Oak Park Will Take a Step Backward by Reinstalling Pedestrian “Beg Buttons”

The Oak Park Village Board and their ironic wallpaper. Photo: Village of Oak Park

The walls of the Oak Park Village Board’s chambers are emblazoned with environmental buzzwords like “Bicycle Friendly,” “Mass Transit,” “LEED Certified,” “Energy Efficient,” and “Clean Air.” So it’s pretty ironic that the board recently voted, in that very room, to make walking harder in order to make driving easier.

Back in 2011, the suburb did the right thing by removing existing walk-signal request buttons at major intersections along Lake Street. Push buttons that make a walk signal appear faster – similar to “induction loops” in the pavement that tell a stoplight when a driver is waiting – are a good thing. But when pushing a button is the only way to get a walk signal at all, as was the case on Lake, the device is disparagingly known as a “beg button,” because it requires pedestrians to ask for permission to cross the street.

Beg buttons are problematic in a number of ways. Unless someone has pushed the button before you arrive at an intersection, you will always have to wait at least a moment before being given the opportunity to cross. If you fail to notice the button, you may wait in vain for a walk signal for a cycle or two before you realize what’s going on. And, since the main purpose of beg buttons is to maximize the length of the green phase for drivers, they send the message that pedestrians are tolerated on the public way, but the real purpose of streets is to move cars.

That’s basically the statement that the village board made yesterday when they voted to reinstall the beg buttons on Lake between Marion Street and Oak Park Avenue. At the meeting, acting village engineer Bill McKenna told the board that bringing back the beg buttons would “decrease traffic congestion,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

I would not actually wish this on drivers
What if there were beg buttons for drivers? Image: Eric Fisher

McKenna noted that, with the current signal phasing, there’s a walk signal phase whether or not a pedestrian is present. “Right now, at 2 a.m., it’s assuming there’s a pedestrian,” he said. Of course there’s little traffic congestion late at night, and plenty of pedestrians need to cross Lake during rush hours, since the street runs between local train stations and business districts.

It appears that McKenna is less interested in decreasing congestion than mitigating drivers’ frustration at having to wait for “unnecessary” reds. Never mind that pedestrians are also required to wait for stoplights at all hours of the day, whether or not cars are present.

After hearing McKenna’s testimony, the board voted in favor of bringing back the beg buttons. On the plus side, they also voted to upgrade walk signals at Marion, Oak Park, Forest and Kenilworth avenues to pedestrian countdown signals, which will increase pedestrian safety and comfort by letting people on foot know how much time they have left to cross. The total price tag for both projects is about $19,500.

Active Transportation Alliance director and Oak Park resident Ron Burke said he’s bummed about the decision to reinstall the buttons. “It’s a disappointing change,” he said. “We don’t support this approach, as it’s not pedestrian-friendly.”

“I hate beg buttons,” commented Streetsblog reader Elliot Mason in the wake of the news. “If your lights are timed properly there are pedestrian walk signals regularly and beg buttons are superfluous. Having grown up in Chicago, they just scream ‘suburbs’ and ‘cars first’ to me.”

  • John

    What pedestrian waits to cross the street if cars aren’t present?

  • skyrefuge

    Not sure why you didn’t take the opportunity to do your own reporting on this rather than just reporting on the minimal story that the Trib reported. The traffic study document is here: http://oak-park.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=533&meta_id=19723 and video of the meeting is here: http://oak-park.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=533 There was actually some discussion about implementing “pedestrian scrambles” that you could have highlighted.

    It seems to me that intersections without pedestrian push buttons are far from optimal, even for pedestrians. The optimal intersection is fully-actuated, and responds intelligently to vehicle AND pedestrian demands from all directions. If the intersection instead simply assumes pedestrians are always present, that unnecessarily-long green-time (to allow non-existent pedestrians time to cross) not only holds the red longer than necessary for cars, it also holds it longer for actual pedestrians wanting to cross the other leg of the intersection. The presentation specifically states that “decreased wait time for pedestrians” will be one of the benefits.

    With the pedestrian push buttons installed, that means the signals will react to both cars and pedestrians; the only difference is that for cars, their “button” is embedded in the road and doesn’t actually have to be pushed. If sensors were used to detect pedestrians (and their desires) instead of buttons, hopefully you could agree that would be the best of all possible worlds?

  • JacobEPeters

    What it sounds like what you’re describing would be if there were push buttons that change the light. Every time the light changed at the intersection so would the pedestrian light, making one direction of traffic (likely along Lake) prioritized, while north south traffic would trigger sensors and require push buttons. Since only one of these intersections is 4 way that would seem to make sense, but from the report I can’t tell if this is actually proposing that.

    However the talk of on demand pedestrian scramble phases would make a ton of sense at Marion, Forest, and Kenilworth. Every time I am in Oak Park I find myself waiting at one of those intersections.

