I don’t know when this became a huge point of contention, but I have heard literal fights break out over whether or not the buttons at a crosswalk actually do anything. I’m heavily on the “nope” side of things, but I’m realizing that that may just be because I live in the city. Care to find out why?
To put it bluntly, the buttons aren’t there for no reason -- I promise. Sure, there are plenty of things in life that give us a false sense of security (the red clip on a treadmill, top coat nail polish, “unbreakable” wine glasses), but this isn’t one of them.
The misconception is that crosswalk buttons are designed to stop all traffic and turn on the little white walking man symbol immediately once pressed. But uh, no. Traffic has to ~flow~, and it won’t do that if the walk sign turns on every 10 seconds. But rest assured, if you press the button, the traffic light system now knows you’re standing there waiting to cross, and it’ll give you your turn.
The one caveat is that the button actually does nothing during times of high-volume traffic. In a suburban area, that’d be morning and evening rush hour. This goes back to how I said I’m biased because I live in a city; there’s really no low-volume traffic times unless it’s the middle of the night, in which case my sleeping self could care less about when the lights change.
The crosswalks get put on what’s called “recall mode,” which basically just adds the pedestrian walking cycle in automatically without you needing to press any dirty buttons.
There isn’t a great way to tell if a specific traffic light is in recall mode or not, but, I mean, just pay attention. If you’ve been standing at an intersection and both (or multiple) sides of traffic have all been given two or three green lights, ya gotta press the button.
Still, those of you who swear that a crosswalk button has never helped your cause, you may have a point: CNN reported in 2018 that only around 100 out of roughly 1,000 crosswalk buttons in New York “work.”
Some buttons have been permanently turned off, the intersections they’re responsible for put on perpetual recall mode or relying on other things like traffic sensors or automatic lights. Still, the buttons remain, especially for accessibility reasons. Also because we’re control freaks.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer pioneered a concept called the “illusion of control,” and explained to CNN that things like placebo crosswalk buttons keep us calm, in a way.
"They do have a psychological effect. Taking some action leads people to feel a sense of control over a situation, and that feels good, rather than just being a passive bystander,” she said. “Doing something typically feels better than doing nothing.”
Unfortunately, yes, this goes for elevator buttons, too. The “close door” button will never close the door faster, but not because they’re trying to drive us crazy. It’s actually part of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which says that an elevator has to remain open up long enough that someone with any kind of mobility issues would be able to conceivably enter without the doors starting to close on them.
(Emergency personnel sometimes have a code that can override this and make the button function, but other than that, you’re SOL if you’re late to work.)
Just be safe crossing the street, will ya?