Monday, July 07, 2008

Madison's placebo buttons: Do they control traffic, or just create an illusion of control?

Madison's Placebo Buttons
We pass a number of these on the regular route for our bike rides, but of course they're all over town. You know the drill: You push the button, nothing happens, and cars keep coming. You push it again. And again. Nothing happens. Finally, the lights change, cars come to a halt, and you cross the street. But it occurs to you that the walk sign coming on had absolutely nothing to do with your pushing the button. You wonder if it's even connected, or whether it's a placebo button designed to make pedestrians feel they can control their fate, even if they can't really.

I've only come across one exception to this rule: The walk button at Wingra and Fish Hatchery really does work pretty well, bringing even heavy traffic on Fish Hatchery to a halt in a reasonable amount of time. But that only happened after some dedicated biker set up camp at the corner several years ago and collected signatures for a petition. Maybe we need more petitions.


Anonymous said...

They work, but maybe not in the way you think they should or want them to work. Here are some scenarios:

1. Light would turn green for traffic on your street anyway. Pushing button gives you a longer WALK light than you normally would have with a green just for cars. You might not get a walk light at all had you not pushed button. In some cases this makes the difference between being able to cross the street or not. Example: E Washington at Ingersol.

2. There is no cross traffic, and you would never get a green or WALK unless you pushed the button. Wingra at Fish Hatchery might be an example of this. Many streets with heavy traffic will never get a red unless there is cross traffic approaching or someone pushes the walk button. Cars (and sometimes bikes) trigger the light to turn by passing over a detector in the roadway. No cars = no green. You could stand there forever and not get a green unless you pushed the button.

The button does NOT make the cross traffic stop any quicker than would normally happen in case # 1, which is the vast majority of lights. It just gives you a longer crossing time when the cycle comes around. It also doesn't give you a longer time once the green in your direction has already started.

As I said, you may not like the way they work, but they do actually trigger a change in the light cycle. In NYC, they really don't do anything, as they have all been disconnected.

Dr Jay Walker said...

If you really want the heady thrill of "bringing heavy a halt," you should run or pedal into the street AGAINST the light, like Ratso in "Midnight Cowboy." That'll get the rubber screeching. The $64 question, of course, is whether the traffic will stop in time. Frankly, MadGuy, it never occurred to me that you could stop 8 lanes of rush hour traffic by hitting a button. It's not like a doorbell.

Anon, thanks much for the explanation of how these buttons do function. I'm sort of a know-it-all and plan to share this info, so I hope you didn't invent it--although it sounds plausible, and maybe that's what's really important.

Charles J Gervasi said...

The one at PD and Fish Hatchery makes the lights turn red in both directions. I avoid pressing it unless I have to.