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.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.