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NYC Crosswalk Buttons are Inoperative 569

Posted by michael
from the technological-pacifier dept.
cdneng2 writes "NY Times has an article that New York crosswalk push buttons are actually ineffective. Apparently, New York City deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals. From the article, 'More than 2,500 of the 3,250 walk buttons that still exist function essentially as mechanical placebos, city figures show.' Well, apparently New York city isn't the only city like this. I guess the answer lies in the same reason why people press the elevator button more than once."
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NYC Crosswalk Buttons are Inoperative

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  • by Xeed (308294) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:20PM (#8417632) Journal
    Surprisingly enough, NY doesn't have any intersections listed in the top 10 most dangerous intersections list [statefarm.com], compiled by State Farm.

    However, you can find the 24 most dangerous intersections in NY, as compiled by the NYPD here [transalt.org].

    Either way, crossing the street isn't the safest thing in the world.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:24PM (#8417666)
      That's only because actual commuting done in New York City is done primarily via cabs and subways, both of which are piloted by non-standard citizens who are trained commercially-licensed professional drivers. Of course not as many accidents are going to happen, they're pros.

      That being said, it's still dangerous because the cab drivers can occasionally be reckless due to long hours worked.

      See here [golala.com] for more zaniness.
      • by wizbit (122290) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:34PM (#8417732)
        sorry, did I just see the words "New York City" and "professional drivers" in the same sentence?
      • by The Tyro (247333) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:50PM (#8417861)
        sorry, did I just see the words "New York City" and "professional drivers" in the same sentence?

        Yeah... I think I also saw "cabs" in that same sentence, along with "not as many accidents are going to happen"...

        I'm sorry... I don't know what to say...

      • by darkmeridian (119044) <william...chuang@@@gmail...com> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:56PM (#8417903) Homepage
        "cab drivers can occasionally be reckless due to long hours worked"?

        Are you from New York? Cab drivers in this city are *always* reckless and it *isn't* because of the long hours worked.
        • by friedo (112163) * on Saturday February 28, 2004 @10:38PM (#8420225) Homepage
          Are you from New York? I've ridden cabs for 19 years and can only recall one ride I would describe as "reckless." NYC cabbies are by and large a decent bunch.


          If you can understand WTF they're saying, that is.

        • by instarx (615765) on Sunday February 29, 2004 @02:11AM (#8421127)
          You don't actually live in NYC do you? Cab drivers in NYC aren't "always reckless". I take NYC cabs all the time and although the drivers aren't little old ladies, they are seldom reckless. With taxi medallions costing $200,000 they have to maximize return from the vehicle. That is the reason taxi drivers seem impatient and in a hurry - time is money, literally, to taxi drivers. There are always exceptions, but taxi drivers in NYC are generally pretty good.

          Most cabs in NYC are driven 24 hours per day. As one driver gets out the next one takes over. If one damages the cab TWO drivers are out of a job because New York rules are very strict - no taxi can operate with damaged body panels. Few drivers work for taxi companies where they get a replacement if they wreck the cab.

          I ride a bicycle most days in Manhattan and I have very few problems with taxi drivers. The most reckless drivers in NYC are far and away Post Office trucks. Next worse are the the SUVs with Jersey plates. Of all the vehicles in Manhattan, taxis are probably the best driven.
      • by defile (1059) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:10PM (#8418004) Homepage Journal

        I disagree.

        Most people get into car accidents because they lose awareness. On country and sparse suburban roads it's easy to drive without seeing another person or moving motor vehicle for miles. As such, drivers tend to zone out and not notice the pedestrian until after they flip over your hood.

        In Manhattan, you're surrounded by people and cars ALL THE TIME, even at 4AM, and at any moment someone could step in front of your car and you could kill them instantly. As such, you drive *very* carefully.

        Also, 99% of the intersections in Manhattan have traffic lights. It's either red stop or green go.

        If you don't see a green light at an intersection you assume you have to stop. This is reinforced so heavily that when motorists come to intersections in Manhattan with all-way stop signs instead of traffic lights, the motorists end up coming to a stop and waiting for a green light to appear. Eventually it occurs to them that there isn't a red light there either, and they then notice the stop sign and cautiously dart across.

        I find driving in Manhattan to be more incident free than anywhere else. The rules-of-intersection engagement are very clear (don't even think of crossing until you see green), the other motorists are just as alert as you are (so cutting them off and being cut off by them is no big deal and traffic flows more smoothly), and above all, assume a pedestrian will decide to cross no matter where they are or what you're doing.

        Driving in the rest of NYC is on the other hand a nightmare.

        As such, I've become completely incompatible with weekend motorists and fear for my life when I go out on weekends.

