Bringing Back “Automatic Pedestrian Recall”: How Coronavirus Might Make Walking Easier in the Future

This blog was written by Ian Thomas, America Walks’ State and Local Program Director. Ian is a veteran of the walkable communities movement – he co-founded the PedNet Coalition of Columbia MO, served on the America Walks Board of Directors for seven years until his appointment as our State and Local Program Director in 2014, and serves on the Columbia City Council.

The walk audit had barely started when the first mobility barrier was encountered – the pushbutton for the crosswalk was almost out of reach for the man using a wheelchair.

“But does it matter whether or not we press the button?” someone asked, “Won’t we just get the ‘WALK’ light when the signal turns green for traffic in the same direction anyway?”

A man in a wheelchair reaches to hit the pedestrian crossing button during a walk audit.
Photo Credit: Carrie Turner, @carrieturnerphotography

Well, the answer is “No, in general.”  Even though the safe and proper time for a pedestrian traveling north to cross the side street is during the signal phase that allows north- and south-bound vehicles to proceed, most systems require a pedestrian to push the button.  I’ll let you ponder why the signal controller is designed that way, for a minute.

Now, in the time of coronavirus, public pushbuttons take on a new dimension.  As Don Kostelec pointed out to engineers with the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation (NCDOT) last week, the virus can survive up to 3 days on stainless steel and plastic – the main components of pedestrian push button surfaces,” and licensed professional engineers are bound by a code of ethics to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.’”  

Putting these facts together, Don (who works as a planner) asked NCDOT engineers to improve public safety and health by re-setting signal controllers in Asheville to “pedestrian recall” mode – meaning that the ‘WALK’ light be activated automatically on every cycle – and installing a notice informing pedestrians that they do not need to touch the pushbutton.  Responding by email just a couple of days later, Anna Henderson, Division Traffic Engineer with NCDOT, wrote “Thank you for sharing this request.  After consultation with our Raleigh folks, we have determined that ped. recall can be considered.”  She went on to say, “We are starting the implementation today in the Central Business District to provide consistency for the downtown area pedestrians.  When complete, we will begin implementing the ped. recall on Haywood Road.”

A sign on a pedestrian crossing button reads "Don't push the button" in North Carolina.
Photo Credit: N.C. Dept. of Transportation

In response, Don commended NCDOT, stating that “this is an incredible and noteworthy example of an agency responding to these unique times and willing to try something,” and asked America Walks to share the story more widely.  A little research revealed that two cities in Massachusetts are making the same adjustments.  According to this Boston Globe article, Brookline Transportation Administrator Todd M. Kirrane said town public works personnel reprogrammed more than 300 pedestrian buttons at 55 signals, while Cambridge Director of Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Joseph Barr said the city was in the process of making the switch and installing temporary signs. Barr also noted people with visual impairments may still need to press the button to activate the audible pedestrian signal at locations where that feature is installed.

Finally, let’s return to the question of why the default mode for thousands of signal controllers across the country is to require pedestrians to push the button. … Well, as is so often the case in road system design, the decision is driven by the desire to minimize delay for vehicles.  When an intersection is set to automatic pedestrian recall and, on a given cycle, there are only one or two vehicles and no pedestrians crossing north and south, the system controller misses out on the opportunity to save a few seconds of delay for the east-west vehicles.

However, some cities already use “pedestrian recall” for intersections with a lot of walkers, and NCDOT’s Anna Henderson says that engineers “have seen significant reductions in traffic volumes” during the pandemic and “do not believe delays to traffic are substantial.” They will be evaluating these locations and “may consider leaving them on ped. recall permanently.”