green light, even though the pedestrian signal was red. But just after I stepped into the street, the light changed. The cars on Durant stopped. The cars on Telegraph started inching forward in my direction. As I ran across the street, one of the drivers who I was blocking said, “Are you crazy?”

Well, I have to admit that the buttons on our pedestrian signals do sometimes drive me crazy. They are called “pedestrian pushbuttons,” but transportation activists call them “beg buttons.” They make pedestrians second-class citizens because drivers get a green light automatically but pedestrians have to ask.

Beg buttons apparently were designed for suburban arterial streets that are so wide that it is not safe for pedestrians to cross unless they start when the light first turns green. That is the only conceivable reason why they will not give you a Walk signal even a few seconds after the light turns green.

But most of Berkeley’s streets are narrow enough that there is still plenty of time to cross after the light turns green. The beg buttons should not make pedestrians wait for the next phase.

Often, pedestrians forget to press the beg button before the light turns green, or they arrive just after the light turns green. If they try pressing the button, nothing happens, though it is obviously safe to cross. They react to this irrational restriction in two ways.

About half of the pedestrians wait for the next phase when there will be a Walk signal. They are delayed unnecessarily, and they are often annoyed by the unnecessary wait.

About half of the pedestrians do what I do: they assume they can cross on the green traffic light. Usually, this is not a problem, but it sometimes creates unsafe conflicts between pedestrians and automobile traffic, as I learned at Telegraph and Durant.

The worst road rage that I have ever seen on the streets of Berkeley happened when a large group of pedestrians was waiting to cross Bancroft at Telegraph, and none of them bothered to press the beg button. When the pedestrian-only phase came, all the traffic lights were red, but all the pedestrian signals were also red. The people waiting to cross were locals who knew that this was the pedestrian-only phase, and they all started crossing. But one driver thought that he should be able to make a left turn on the red and that all the pedestrians were blocking him by crossing illegally. He began leaning on his horn, driving toward the mass of pedestrians to threaten them, and cursing them viciously.

Berkeley is beginning to revise its Pedestrian Plan, giving us an opportunity to eliminate these conflicts and dangers. There are a few streets in Berkeley that are so wide that it makes sense to have beg buttons that warn pedestrians not to cross unless they start as soon as the light turns green. But most streets in Berkeley are narrow enough that there is plenty of time to cross if you start shortly after the light turns green.

The consultants working on the Pedestrian Plan should identify the small number of intersections where beg buttons increase pedestrian safety. At other intersections, where the buttons just inconvenience pedestrians and make them less safe, the signals should be reset to give pedestrians a Walk signal automatically when the traffic light turns green, without pressing a button.

Automatic Walk signals would make crossings safer and more convenient for pedestrians who arrive after the traffic light changes. They would be able to see whether the countdown has begun, rather than waiting unnecessarily or going ahead blindly, as I did at Durant and Telegraph. The countdown does make pedestrians safer, and it makes no sense to display it only if someone has pushed a button.

Many intersections in Berkeley have so many pedestrians that there is someone waiting to cross on virtually every green signal. At these intersections, most obviously, there is no reason to tell pedestrians not to cross unless they press a button to beg for it.

Charles Siegel is a long-time Berkeley advocate for pedestrians, bicyclists, and urban placemaking.