        • by niko9 (315647) * on Saturday February 28, 2004 @05:36PM (#8418519)
          In Manhattan, you're surrounded by people and cars ALL THE TIME, even at 4AM, and at any moment someone could step in front of your car and you could kill them instantly. As such, you drive *very* carefully.

          That may be true for the visiting tourist who might be taken aback by the sensory overload. But most New Yorkers eventually tune out alot of their surroundings.

          Then there is the pressure of the New York buisness day. Everyday I see people trying to smoke/eat/use the phone/change CD's/apply makeup all while driving a moving three thousand pound projectile.

          If I had a nickel for every accident I witnessed while my ambulance was parked at a major intersection because the offending driver did something incredibly stupid, I would have had several steak dinners by now.

          The funniest thing is that sometimes, I notice right before the "accident", this stupid look on the drivers face --something between being in pain and being constipated-- that instinctively lets you know that they are aware that they're about to commit to something that will cause someone injury and property damage, but think they might get away with it anyway.

          My 2 pet peeves:

          1.Cab drivers that will stop anywhere, abruptly from any speed, and at all sorts of angle to pick up a fare.

          2. People who follow me (light/sirens) down side streets, then when I have to block said street (to narrow for them to get by) they honk and yell as if I should go aroung the block to let them by. But hey, it's not their mom I'm going to treat. ;)

          It's actually a moving violation (as per the NYC VTL) to go down a side street when you see a parked ambulance with it's lights on, regardless if there is room for you to go by.

          • by Ian Bicking (980) <ianbNO@SPAMcolorstudy.com> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @08:28PM (#8419589) Homepage
            There's a lot of people doing stupid things in Manhattan because there's so many people -- there's lots of people doing everything. Even if the throughput isn't terribly high because of the traffic patterns (I expect expect vehicle-miles driven in Manhattan aren't exceptionally high), because of the density you still will perceive there to be a lot of accidents, because each accident is near such a large number of people.

            When you increase the population density I think it is very hard to get an idea of statistical things like accident frequency. Someone might think, say, that there are an exceptional number of homeless people, because they see one every couple minutes. But if they are seeing twice (or more) as many people everywhere, it's only reasonable they'll see more homeless people, and that doesn't mean that there is relatively more in the community. You see lots of traffic, but you notice accidents, and in the same way you might not be aware of the relative frequency of accidents.

      • by kimgh (600604) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:12PM (#8418012)
        What are "non-standard citizens"? A citizen is a citizen, right?
    • by gnu-generation-one (717590) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:32PM (#8417715) Homepage
      In England, we have these gutless pedestrian crossings which are too scared to stop traffic if they detect cars approaching, so they wait until there's no traffic around and only then activate the pedestrian sequence.

      Well gee thanks, I could've figured out myself that I can get across when there's no cars around...

      Even better are the ones with a sensor to see if a pedestrian is waiting. So not only do they pander to any approaching car, but they require the pedestrian to be standing in a particular place otherwise they don't operate at all. Very useful.

      So if anyone is reading this story and doesn't have a clue what it means because traffic-light stuff is all greek to you... Bedford city council has jobs waiting for you. Join the ranks of the clueless.
      • by Kinniken (624803) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:59PM (#8417928) Homepage
        In England, we have these gutless pedestrian crossings which are too scared to stop traffic if they detect cars approaching, so they wait until there's no traffic around and only then activate the pedestrian sequence.

        Cowardly brits!
        In Paris, many pedestrians seems to think it's shameful to cross if there are not cars coming from both directions, the faster the better! :p
      • by tperry98 (723955) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:18PM (#8418064)
        For more information on UK pedestrian crossings, go here [travelwise.org.uk]

        It's so much more exciting than just a 'walk' sign...
      • by Prof.Phreak (584152) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:21PM (#8418078) Homepage
        Heh.

        I live in NYC (wait for the light to change - no point in pushing the button). On my trip to England I was doing the same thing (well, until I figured it out [after a few minutes waiting for the light to change]).

        Oh, yeah, and THANKS for the `look ->' signs. If it weren't for those, I'd be road kill. Almost got ran over by a bus when I steped out of the airport.
      • by bmsleight (710084) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:22PM (#8418086) Homepage
        Even better are the ones with a sensor to see if a pedestrian is waiting. So not only do they pander to any approaching car, but they require the pedestrian to be standing in a particular place otherwise they don't operate at all. Very useful.
        This type of crossing is called a Puffin [dft.gov.uk]

        If the pedestrian has crossed when there is a gap in the Traffic the demand from the Push Button is cancelled. If demands are being cancelled incorrectly the detector is badly configured.

