204. Writing & Critical Analysis 995. Physical Computing

Push to cross: power and access [Part 1 of 2]

You likely have seen the push-to-cross buttons scattered across various crosswalks in NYC.

The functionality and effectiveness of these buttons is often challenged, and with good reason. The primary reason is because most of them are not even connected to the system that governs the traffic lights! As originally reported by the New York Times in 2004:

Β “…the city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals. More than 2,500 of the 3,250 walk buttons that were in place at the time existed as mechanical placebos.”

Despite the lack of functionality, many of these buttons still stand, and naturally people still push them; either because they are unaware the buttons don’t work, or they just don’t care. The Times continues its report by describing the placebo effect people can feel from interaction with this button, along with other common things like an elevator’s ‘door close’ button, or the thermostat in an office building.

In this case the button is not a carefully designed ‘placebo effect generator’, it is simply a relic from an antiquated traffic system that was not worth it to be removed.

As such, this button can be viewed as either a positive or negative externality, depending on your world view. While the opinion of Chris CrawfordΒ might be that this doesn’t even count as an interaction, I find this type of thing to be a harmless quirk of the system that generates a [pick your favorite]:

  • meaningless interaction
  • time-passing activity
  • fruitless expense of energy / entropy
  • desperate form of self expression
  • heat sink of efficiency and attention

… just like so many other little interactions and pleasantries we engage in every day.

By the numbers, Citylab reports that this interaction will last for an average maximum of 30 seconds before a pedestrian will try to jay walk, meaning that this interaction has a limited lifespan. In this way, I find it to be harmless, and would wager that the total interaction time in NYC is even shorter as people eagerly imperil themselves to get somewhere quickly.

With this time-limit in mind, I’m curious to know if you would want (or even care) about an implementation of new buttons that actually worked – i.e. sent a signal to the traffic system that you wanted to cross now. Would it actually help traffic flow? Would it prevent you from jay walking if the opportunity presented itself?

It turns out there are still some working buttons.Β You have probably already seen them as well. Read more about them in part 2: …continue to part 2

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