What do “Beg Buttons” really represent?

This post originally appeared on Spur.

When I watched the American presidential “debate” last Monday, I was not expecting anything from that spectacle to tie into an article on pedestrian crossings, but here it is.

For me, the most poignant thing I heard in that debate was during the discussion on racial issues. Clinton said, quite simply, that we are all implicitly biased when it comes to racial issues, and she is right.

I like to think that we have, in the recent past, come to understand that there are biases and judgements planted deep within our society. We are starting to have conversations about our systemic cultural problems with social issues such as racism, sexism, and classicism.

The thing is, we have biases both big and small.

We have a bias when we talk about mobility, and how we frame transportation problems. It comes from years of promoting a single method of travel that at one point somewhere in the past granted us great freedom. We are so focused on the transportation problems we have been solving for the last 60 years, we haven’t stopped to think if these are still the problems we want to solve.


Was Mr. Goldblum really talking about dinosaurs?

In academic research the most important thing is making sure you are solving the right problem, or asking the right question. This is just as true with everyday mobility questions as it is with an academic paper.

The Beg Button

In a recent article I wrote for CBC, I made a passing mention of “beg buttons” as a design philosophy that gives priority to cars. I got the name from former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow in their book Streetfight. Here’s her introduction of the concept:

“Another poorly thought-out safety feature is pedestrian buttons at crosswalks. Many urban and suburban crosswalks will never get a Walk signal unless someone at the corner presses one of these “beg buttons”. It’s not surprising to find that many people get tired of waiting or don’t realise there’s even a button to press, instead taking their chances by crossing against the light. And once you’re crossing there’s no guarantee that motorists will respect your right-of-way…”

From a traditional engineering perspective, beg buttons at an existing signal are a way to optimise traffic flow at an intersection with low pedestrian traffic. Pedestrians take longer to cross and block turning movements, so when there are no pedestrians around you can shorten the light cycle and move more traffic.

Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? I’ll admit when I first thought about this idea I saw a clever way to handle low pedestrian traffic. Only after reading Streefight did I realise I’d made a common researcher’s mistake: I was solving the wrong problem. I was trying to get as many cars through an intersection as possible. Moving traffic efficiently is only a very narrow part of the ultimate goal of providing freedom through mobility.

Misplaced Priorities

So why do I think it’s the wrong problem?

Sadik-Khan’s name for these crossing buttons is very on point. Walking is supposed to be the most protected and prioritised method of travel, and asking pedestrians to request a signal to cross an intersection is putting them last on the list. Beg buttons are a perfect representation of an attempt to get pedestrians out of the way of cars, instead of getting cars out of the way of pedestrians.

In many areas of our society, we strive to promote and support the most vulnerable people. We take extra effort to accommodate those with disabilities. We strive to protect children by lowering speed limits around playground zones. For all it’s faults, we have systems in place to help those who are out of a job, are struggling with mental illness, or are victims of abuse.

These are only a few of the many ways in which we try to help vulnerable people, so why do we insist on doing the opposite in our transportation systems? We over-engineer roads and ignore signs of bad design that are easily fixed. These are all things that encourage and support the least vulnerable mode of transportation. These are solutions to the wrong problem.

Back to Bias

This status-quo thinking is deeply ingrained in those who make decisions. Here’s a response from Calgary’s Director of Roads to a Twitter user asking about removing beg buttons for the Edmonton Trail redesign:

It’s not my intention to pick on Mr. McLeod (I learned from Councillor Carra that this project is specifically focused on cars; Carra is nothing if not a champion of a pedestrian and bike friendly vision for Calgary). His response is one of an engineer discussing a problem, but to me it misses the bigger issue at hand. The beg button is not there to request priority service, using it is required to get any service at all. It accomplishes the exact opposite of protecting the most vulnerable user by sacrificing safety and walkability in favour of letting a few more cars through.

So what can we do? Thankfully, city-scale issues are easier to change. We must applaud good work and ask for changes in bad work. We must vote for and communicate with politicians who understand the subtle but strong undertow of status-quo. Encourage the city to hire people that get that promoting the most vulnerable people applies to transportation as well as any other area of our lives. 

Systemic problems can only be fixed by systemic solutions. Gentle encouragement and patience are the best tools. Oh, and asking the right questions.

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