        Solution

        Post the location of the signal crossing and I drop a line to Bedford.

        Also ask Bedford to configure the crossing as 'Pre-timed [dft.gov.uk] Max'

        So they wait until there's no traffic around and only then activate the pedestrian sequence.
        Pre-timed Max Solves this problem.

        Also further reading [dft.gov.uk] on Push Buttons and computerised traffic control.

        • by gnu-generation-one (717590) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @05:38PM (#8418534) Homepage
          Okay, I've read all that, and it pretty much confirms rather than allays my suspicions:

          (a) the pedestrian sensor looks at the centre of the area where pedestrians would stand. But the buttons are right at the edge of that area. And cyclists can't move sideways.

          (b) No mention of how long it takes from pressing a button to getting a green light. My guess is that it's "2 minutes, or when there's no traffic, whichever is earlier"

          Which means that yes, the light does indeed fail to stop traffic if it can possibly avoid doing so. Remember that by the time the button is pushed, someone is already waiting

          Having lights which take so long to react seems quite dangerous, because people will give up and cross anyway, and almost get hit by a police car

          As to 'pre-timed max', surely imposing a "minimum time between stopping cars" doesn't have any effect if the crossing was just waiting there doing nothing for 10 minutes before I arrived? Unless it sets a minimum time for pedestrians to wait, which is just too dumb to even contemplate.

          • by bmsleight (710084) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @06:05PM (#8418707) Homepage
            No mention of how long it takes from pressing a button to getting a green light. My guess is that it's "2 minutes, or when there's no traffic, whichever is earlier"

            ... As to 'pre-timed max', surely imposing a "minimum time between stopping cars" doesn't have any effect if the crossing was just waiting there doing nothing for 10 minutes before I arrived?

            Rough Outline Of How Pre-timed Max Works

            There are a timer for the traffic stage, a min time, a 'max' time and lots of other setting - one of which is the gap length.

            A ped crosses the road, then the traffic stage starts. (Green to traffic)
            This run for at least the min time.(Normally 7 secs)

            Now if there is a low ped flow the traffic can run for say >180 seconds. Greater than the max time and has 'pre-timed out'). If you then press the button the traffic stage will end striaght away, and give you green man in about 5 seconds. Hence the term 'pre-timed' max.

            If there is a high pedstrain flow the max timer has to expire before the pedestrain stage will run again. Max timers vary alots ~ ballpark 60 seconds. (Unless there is a gap in the traffic - then it will gap change to the pedestrian stage.

            That being said - speak to your Council and your local Traffic Signal Engineer. Drop them a email, you pay there wages (taxes) they will bend over backwards to help you and may not know there is a problem until a (MOP) member of the public reports it.

            Most/All of us prefer to here a complaint, than to have badly configured junction.

      • by Tony Hoyle (11698) <tmh@nodomain.org> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:46PM (#8418234) Homepage
        We got one of the clever ones nearby... for a week it was great... you pushed the button, and it saw you were actually there and stopped the traffic.. plus if you could cross before it automatically cancelled itself.

        The next week they completely disabled the sensors and put it in 'don't stop traffic make the buggers wait' mode*, where it's stayed. Nice to know where my council tax is being wasted...

        * This mode refuses to change to let pedestrians cross *even if there isn't any traffic for miles*, meaning you cross anyway, then 5-6 minutes later hear the beeps in the distance as it decides to turn red whilst there's nobody actually wanting to cross.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:34PM (#8417733)
      Around my area they installed crosswalks with BRIGHT ass leds that flash when someone presses the button. The leds are on both sidewalks as well as two lines on the road itself. These things just command attention, when pressed you can see drivers approaching immediately step on the brakes. IMO they have already saved lives because even I have not noticed the pedestrian before I saw the lights.
      • by 6Yankee (597075) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @05:40PM (#8418542)
        Around my area they installed crosswalks with BRIGHT ass leds that flash when someone presses the button.

        Something like these [astucia.co.uk]?

        The web site sucks ass but the products look pretty damn cool. They also make headlight-activated LED road studs - seen these on the motorway north of Brighton, you can turn your headlights off and drive in total darkness at 85mph, following the LEDs (till you run into the other idiot doing the same thing)...

    • by segment (695309) <silNO@SPAMpolitrix.org> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:52PM (#8417871) Homepage Journal
      As a native NY'er (29+ yrs), I've known for the longest those buttons don't work, and I'm almost sure every NY'er knows the same too. Hell half of those red fire department boxes don't even work the city knows and hasn't done anything about those, so little attention will be paid to those funky looking buttons.

