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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Crosswalks: Some buttons work, others don't

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Go ahead, push that button. Just don't expect to get across the street any quicker.

It's one of those things kids love to do, but pushing the crosswalk button at most Honolulu intersections won't make the light change any faster.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Most of those little "walk" buttons at hundreds of intersections in Honolulu won't speed up the time it takes for a traffic light to change, city officials say.

"Yeah, that's what I figured," said Malcolm Donaldson, a visitor from San Francisco who recently pushed a walk button as he waited to get across Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. "I always push, though, because it's worth taking a chance."

Pushing the walk button in many instances will light up a "walk" sign or icon. In some cases, pushing the button also extends the time allotted to cross the street.

However, pushing the button at 35 percent of all intersections (especially in Waikiki and other high-pedestrian areas), doesn't do anything. The lights will change and the walk signs will come on at predetermined intervals, no matter what.

In those cases, the buttons serve only as what the New York Times recently called a "mechanical placebo," something to make you feel better without actually doing anything.

Still, at intersection after intersection throughout O'ahu, people push the walk button, even when they know, or at least suspect, that it doesn't help.

"If it wasn't there I wouldn't push it, but I do," said Chaminade University student Elizabeth Kirk. "I did it a million times when I was a kid, and I guess that's why I still do."

Gregory Pongracz, a Maui resident visiting Honolulu recently, said he always pushes the buttons in places where he is unfamiliar with the local traffic patterns.

"Sometimes you wait forever if you don't push and sometimes you don't know if there's a light for left turn people that you can't see," he said. "The button is there, so you might as well push it."

People press the button for the same reason they keep going to Las Vegas, even when they know the odds are against them, said Ed Chronicle, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

"The buttons provide an expectation that something will happen, so you keep pressing even if you have a suspicion they don't work," he said. "Besides, the cost to you is minimal so you might as well do it."

There's always the chance that the walk signal will make a difference, too.

"It's called intermittent reinforcement," said Rich Langford, a psychology professor at Chaminade University. "Sometimes the light is just about to change when you push the button so you feel like you've accomplished something."

Sometimes you do.

In front of Honolulu Hale, pushing the walk button at certain times of the day will hold back traffic in two lanes waiting to make a left turn from Punchbowl Street. When no one pushes the walk button, however, the left-turn traffic begins immediately.

One Waikiki resident said he is convinced that pushing the button at the corner of Kuhio Avenue and Ka'iulani Avenue made a difference. He was right.

During an hour-long period on a recent weekday avenue, the light to cross Kuhio Avenue at the intersection lasted about 25 seconds when the walk button was pushed. Those who tried to cross the street on a green traffic light without pushing the button got only 15 seconds.

"It's the difference between Type A and Type B personalities," Langford said. "The Type A person, more conscious of time, is probably going to be the one consistently jamming on the button."

There was a time when pushing the button made sense for everyone.

In the 1960s, many cities, including Honolulu, began installing what engineers call "semi-actuated signals," those that are designed to detect the presence of a pedestrian or a car (usually on a side street) and change the timing of a signal accordingly.

Those generally worked well until the 1980s, when the increasing number of cars on cross streets and the number of pedestrians throughout urban areas caused the signals to be tripped repeatedly, slowing traffic on major streets.

"The idea was that as streets became more and more congested, it didn't make sense to stop all the cars for one person or automobile," said Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawai'i engineering professor who works on traffic problems.

With more than 1 million cars registered in the state today, a centralized computer system, which can adjust the timing of lights throughout the day to meet different conditions, is the only practical way to keep traffic flowing, he said.

Generally, traffic engineers use a formula that gives pedestrians one second for every four feet of roadway they have to cross, plus an additional four to seven seconds for extra safety, officials said.

So someone crossing a standard four-lane street would normally receive 14 to 17 seconds to make it across, whether the button was pushed or not.

There are scattered locations in Honolulu where the buttons still do change the timing of traffic signal, especially at night and in places where the walk light won't come on unless the button is pushed or a car trips a sensor. Other button-activated lights occur in mid-block locations, like the one recently put up on King Street in front of McKinley High School.

City officials say it would probably cost more money to remove the non-working buttons than it's worth.

Besides, people really do seem to enjoy pushing the button.

Those who press the buttons out of habit are following an ages-old pattern of behavior, Chronicle said. "It's part of our evolution to do something and expect a result," he said.

In the long run, when people learn there is little link between pressing the button and changing the timing of the light, they'll probably stop pressing the buttons, he said.

"One thing I know for sure," said Cheryl Soon, the city's director of transportation services. "Pushing once is enough. No matter how many more times you push the button, it won't make a difference."

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.