It's Not You But The City That Controls Those Pedestrian Walk-Light Signals
By WILLIAM WEIR, Courant Staff Writer
September 03, 2007
A thought while crossing the street in Hartford one day: Do those "Press Button For Walk Signal" buttons really work? Are they even hooked up to anything?
It was time for a study, and downtown Main Street seemed as good a place as any to start.
First, we needed a control study: How long does it take for an intersection's walk signal to appear when no buttons are pressed? Because the walk signals on all four corners of an intersection work simultaneously (with a few exceptions), the control study was valid only when buttons on all corners went unpressed. And because Hartford's street-crossers apparently care very little about independent intersection studies, much more time was spent on street corners than anticipated.
Our first intersection, Main and Gold streets, consistently produced a "WALK" signal after 67 seconds with no button-pressing. We then tried various manners of button pressing: once immediately after the "DONT WALK" signal appeared; once 30 seconds after it appeared; once every 15 seconds; and then nonstop pressing.
In all cases, the results were the same as when we didn't press anything: "WALK" appeared after 67 seconds. And again, pedestrians had 22 seconds to cross, including the 15-second flashing warning.
Tests of three other intersections produced similar results. Each intersection seemed to operate on an independent schedule (the wait for the walk signal ranged between 58 seconds to 67 seconds). The amount of time the signal allows differed by a second or two among intersections (the fluctuations were found in the flashing warning; the sold green "WALK" signal is universally seven seconds in the city).
Consistently, we found that it didn't matter if we pressed the walk signal button or not.
So, we wondered, what are the buttons for? Props in some elaborate behavioral study, reducing the city's pedestrians to unwitting lab rats?
Ready to blow the lid off the city's mind games, we collected our data and tracked down transportation engineer Kevin Burnham in the city's traffic engineering division.
Oh, yeah, he cheerfully acknowledged: Downtown Main Street buttons don't work between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The walk signals work on a programmed schedule. With the heavy vehicle and foot traffic during the day in that area, he said, fully actuated walk signals could mess things up something bad.
Fair enough. But what about all those people furiously pumping the buttons on Main Street? Have they been wearing their thumbs down for nothing?
"Well, it doesn't hurt," he said. "It's not as if pressing will stop [the signal]." Besides, the buttons in the rest of the city are fully operable at all times.
And, he says, pressing the button - activated or not - is a good habit. The work of studying traffic is never done, and there's always a chance that city officials will one day decide the signals should be fully actuated 24/7. In such a world, the button-pressers will be fully prepared.
And, as it is, pedestrians control their street-crossing destinies from 7:01 p.m. to 6:59 a.m. - at least theoretically. But a quick test of four intersections in downtown Main Street between 8:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. found only one - the intersection of Arch and Main Streets - responded to button pressing. The others seemed to be on the same daytime programmed schedule. Burnham said he didn't know why that would be but that he would look into it.
Our tests elsewhere in the city, though, found that the walk signals worked as they should. At Oak Street and Capitol Avenue, you can't get a "WALK" signal until you press the button. When we did, "WALK" appeared 45 seconds later. A second test produced a "WALK" after 55 seconds.
Some didn't work as fast as we'd like. The Washington/New Britain/Webster intersection took 90 seconds to produce a "WALK." At Capitol and Flower streets, we waited nearly two minutes after pressing to get the go-ahead.
In comparison, the intersection at Main and Capen streets is a street-crosser's dream. It also works on the "no press, no walk" policy. We pressed and, seven seconds later, got our "WALK." It was the fastest response we've found in the city.
The differing times are due to the systems' cycles, Burnham says. Where in the cycle you press the button determines how long it takes.
Our main questions, though, are about those intersections where there are no WALK signal posts - the ones where the button beckons you to "press here for a green light." Three of the four intersections we tested appeared to be operating on preprogrammed schedules. The fourth was hard to tell, as times fluctuated by a few seconds each time. Also, the buttons were positioned in such a way that it's unclear which direction you're pressing the green for.
We told Burnham about this. At least one was due to a malfunction, he said. The others might be "relics" - systems that worked at one time but became obsolete once transportation officials put them on programmed schedules.
In any case, Burnham said, it's not a huge priority for the city, as long as foot and vehicle traffic don't back up at the intersections. As it is, he said, there are very few intersections where there's a traffic light without a walk signal post.
Dawn Simonsen usually presses the buttons before crossing. Like a lot of others we spoke with, she assumed the ones on downtown Main Street always worked. In any case, she said, they give you a sense of doing something. A regular Hartford pedestrian, she considers herself well versed in the city's intersections.
"The best [walk signal] is in front of Hartford Hospital," she said. "That thing is on demand."
And with that, the "WALK" signal flashed, and Simonsen was on her way.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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