      Now on the flip side of things, for those who live in the boroughs, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, SI, if you take a good old trip to city hall and the places where the money is flowing what do you find? Operating buttons, clean streets, subways with bathrooms, and spikes to keep those pigeons from pooping all over the place. The boroughs... What are you kidding?

    • by l810c (551591) * on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:00PM (#8417930)
      My first semester at college I lived in a dorm right next to a busy/dangerous intersection.

      The dorm was shaped like a U that pointed at the intersection heightening the noise. Several times a day you would hear loud screeching as people locked up their brakes. Always just the screeching. About 3 weeks into the semester, there was another loud screech, this time followed by a loud CRASH. Simultaneously, 50 people stuck their heads out their windows and cheered. It was hilarious.

    • by MyHair (589485) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:06PM (#8417978) Journal
      Surprisingly enough, NY doesn't have any intersections listed in the top 10 most dangerous intersections list, compiled by State Farm.

      That list is compiled based upon the dollar amount of State Farm insurance claims for those intersections. I imagine the fleet cabs and busses of NYC are largely self-insured by the operating companies and wouldn't show up as claims to State Farm or any other insurer.

      State Farm offers monetary and consultative support to cities with intersections in their top 10 (and a lesser amount to those in their top 100 IIRC) to save themselves money.

      Not that there's anything wrong with that.

      A perennial top 10 intersection is Highway 121 & Preston Road in Plano, TX. There are lots of expensive cars in that area; if everyone there drove 5-year old Hyundai's I doubt it would make the list. Either that or the nearby EDS campus is really a cover for an organized insurance fraud ring.
    • by ThisIsFred (705426) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:16PM (#8418053) Journal
      That's because in New York, when people cross the street, they're usually in a huge mob that blocks the entire intersection. An angry cabby has no choice but to stop and wait or risk vehicular homicide. NYC drivers also pay no attention to pedestrians' right-of-way; If the light is green and you're in the crosswalk, you're an obstacle not a pedestrian.

      This doesn't surprise me one bit though. My small town (roughly 7,000) paid a great expense to have all the intersections redone with those big red buttons. No one uses them. If that weren't enough, we've got large mobs of unsupervised children on bicycles zipping in front of cars passing through green lights (and kids that stop their bikes in the middle of the lane -during periods of heavy traffic- on purpose). Maybe we should just do away with pedestrian right-of-way?
  • by Shard013 (530636) <shard013NO@SPAMhotmail.com> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:20PM (#8417638)
    The buttons don't work
  • by General Sherman (614373) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:21PM (#8417641) Journal
    Everybody knows the more times you push it, the faster it goes. Geez.
    • by Atario (673917) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:59PM (#8417929) Homepage
      "We always do this: we walk up to an elevator, someone's already there, they're waiting, they've pushed the button, the button is lit. We walk up and push the button, thinking, 'Obviously you didn't push it correctly. I'll have to push it myself. NOW the elevator will come.' Then someone else walks up and they push the button again. Suddenly you're offended. You want to say, 'You idiot, I pushed it, he pushed it.' Then to the original pusher, 'Can you believe people?'"
  • Just like the Tube (Score:5, Informative)

    by robbieduncan (87240) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:21PM (#8417644) Homepage
    Just like the Open (and Close) Door buttons on most of the London Underground. I see tourists pounding those open buttons on the Central Line all the time. It does nothing but they seem to feel better.
    • by Space cowboy (13680) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:32PM (#8417720) Journal
      Which is the point, of course. People do feel better if they think they've "done something" about any problem - even one as trivial as opening the currently-closed door. Passively waiting for something to happen doesn't come easily to many of us...

      What I find odd are those who hit the 'summon elevator' button more than once - A lift algorithm isn't going to take into account the number of times you press, and I doubt the buttons are pressure-sensitive :-) In fact, it's more likely that the time-of-last-press is one of the inputs to the algorithm, with earlier presses having a priority. So the more you press, the less chance you have of getting a busy lift :-))

      Simon
      • by MyHair (589485) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:16PM (#8418045) Journal
        I think you're on the right track with psychology, but I think it's actually societal communication. If I walk up and just stand near you, that's creepy and I'm weird. If I push the button, you know I want to ride the elevator so now standing near you is perfectly acceptable and normal behavior. At least I think that's how it processes somewhere deep in our minds.

        As for using the open/close buttons or pressing more than once, I think that's a "I'm in a hurry" signal. I don't understand why it's important to communicate this, but if you pay attention people usually signal one way or another whether or not they are in a hurry.

