If you haven’t heard the name before, beg buttons are the push-buttons you have to activate in order to get a walk signal allowing a pedestrian to cross the street. There has been much written about them and how they really are one more instance of our circulation systems prioritizing vehicles at the expense of pedestrians. Cars get to move on a green light that cycles on a regular basis, but pedestrians have to ‘beg’ to be allowed to cross the street. They also create more of an opportunity for conflict between car drivers and pedestrians as I’ve learned twice in the past several months.
The first episode occurred on Main Street at Bodega Avenue in downtown Sebastopol. I was walking down Main Street, almost to the intersection when the light turned green. I was steps away from the beg button, but did not reach it in time and while the light was green, I was facing a red hand. Because I cross this intersection regularly I knew I had plenty of time to cross the street. I entered the intersection, after making sure the coast was clear. Part way through the intersection, I could see a truck out of the corner of my eye. Someone was turning right, onto Bodega, and was inching towards me. Close enough in the end that I could have reached out and touched the hood of the pick-up truck. An older gentleman yelled out the window, ‘Do you see the red hand?!’ I responded by shouting ‘Do you see the green light?!’ Then proceeded on my way, delaying the driver for about 3 seconds.
The California Vehicle code requires cars to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. However, the California Vehicle Code does also have a section that states pedestrians are not supposed to enter an intersection when it says ‘Wait,’ ‘Don’t Walk’ or you have the red hand, or whatever other symbol is supposed to keep you from stepping off the sidewalk. It is not clear which requirement you have to follow when you have a crosswalk with a green light and a red hand.
If the pedestrian signal simply changed with the traffic light, then clearly I would have been allowed to be in the crosswalk. The beg button is what actually prevents this from happening.
A very similar scenario happened to me a couple of months later. I was crossing another intersection in downtown Sebastopol, just a block away from the previous encounter. I was crossing the same street, Bodega Avenue at Petaluma Avenue. Again, I just missed pushing the beg button, but knew that I had time to cross. Actually with this light’s timing, I probably could have crossed that street 3 times before the light turned red. I looked to make sure no one was turning and made eye contact with the driver of the car about to make a left turn who was patiently waiting. Mid-way through the intersection I heard a horn. I glanced back, suspecting it was the pick-up truck behind the first car (why is it always a pick-up truck?!). Sure enough, I got to the other side, the first car turned behind me, the driver of the pick-up truck, which went straight through the intersection, slowed down enough as he passed me to yell ‘Did you see the red hand?!’ to which I again responded ‘Did you see the green light?!’ but he had already moved on and I’m sure could have cared less anyway. Again, I delayed the cars for a few extra seconds. But realistically, when driving in a downtown location like this, you have to expect pedestrians to be crossing the street.
If this intersection did not have a beg button, but simply allowed pedestrians to walk when the light turned green, it would have prevented this shouting, and prevented the blood pressure rise of two people. Beg buttons needlessly create these conflict points.
I will commend Sebastopol’s downtown pedestrian signals in that if you do activate the beg button, the pedestrian walk sign allows pedestrians to start crossing before the traffic light turns green. This is officially called a ‘leading pedestrian interval.’ and it provides a pedestrian a chance to start into the crosswalk before cars start to move improving visibility and hopefully conflict. But this should just occur automatically in a busy downtown intersection, without making pedestrians beg to cross the street. Some of the intersections also have verbal instructions which is helpful for the visually disabled.
Beg buttons are another example of cars getting priority at the expense of pedestrians. We should abolish the use of beg buttons, particularly at busy intersections with a lot of regular pedestrian traffic.