Pushing the Crosswalk Button Is a Waste of Your Time

man pressing crosswalk button
Fox Photos/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images
Fox Photos/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

You're standing at a busy intersection Downtown watching the traffic cruise past with metronomic tedium. As the seconds stretch to minutes, you think, "Wait, didn't I hit the crosswalk button?" It's definitely been minutes. Press. Nothing. Press, press, presspresspresspresshithithit. Nothing.

You might be there for a while, because the obnoxious reality is that the crosswalk button is pretty much bullshit. It's nice to have that illusion of control over the situation, but depending on where you are, there's a strong chance that it's literally not connected to anything.

Boston's traffic signals are independently managed

Most cities stopped repairing broken crosswalk buttons

In many major cities around the US, you're pretty much SOL at a crosswalk. Dallas, for example, made the decision years ago to quit repairing outdated crosswalk buttons (around the same time, it realized the road sensors that tell traffic lights when a car is around weren't working either). To be fair to New York City, about 100 crosswalks actually do have functioning buttons. It's the other 900 or so at which you're pretty much helpless. The best part? It's been that way for years
Same goes for Los Angeles, which recently (as in, 2013) completed a mammoth 29-year undertaking to convert the majority of its traffic signals to a synchronized system which has no use for buttons, with the exception of a few less-trafficked intersections. In other words, you might have grown up pushing functional crosswalk buttons, but today? Not so much.

Meanwhile in Boston, each and every intersection is managed separately, which sounds about as tricky as putting the right amount of air in a football. In practice, most Downtown-area crosswalk buttons don't work during the day, but they do at night.

Most traffic lights are timed, and ignore buttons
Flickr/Jordan Meeter

Sometimes they work... but aren't even turned on

Crosswalk buttons came around in the 1960s, and the point was they allowed a traffic signal to ignore an entire street until someone pressed the button or a car tripped a sensor. This made sense for a minor side street intersecting a major thoroughfare, but in areas with routinely high traffic, the problems they cause far outweigh the benefit to pedestrians. So, as a matter of efficiency, most lights in Downtown areas operate on a timer system, and they're completely worthless during the day or high-traffic times. You'll still get your turn, but you're gonna have to wait. Sorry.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and can be found on Twitter. He always wondered why those crosswalk buttons felt so loose.