        Now as far as the crosswalk signs go, I thought they actually worked and were put there so pedestrians didn't have to wait for a car to trip the signal lights. Downtown areas seem to have these buttons less, which makes sense since there's more likely to be cross traffic or the lights are timed rather than triggered by demand. I'm surpised to hear there are dummy boxes out there.
      • by gl4ss (559668) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @05:48PM (#8418601) Homepage Journal
        even 'stranger' are the people who press both the 'going up' and 'going down' buttons, as if it would make the elevator thats going down come any quicker.

        and sometimes these even jump into a elevator going upstairs, if anything making their travel to the downstairs slower than if they would have just pressed the damn 'going down' button.

        (this happens quite often in the building where I live that has double elevators, and a system where you can't "hijack" an elevator thats going up to go down.)
    • by Jon Chatow (25684) * <slashdot@jdforrester.org> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:33PM (#8417731) Homepage
      No, they do have a point - the clueless push them, and those of us who have worked this out can share a knowing smirk. Highlights the day's commute, for me... ;-)
  • Heh. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Denyer (717613) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:21PM (#8417645)
    It's like Ctrl-Alt-Delete for the general public! ;)
  • by Piethon (748147) <zelse&adelphia,net> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:21PM (#8417648)
    This has to be a lie, the government would never waste our money and mislead us!
  • by ConceptJunkie (24823) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:23PM (#8417659) Homepage Journal
    It's my understanding that the "Close Door" buttons on elevators only exist for the same reason, and they don't do anything.

    Kinda like the "brightness" button on the TV set. (To paraphrase the old joke).

  • by Penguinshit (591885) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:23PM (#8417660) Homepage Journal

    ...is the belief that pressing the call button multiple times makes the elevator move faster.

    I know it, and I still do it sometimes. Perhaps it's because I just like pushing buttons... like this button right he NO CARRIER
  • I had my suspicions (Score:4, Informative)

    by GMontag (42283) <<moc.gatnomyug> <ta> <gatnomg>> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:23PM (#8417661) Homepage Journal
    The ones in Herndon, VA (maybe that should be singular rather than plural) seems to actually work and many in Knoxville, TN will not give you a walk signal unless you pressed the button. But the last time I was in Manhattan, about 2 yrs ago it did not seem to have any effect.

    Then again, the "walk" signals did not have much effect on the pedestrians in Manhattan either.
    • by gnu-generation-one (717590) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:52PM (#8417878) Homepage
      Try Nottingham (the english one) for some really nice crossings, which actually detect a cyclist approaching on cycle-routes (embedded inductive sensor under the pavement) in enough time that it changes the lights in time for you to cross without even needing to slow down.

      Now if only more junction designers could have a look at stuff like that, and see how convenient it is when things "just work"...

  • by stroustrup (712004) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:23PM (#8417662) Journal
    The answer is here finally!! Because the button doesn't work
  • I think (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jlechem (613317) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:23PM (#8417663) Homepage Journal
    Downtown SLC is the same way. They even have LED displays that count down the time until the light changes. It goes from yellow to red when it starts getting close to 0. It also makes a very audible beeping noise as well. If it's made it safer to walk downtown or not I have no clue.
  • by stonebeat.org (562495) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:25PM (#8417672) Homepage
    I didn't know anyone in NY who waited for a the Walk Signal to turn before start walking. NewYorkers are best at finding the shortest possible route to their destination. And I dont blame them. It is pace of life they experience.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:26PM (#8417677)
    The Slashdot "Submit Story" button is also just a placebo. "We just post what we want, and we put some user's name on them, " says Malda.
  • Erm.... and? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JayBlalock (635935) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:26PM (#8417681)
    This hardly seems like news of any sort. The article contained (through inference) the entire reason for their continued existance - there are still intersections that rely on them.

    Computer-controlled traffic lights work a lot better than the old-fashioned timed system. (well, unless the detector screws up, but that's rare) So allowing people to interrupt the sequence would do little good. At the same time, you don't want people standing on one of those 700 crosswalks which will never volunteer a "walk" sign for ages.

    So, to make sure that the people use the button in the places they need to, it's easier to leave the buttons on all the intersections. Otherwise, people might not think to use the button when it's necessary, at least not without a lot of time and prompting.

  • Buttons (Score:5, Informative)

    by Via_Patrino (702161) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:28PM (#8417690)
    "same reason why people press the elevator button more than once.

    And the same reason people press the reload or submit button more than once... When things don't show any evidence that they're doing what they're supposed to do.

    • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:19PM (#8418068) Journal
      "same reason why people press the elevator button more than once.

      And the same reason people press the reload or submit button more than once... When things don't show any evidence that they're doing what they're supposed to do.


      Some elevator call buttons actually do help.

