Toronto

Ever wonder why this button doesn't always work? We've got the answer

They're a big part of daily life in Toronto, but pedestrian push buttons may not work quite the way you think they do.

Pedestrian crossing buttons at many Toronto intersections only for the visually impaired

CBC reporter Shannon Martin explains why the crosswalk button doesn't always work. 1:58

They're a big part of daily life in Toronto, but pedestrian push buttons may not work quite the way you think they do.

A recent report by the New York Times revealed crosswalk buttons in Manhattan were deactivated more than a decade ago. That's when the Big Apple brought in computer-controlled traffic signals, leaving pedestrians pushing buttons for a whole lot of nothing.

That's true in Toronto, too — kind of.

"There's no need to push a button at this intersection," said Linda Lee, a senior engineer with the city's traffic management centre, as she stood one of Toronto's busiest intersections — Don Mills Road and Overlea Boulevard.

Linda Lee, a senior engineer with the city's traffic management centre, says the sole purpose of many pedestrian crossing buttons is to help people with visual impairments. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

The light signals at Don Mills and Overlea run on a "fixed time" mode, meaning they cycle automatically. While the lights may be automatic, there are bright yellow pedestrian push buttons installed on all four street corners. 

Lee says the buttons really only serve one purpose — to help people with visual impairments. Holding the button for three or more seconds sets off audible cues — chirping signals crossing is safe for east-west, cuckoo for north-south.

Of the city's 2325 traffic signals, about 30 per cent operate automatically. 

Linda Lee discusses Toronto's traffic management system with CBC Toronto's Shannon Martin at Don Mills Road and Overlea Boulevard - one of Toronto's busiest intersections. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

The majority run in a "semi-actuated' mode," which is good news for pedestrians in a rush.

At smaller intersections, where a busy street meets a not-so-busy street, pedestrians must push the button. Otherwise you could be left waiting unnecessarily, or at least until a vehicle triggers a sensor in the road.

"You don't need to hit it 10 times," Lee said. "[Push it]just once for it to take effect."

And while it may seem sometimes like you're still left waiting forever to cross, Lee says the average wait time at crosswalks is two minutes.

Anyone who's crossed a major intersection in Toronto has seen these big yellow and black buttons. But many won't get you across the street any faster. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

About the Author

Shannon Martin

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shannon is an award-winning reporter with CBC Toronto. She was part of the core team that launched "No Fixed Address", a hugely popular series on millenials renting and buying in Toronto. In 2016, Shannon hosted a special live broadcast on-air and on Facebook simultaneously from Toronto Pride, which won top honours in the Digital category at the RTDNA awards. Contact Shannon: shannon.martin@cbc.ca or find her on Instagram at @ShannonMartinTV.