Does pressing the button at pedestrian crossings actually help you cross faster?

Waste of time, mate: London, 1932. Image: Getty.

According to an American study, people spend around 1.6bn hours each year standing idly at the roadside, at the cost of $2.6Bn to the American economy. With all this waiting around, it’s only natural to question whether pushing the “walk” button will help us get to our destination sooner.

To answer this question, we need to understand how the traffic lights work. Strict rules are applied within traffic control hardware to decrease the risk of collisions. For example, minimum times are set between one green light and the next, to ensure that vehicles can clear the junction safely.

While these timings are very important, they can place constraints on the operational efficiency of the junction. If you have ever driven through a city in the early hours of the morning, you’ll know exactly what this means. Despite there being practically no traffic on the road, you will still find yourself frequently stopping at red lights and waiting what can seem like an age for the lights to go green again.

A sign of frustration. Image: lanier67/Flickr/creative commons.

Transport authorities recognise that delay is bad for all users. Idling vehicles contribute to air pollution, and making pedestrians wait does nothing to help government targets to increase the number of trips made on foot. Some towns and cities, such as Drachten in the Netherlands, are even experimenting by removing traffic lights, to improve traffic flow. But in most places, the approach is to ensure traffic lights respond to the demands of those present, within the shortest time possible.


Meeting demand

For a simple pedestrian crossing, located away from a junction, the approach for dealing with pedestrian and traffic demands is simple. Press the button, and the green man or light will appear in due course. How long you wait is a function of how long ago the crossing was last activated, the volume of approaching traffic and the policy of the transport authority.

Many authorities now prioritise pedestrians, meaning that, provided a certain time has elapsed since the last demand for the crossing, the green man will appear almost immediately. If the button is not pressed, traffic will simply continue to flow indefinitely.

At an intersection, the situation depends on the design of the junction and the country you are in. In the UK and Ireland, most urban junctions with simple layouts operate on an “all stop” principle. In this case, traffic on all approaches to the junction is brought to a standstill to allow pedestrians to cross. Like the basic pedestrian crossing, someone must have pressed the button, otherwise the green man will be skipped to reduce delays.

But there is a second junction type, which includes what are known as “parallel” or “walk-with-traffic” pedestrian crossings. In the UK and Ireland, this is achieved on more complex junctions through clever separation of traffic lanes and turning movements, allowing pedestrians to cross while traffic continues to flow.

Crossing in harmony. Image: Rthakrar/Flickr/creative commons.

In continental Europe and cities such as New York, and in other parts of the world, different traffic rules apply, meaning drivers must give way to pedestrians when turning. This makes it easy to implement parallel pedestrian crossings, on even the most basic junctions.

For these junction types, as the pedestrian demands are served at the same time as traffic, in most cases the green man will usually appear regardless of whether the button has been pressed. The only time the button may need to be pushed is during periods of very low traffic volumes, or where the pedestrian crossing – if unused – would inhibit the efficiency of the junction.

At all crossings though, the button only ever needs to be pushed once. Due to the operational rules, pressing it many times or holding it in will not make the green man appear any sooner - even if it may seem that way when you’re in a rush.

To wait or not to wait?

Faced with the prospect of a stand off with the dreaded red man, the impatient pedestrian has a couple of options. Due to the absence of jaywalking laws, many Britons choose simply to cross the road anyway (hopefully only when it is safe to do so). But in places such as Germany, it is the law and the cultural norm to wait for the green man, regardless of traffic - or indeed the lack of it.

With all this waiting around, it is perhaps unsurprising that the ever-pragmatic Germans have come up with a way of killing time, through the installation of push-buttons featuring miniature video games at certain locations.

The ConversationSo the next time you find yourself waiting at a crossing, perhaps rather than fuming at the delay, try to think of ways to make the most of it. But don’t forget to press the button – just in case.

Richard Llewellyn, Lecturer in Transportation Engineering, Edinburgh Napier University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.