      On many elevators (especially Otis), especially older ones, holding down a button in the car shortens or ends the delay before closing the door to move on to another floor. This was apparently done so that once people had entered the car and selected a floor the elevator wouldn't hang around uselessly.

      Older elevators often saved on hardware by wiring the floor call buttons in parallel with the car buttons. So holding down a call button did speed up the car, by making it spend less time at other floors.

      Newer, computer-driven, elevators don't usually do the door algorithm properly, even with respect to the buttons in the car. (Apparently the people who wrote some of the programs didn't research the older designs, but wrote it from scratch based on what they thought an elevator should do. Thus the elevators' algorithms are often less effective and more annoying than the older, relay-driven devices.)

      Something like BART's railroad car designs. B-)
  • by matt4077 (581118) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:30PM (#8417703) Homepage
    Actually, lots of traffic signals here in Germany have touch-sensitive Buttons, which can't really be pressed. You just touch them and they notice the change in temperature.

    Since you don't get any feedback, it doesn't really satisfy and I'm always left with the feeling that it didn't register the request at all.
  • Magic (Score:5, Funny)

    by proverbialcow (177020) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:32PM (#8417717) Journal
    Funny, then, that I was just reading this article on a placebo switch that inexplicably worked!

    http://catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/magic-story.html [catb.org]
  • by mao che minh (611166) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:32PM (#8417722) Journal
    Carrie, glancing back over her shoulder at Mr. Big, smiling to herself in complete satisfaction, presses the button and strides out into the busy NY street.

    Carrie: "Life... I started thinking about Paris, and how love AAHGHHHRGHH!!!"

    -- taxi cab grinds Carrie into the asphalt, and the credits begin to roll ---

    Yes, my girl friend made me watch that damn show for an entire year. The demise of that vile, high-priced sitcom has filled me with a joy not felt since childhood.

    • by noewun (591275) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:51PM (#8417864) Journal
      About five years ago I almost ran over Sarah Jessica Parker at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. I was coming down Fifth on my bike, moving quickly, taking the right onto 23rd. I looked around the turn and saw it was clear. I checked my left, which was clear, and then look right again to see a mass of blonde curls and boobs running in front me of. She realized I was there - I guess she hadn't checked before she crossed - and sped up. I leaned right and missed her by an inch or two.

      I consider it one of the greatest missed opportunities of my life.

  • Control (Score:5, Interesting)

    by M. Baranczak (726671) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:34PM (#8417735)
    There was something like that in a Kurt Vonnegut novel whose title has slipped my mind. Something about an automated spaceship with only two controls: a START button, and a STOP button (the latter isn't connected to anything.) The point being that humans feel better when they think they have control over their fate.

    Actually, it's probably a moot point - I've never met a New Yorker who actually waits for the light.
  • by AndroidCat (229562) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:34PM (#8417741) Homepage
    At some intersections in Toronto, not only does the walk button work, but unless it's pressed, the walk signal never lights up. (Kind of a pain when the button isn't right at the corner and has a lot of snow around it.) It would be nice if they'd mark the "Cars Prefered" crossings to let people know.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:35PM (#8417742)
    I was once in a rather rocky relationship with a girl which ended when I told her not to bother pressing the button.

    "It doesn't do anything, these juntions are automated."

    "That is exactly the kind of cynical attitude I'm absolutely fed up with. You have no faith in anything."

    She stomped off across the road like an enraged frogger, dodging the still flowing traffic.

  • by cabingirl (671963) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:36PM (#8417751)
    Crosswalk buttons are just a signal to drivers that a person is planning to cross the street. In big, pedestrian cities like New York, you don't need the buttons because there's almost always someone waiting to cross the street, and drivers know this. In my life, the only place I've made a point to use the buttons is in the suburban area where I live now, because a person standing on a streetcorner may or may not be waiting to cross the street, and the drivers are really bad at yielding to pedestrians.
  • A Story (Score:5, Funny)

    by Crusty Oldman (249835) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:38PM (#8417760)
    A guy I know was in charge of a medium-sized office. He was forever plagued by the women asking him to turn the thermostat up during the winter (the guys saying "turn it down, we're dying in here"). When the office was remodeled, he had a new thermostat installed in a closet, and had the old one unconnected. He put the biggest complainer "in charge" of that thermostat, and never had a problem since. True story.