    Oh, offset intersections, how I wish you only existed on curbless pedestrian priority routes.

  • skyrefuge

    The report unfortunately doesn’t detail how exactly they will program the signal algorithm. The key is that once the push button hardware is in place, they have the flexibility to program it however they want, while without it, the algorithm has been blind to that valuable input data. And yeah, since Lake is likely to have longer green phases than the north-south streets, it might make sense to have the walk signals not require a push for the east-west directions, if the green phases are already long enough for safe pedestrian crossing.

    On the pedestrian scramble, engineering recommended against them for two reasons: 1) they’ve generally been used in places where the pedestrian:vehicle ratio is 2:1, while in this area, it’s more like 1:2. And 2) the offset intersections result in some really long diagonals that would just take up too much time for people to cross.

  • Waiting pedestrian

    I do.

  • Fred

    The law abiding and people who may not be fully able bodied at the time. eg, the elderly, the handicapped, the drunk, families with children, me with arms full of groceries.

  • rohmen

    The Lake/Marion intersection is pretty terrible with regards to wait times for pedestrians to cross, so I do buy lowering pedestrian wait times as an actual perceived benefit by the OP council in going this route.

    That said, while I would agree optimizing intersections to respond to demand is important as you note, the way beg button are implemented at least as to OP and Forest Park leaves a lot to be desired.

    People not from the area (and Lake/Marion gets a fair share of tourists often) simply don’t know that you have to hit a beg button to get a walk signal. When my wife and I first moved here, we kept forgetting to trigger the button at intersections in OP and Forest Park (Madison/Circle is a notorious spot) that have them, which meant we waited much longer to cross than we should have. Our bad I guess, but we just weren’t use to them after living in the City for 10 years. So while I get some of the intention behind them in regulating flow, the implementation often just creates a mess.

    Sensors to detect pedestrians would be much, much better, but I’m assuming either the technology just isn’t there yet or the extra cost of sensors pushes cities like OP into going with buttons rather than predictive technology.

  • cmu

    Anybody not from NYC!

  • Matt F

    “Sensors to detect pedestrians would be much, much better, but I’m assuming either the technology just isn’t there yet or the extra cost of sensors pushes cities like OP into going with buttons rather than predictive technology.”

    I spent the summer riding through Europe — The Netherlands have speed sensors for bikes set up across the entire country — it’s pretty sweet. So the technology is there (at least for bikes). It’s gotta be a $$ issue

    In regards to your general rebuttal, I think when you look at total time wasted between peds not knowing how to push a button vs time wasted by peds and cars when the signal is automatic, the case is still pretty clear that buttons are more efficient in general.

  • rohmen

    I don’t know that I can argue much with the idea that beg buttons improve the “flow” of an intersection with regards to the time a user waits to go through the intersection. All I can say from the perspective of a pedestrian who lives in an area that favors using them is that beg buttons lead to messy situations–some of which I think lower the overall safety of pedestrians.

    At the Madison/Circle intersection in Forest Park, for instance, the beg buttons are old, don’t always work well, and are hard to spot. If you don’t hit the button, you don’t get a walk sign, even when the light signal is green in the direction the pedestrian is walking. That creates a situation where pedestrians start to cross the street on a green without a walk signal. Though cars turning left or right should still legally yield the right of way, they often don’t, or start acting in an aggressive matter as if the pedestrian is doing something wrong because they forgot to hit the button and get a walk signal. It’s happened to me–and I’ve seen it happen to others–multiple times.

    The City doesn’t use these often to my knowledge, so why are they deemed so necessary in dense urban suburbs like OP and Forest Park?

  • Matt F

    I bet the response/discussion to the ‘button’ would be completely different if they referred to it positively, like the “pedestrian priority” button instead of the “beg button”

  • Matt F

    well i guess you cant fix stupid.

  • Tony

    Well that’s your problem. You’d think crossing the street requires an act of God. What about all of the gas that is wasted at lights which just cycle and cycle, regardless of traffic?
    Everyone needs to stop crying about this.

  • Alex_H

    People in Germany do this, I was surprised to learn.

  • Anne A

    Switzerland, too.

    When I lived in Concord, NH, peds generally waited for the light. One of the major downtown intersections has had a ped scramble for over 20 years, activated by beg buttons. The wait time is quite short, and the intersection is very popular with peds. On the flipside, drivers wait for peds.

    Traffic enforcement was fierce in downtown Concord. It was nice to live in a place where I could cross downtown streets easily, whether or not I was at a stoplight.

  • cjlane

    “If your lights are timed properly”
    “Having grown up in Chicago”

    Knowing that the lights are rarely timed properly.

    Anyway, *IF* the buttons actually work, then I don’t object to them. The one’s that are just there to encourage people to wait for the signal to cycle are a pain.


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