When you push the crosswalk button at any intersection in Tucson or Phoenix, you might hear beeps or a vibrating pulse, but you likely won’t see the light change.
That’s because the pedestrian crosswalk buttons that we’ve long imagined put traffic control in our hands have almost nothing to do with changing the “Do Not Walk” signal to “Walk.”
“If you were to stand there and not press the button, it will take you as long to get the pedestrian light as if you would’ve pressed the button,” says Monica Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the City of Phoenix Street Transportation Department.
That’s how it’s been since the 1980s when streetlights were put on timers to optimize traffic flow. And since then, the only new innovations — the beeping tones and vibrating signals — have been mostly geared to help the seeing impaired.
Tucson and Phoenix have a number of the vibrating signals. The cost of installing the new technology prohibits them from putting them anywhere besides places shown to be difficult to cross by the visually impaired.
“Once the signal gets done with its timing it will [activate the walk signal]. That’s all it does,” says Mike Hicks, a spokesman with the Tucson Department of Transportation. “It doesn’t shorten a signal phase, it doesn’t extend a signal phase.”
The reason is simple; traffic flow. If pushing the button turned the light red it would cause huge traffic jams. This happened in England when a man from a small town repeatedly pushed the button and backed up traffic for miles outside of town.
While the buttons do play into our impulse to push and control things, there is still a reason for having them. In many cases, the buttons activate a beeping sound to notify visually impaired people when to cross. New buttons in Phoenix and Tucson also vibrate for people with disabilities.
But Lenetta Lefko, the services manager at the Southern Arizona Association for the Visually Impaired, said audio signals are not preferred because the sound can be a distraction to the visually impaired from listening to when traffic has stopped at the intersection. SAAVI works with the city council to recommend a change of buttons at certain intersections that are dangerous for people with disabilities.
“[The visually impaired] have to hear the idling cars and the moving cars and if an audio pedestrian signal is going off they might not hear what they need to hear,” Lefko says.
The ultimate goal is to have vibrating buttons at every corner in Tucson and Phoenix but the cost is problematic. Each device could cost around $400, meaning it would cost around $2000 to $4000 per intersection.
If you get tired of waiting for the walk signal to turn and are tempted to cross against the light, take note: that’s illegal. If you’re cited, you face a $161 ticket in Tucson and a max of $250 in Phoenix.
Brian Valencia is a reporter at Arizona Sonora News, a service from the University of Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org