  • Could be even worse (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jks (269) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:39PM (#8417776) Homepage
    There is an intersection in the outskirts of Helsinki, Finland, where the push button works even worse. This is an intersection between two pretty big roads with major traffic, and there's a standard traffic light cycle going from "green for road A" to "green for road B", etc. If you are a pedestrian walking in the direction of either road, you need to push the button, and will eventually get a green light at the same time as the drivers on the same road. Now, guess what: the only way the button affects the lights is that you get a green light the next time it's possible -- if you don't push the button, the cycle is exactly the same except that the pedestrian light is red all the time. So the button does nothing but you need to push it to cross legally.
  • by MajorDick (735308) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:42PM (#8417798)
    There was in town, until just a few years ago a fairly busy intersection that had a crosswalk and a very old button setup, it would when pressed within 5 or so seconds change the light, and would continue to as long as it was pressed, when we were kid we used to hold traffic up just for the fun of it, but at other times, you could time cars, press the button and watch them schreech to a halt.
  • by Moderation abuser (184013) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:48PM (#8417843)
    To press the pedestrian buttons as you walk past...







    ... I can't help it!




  • Around Here... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by temojen (678985) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:51PM (#8417866) Journal
    In Nanaimo, BC, Canada, the crosswalk buttons work... kinda.

    Except for crosswalks (where there is no cross street), all the buttons do is turn on the walk signal when the light turns green. They don't change the timing any. Thanks a lot, public works, I could've figured it out myself.

    To make matters more interesting, one of the crosswalks takes so long to change that whoever pressed the button has usually jaywalked by the time it changes.
  • by t_allardyce (48447) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @03:55PM (#8417897) Journal
    So let me get this straight, there is a collection of buttons around New York city that are not connected to anything, and are waiting for some enterprising geek to hack into something useful... What are we waiting for??
  • by Avumede (111087) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:02PM (#8417946) Homepage
    Cecil Adams has the Straight Dope on what these things do when they work [straightdope.com].

    On the subject of the second article, I live in downtown San Mateo myself, and am surprised that so many buttons are non-operative. But some that I use do indeed provide a longer time to cross. They also will give you the walk signal, while if you don't press the button, you don't get it. So many of these buttons in downtown San Mateo do actually do something. My guess is that most of the downtown ones don't do anything, but the ones along El Camino Real (one side of downtown) do actually work.
  • by Dachannien (617929) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:12PM (#8418010)
    In Cleveland, a large number of crossing signals are synchronized with the stoplights, which are timed, and there's no walk button at all. I know of at least one walk button, however, whose behavior is rather strange: If someone pushes the button, then a period of time goes by, the light changes, and the walk sign illuminates. If nobody pushes the button, then eventually the light will change, but the don't walk sign stays lit. Evidently, you're jaywalking unless you push the button, even if the light changes to be in your favor!

    On a related note, ever notice how the "door close" button in most elevators does absolutely nothing? The button in the elevator where I work actually does function properly, letting you send yourself on your way about 6 seconds more quickly than without. If you're standing right by the panel, but you don't push the button - which everyone in the building knows will get you there sooner - everyone else starts shifting around uncomfortably, waiting for you to hurry up and push it. (I've actually seen one professor push the door open in an effort to squeeze another 15ms or so out of it!) But in the next building over, you can pound on the button, hold it in, kick it, or whatever, and the door doesn't close any faster than usual.

  • What they really do (Score:5, Informative)

    by hwestiii (11787) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:14PM (#8418026) Homepage
    I had for years misunderstood just what cross walk buttons do until I actually worked in traffic engineering. Pedestrian buttons essentially do the same thing for pedestrian cross-walks that the in-road detectors do for automobiles: they tell the local traffic light controller that there is a pedestrian waiting to use the cross walk and that the pedestrian phase in the traffic signals timing plan should be used during the next cycle.

    If no pedestrian is present at the cross walk and the button is not hit, that plan will not be used and as a result the timing of the lights during the next cycle will be somewhat different than if a pedestrian were present.

    There does seem to be an informal sense among pedestrians that pressing the button should cause the ped signal to activate sooner, since they are there and requesting service, but that is not the case. The only thing pressing the button changes is whether that special ped phase cycle is used or not.

    The real need for the buttons in the first place is that, while most contemporary vehicle detection schemes are based on the electromagnetic properties of automobiles, most normal pedestrians are not constructed of massive chunks of ferrous metals and so have little effect on these devices. A car announces its presence simply by being there, a human being must make a little extra effort to push a button.

    What I get from the headline (I'll read the article after I've submitted my uninformed opinion) is that there may really be no need for those buttons in the first place. A place like New York is likely to have such massive pedestrian activity in the first place, that the buttons themselves are redundant, since nearly every signal cycle is likely to require an active pedestrian phase to serve that volume. Ped crossing buttons may be as useful in NYC as they would be on an interstate highway in the middle of Nevada, but for opposite reasons.
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:25PM (#8418100) Homepage Journal
    The truth can finally be told: those buttons aren't for speeding up a light change, they're for slowing down tourists. Otherwise, we'd need zambonies cruising the avenues, scraping midwestern roadkill out of the way of productive citizens. Everyone knows that in NYC you don't change things with a pushbutton - you argue at the top of your lungs, or throw money around to confuse the opposition. Now you know why your wallet is missing after a midtown sightseeing walk: the pickpockets get their cut while you gawk upwards at the skyscrapers, as you lean on the buttons waiting for the light to change. Think of it as a toll.

