World full of useless placebo buttons


There are some intersections here in Toronto that will turn to orange, counting down to red on the crosswalk signal, and then switch back to green at the last second. I’ve found that in these situations, the crossing button will prevent the lights from double looping like this. I can’t confirm this, since I don’t know what triggers the double loop, but it does tend to be on larger streets that intersect with small side streets. The city clearly prioritizes traffic on the larger street, and provides the button to give priority back to the pedestrian crossing perpendicularly to the main flow.

I think these specific buttons are not placebo. There may not be a 1-1 correspondence between pushing and having the lights change, but I think they do prevent the double loop.


I also think there are some that only work certain times of day. For example, after midnight many traffic lights stop cycling until there’s an actual car or pedestrial to cycle for. Also, the “close door” button works for firefighters.


Yes, “placebo buttons” are a popular topic, but usually the articles overstate their case somewhat. The real versions of these buttons certainly exist and aren’t even that rare. Sometimes this is obscured a bit because the rules aren’t so obvious. For example, I have seen trams that open all doors automatically in summer, but open them only on demand in winter. Or people dismiss traffic light buttons because they don’t switch the lights after a fixed time even though that would wreak havoc with coordinated traffic lights in cities. However many traffic lights do skip turns if nobody presses a button.


I’ve never assumed that the “Walk” buttons have any effect on the light cycle itself. What they DO do at many intersections, however, is trigger the actual “WALK” signal when the light turns green. If you don’t press that button, the red hand remains displayed, even when the light turns green.


Here in Graz, Austria, I’ve only encountered two types of traffic light buttons:

a) The ones that trigger a walk signal sooner or later (ever since a right-wing party entered the coalition city government, the delays have tripled).

b) The ones that double the volume of an audible signal for the visually impaired.

Since that’s the difference between getting to your destination and being hassled by some anal-retentive cop and paying a fine, I’d say that’s a pretty damn big effect.

YMMV, but as a runner I can tell you that some crosswalk buttons can trigger a light change. Years of experience around my neighborhood have shown some high-traffic intersections will happily stay green in a single direction until cross traffic (even a lone pedestrian clicking a button) is present. Around some schools we also have traffic lights that are ONLY triggered by pedestrians.

These do exist. In the US, they are not placed in order to be useless, though. The vast majority of the useless ones are former buttons that have been disconnected, and there’s no point in removing them.

You can see this easily in Manhattan where there are essentially no buttons.

However, my friend is an urban planner and he says the biggest problem with crossing buttons is that they are inconsistent and do not tell people what they’re going to do. There are two kinds:

  1. Initiate a light cycle

These hijack the regular process and will begin flashing the “do not walk” sign on the cross street, or, if no cross street, will start the countdown towards a light change (it can’t just flash yellow and then red for obvious traffic reasons, since lights are often coordinated with other lights nearby. These are the most obvious, and are usually what people expect when they press the button.

  1. Extend the “walk” signal.

These buttons extend the “walk” signal for a set period of time, determined by planners based on the time of day and type of intersection. For some intersections, this may be the difference between seeing a legit “walk” signal and having the walk signal skipped. The idea is that someone who really wants to cross the street is just going to walk, and will make it. People who need more time and are waiting for the light to change will press the button, and get a walk signal that gives them more time to cross. This option is also the most frustrating for people who figure there’s no point in pressing the button, only to find that the intersection is set up so that if the button isn’t pressed, the walk signal doesn’t show and the cycle is optimized towards turning vehicles.

Usually a city will adopt either 1 or 2, but many cities do not put buttons at every light-controlled intersection even though most SHOULD show walk signals. It depends on a lot of factors – is a corridor better suited to keep a set schedule to optimize traffic, or to allow for pedestrians to more easily cross busy intersections?

I’m not saying you’re wrong, but if that’s true, it’s one of the most banal electoral consequences I’ve ever heard of.

Just knowing that futzing with walk signal delay times was on someone’s ideological to-do list is much more depressing than having to wait at a crosswalk in the first place.

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I’ve seen that some street lights with the pushbutton have also a PIR sensor installed. If there’s no one under the sensor the pedestrian green is skipped totally. If the traffic light is not at a veichular intersection.

I used to enjoy commuting through London - every single day you’d see someone hammering the ‘Open doors’ button on the tube. The driver opens the doors.

I wonder if they were ever hooked up?

(this probably isn’t a placebo button though, just a design feature that became redundant).

The thing I find odd is that despite knowing all this information, I still cannot help but push a button multiple times.


Indeed :smile:

It fits very well with the different party ideologies however - and in the end, one political party gets to put someone in charge of the office that does the traffic planning. And somebody has to decide who to inconvenience more, the motorists or the pedestrians. There is no objectively perfect solution.

What makes it worse is that “trafffic planning” is not the most prestigious job in the city government, so it has a high chance of going to a junior partner in a coalition government. So even though the mayor stayed the same at our 2012 election, the traffic office went from the left end of the political spectrum to the right end…

And it’s not as if any really important stuff happens in city politics. At least not here in Austria.

And on the main topic again, I can also vouch for our tramway door buttons here in Graz. To the best of my knowledge, they have not been politically meddled with, and if nobody presses them, the door will not open. A bus might even skip a stop if no one is at the stop and no one has pressed a button.

I wonder how long it takes the average person who visits another city to notice. It sounds as if there are some places where it’s a reasonably safe assumption that a button is just placebo. Do I have to be ready to help British tourists who get stranded at intersections or trapped in tramways when they visit Graz?

I now equate pressing the “press button for WALK signal” button to saying a prayer.

The assumption at work is that the thermostats are a variation on this…There’s a “+” and a “-” on the dials but nobody thinks that they have any effect whatsoever.


I can confirm that they work in my town. If not pressed, the white WALK sign may be skipped. If the button is then pushed during the normal time, the WALK sign may come on instantly, and stay on for the rest of its normal time.

I’m not sure about calling these buttons “placebos”; after all, the point about placebo medicines is not that they don’t work, it’s that they do work even though they shouldn’t.

Those damned things bewilder and frustrate me to no end. I’m a non-driver and walk a lot, so I have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of all the buttons around my city and their stupid, inconsistent behaviours.

For one, there is an astonishing number of different designs: There are tiny electronic sensor-looking things, huge clunky metal half-balls (that stop working altogether every few days), red elevator-style push buttons, pads with no buttons but flat sensors (that may or may not actually work, I still can’t tell) and lately some plastic boxes with huge yellow buttons have made an appearance (I’m sure they’ll break soon; they’re really cheap-looking). I’m actually impressed that there are companies that create bazillions of different crossing buttons, and weirded out but the fact that the City can’t ever settle on which one it likes. This plethora sucks because you’re not sure what to do after a while: Push, swipe, wave or kung-fu punch this time?

Next is the issue where some buttons operate the cross sign parallel to the street you want to cross while for others it’s perpendicular. Hi, City of Gatineau, could we make up our minds on that?

Last but definitely what drives me most up the lamp post is that while some buttons do nothing some must be pushed to get a pedestrian cross signal at all. Again, I wish they’d make up their minds: Whether the buttons do something or nothing at all, couldn’t they just all do the same thing? Why the hell not?


If you ride the commuter rail in London you get to see the opposite. Commuters standing dumbly in front of a closed door, ignoring the open button that they actually do need to press to get off the train.

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I really hope that, one day, we will find an accommodation for them which isn’t so fucking annoying.

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