    If you can't jaywalk like an Olympian, stay out of the street. Take a nice cab, and remember to tip at least 20% for the man who's saving your life with every lane change. Now go home where it's safe.
  • by dandelion_wine (625330) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:28PM (#8418124) Journal
    in India and (?!) Quebec: countdown timers. It's not as psycho as it first sounds. People don't race to beat the timer. It just chills. everyone. out.

    In India they're for the cars. No more edging through reds because you don't know when the frig it's gonna change and you wonder if you're hitting the sensor. No, right there in front of you, 15, 14, 13, 12. So also, you can get that thing out of your glove compartment, there's time. Or take a sip of that drink, bite of that sandwich. No surprises. Numbers in red for stops and in white or green for time till the next stop. You still get the yellow, so people don't race -- they have more time to gradually increase speed if they want to make it through.

    In Quebec, it's for the pedestrians. Not nearly as useful IMHO. Cars can look crosswise to see how much time the pedestrians have left, but it's aimed at the pedestrians, to tell them how much time they've got. Doesn't stop people from wandering across with no time left, I've noticed.

    The Indian version is the best thing I've seen. Cuts out all of the guesswork and most of the tension and cause for accidents at intersections. Genius. Of course, they're only at super busy intersections.

    They also have the #2 best thing I've seen. Across the red lense of traffic lights at the busiest intersections is printed the capitals R E L A X. No foolin.
  • by lerouxt (129730) <tom.harborcoat@com> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @04:46PM (#8418237)

    Stray voltage [nydailynews.com]
  • Project Greenlight (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Mike Hicks (244) <hick0088@tc.umn.edu> on Saturday February 28, 2004 @05:55PM (#8418650) Homepage Journal
    This is just picking nits, I suppose...

    In Minneapolis, most newer signals don't have push buttons (which can be aggravating when there's little traffic), but they will always light up the "walk" sign. However, most older ones which have the push buttons will not light the "walk" sign unless the button was pushed. Usually, this isn't an issue, since people will just walk when the light is green, but certain problems come up.

    Pedestrians wishing to cross at "T" intersections that are coming from the top of the T to one of the other corners can get stuck at a "don't walk" sign without being able to see if the traffic light is green or not. Also, there can be problems at intersections with left-turn arrows, since pedestrians get into the habit of going against "don't walk" signs when they see green. In this case they can end up walking right into the path of turning cars. Obviously, people paying attention will either wait or at least make sure no cars have their turn signals on, but I think even people accustomed to such intersections let their minds drift from time to time.

    Of course, I think most road and building designers just make awful decisions regarding pedestrians most of the time anyway. I'm sure many college students have cursed their campus's architects since buildings often tend to lie right in the path you want to go. I suppose it's not a big deal in many cases, but some of these buildings are very large and can require quite an excursion to go around. Often, I suppose security is considered to be a big overriding issue, but sometimes things just get to be silly. At least one dorm at the University of Minnesota requires some students to walk about two city blocks inside to get from their rooms to the front doorall other doors are alarmed fire exits. I'm all for promoting exercise, but that's kind of ridiculous, in my opinion.

    Bah, I'm wandering off-topic now...
  • On Queens Boulevard there are some better signs [joestoner.com].
  • by PunkusMaxmus (757492) on Saturday February 28, 2004 @10:55PM (#8420291)
    I wrote much of the centralized traffic control and communications code for NYC's traffic control system back in the early nineties (a VME-based system using SVR4 UNIX and VxWorks running on 68030 processors which replaced the previous IBM system from the late '60-early'70s.) I recall a story that I heard when I was helping install the system. There was a community in NY complaining about needing to have a crosswalk signalized because people were having difficuly crossing the street. The traffic flow technically didn't require that a signal be installed, but it seemed that it would be politically expendient to do so, so a crosswalk signal was installed. There was evidently quite a bit of outrage when the citizens in the area dicovered it was a push-button activated crosswalk. You see, it turns out this was an Orthodox Jewish community - they couldn't push the button on the Sabbath (religous taboo, for those who don't understand) and thus had even more difficulty crossing to get to the synagogue. (I can't say for sure if the story was true, but it wouldn't be suprising if it was.)

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