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Crosswalk Buttons Don't Do Anything! Except When They Do

This button, at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and St. Paul Street, triggers a walk sign 24 hours a day. A lot of buttons in Boston don't. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

This button, at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and St. Paul Street, triggers a walk sign 24 hours a day. A lot of buttons in Boston don't. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

BOSTON — When you’re waiting to cross the street, do you press that little button to request a walk sign? I do, but I’ve always been suspicious of it, especially in Boston.

The buttons around here (you know, the spherical metal knobs) always feel broken to me; not very springy and always a little out of alignment in the socket. And of course, they don’t beep or light up or do anything else to visibly register your input.

Sure, I eventually get a walk sign, but I feel like I usually do even when I don’t hit the button.

So, does the button do anything or not? I asked John DeBenedictis, director of engineering at the Boston Transportation Department, and the answer is surprisingly complicated. It all depends on when and where you hit that button.

“Downtown district, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, et cetera … Financial District. Most of them are automatically set for pedestrian call during the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” DeBenedictis told me.

That means the pedestrian walk signal is automatically part of the traffic light cycle during those hours. If you’ve ever frantically flipped the button on the way to your noon meeting at the Hancock Tower, you were wasting calories, my friend.

“It’s not going to hurt anything,” he said. “But it’s not going to put a call in, because the call has been automatically made through our traffic signal control system.”

What’s more, the system governs every single intersection in the city independently. Each one has its own rules.

WBUR Map: Boston's 'Placebo' Crosswalk Buttons

Over at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street, the pedestrian buttons are ineffective between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 to 6 on the weekends. At the corner of Washington and Newton in the South End, the buttons don’t do anything until after 11 at night. At Stuart and Dartmouth in the Back Bay, the buttons never do anything. Ever. Neither do the ones at Mass. Ave and Columbus, or Dartmouth and Huntington.

So, why not just leave the button on all the time?

“It’s a numbers game,” DeBenedictis told me. “We know that there are going to be pedestrians at virtually every single cycle during the day (at certain intersections),” so he figures it’s more convenient to just put the signals on an automatic cycle, and turn the buttons off. People get a walk sign whether they ask for it or not.

Logical as this system may sound, it drives some people crazy, like my friend Ken Kruckemeyer, transportation consultant and a longtime booster of biking and walking.

“The cars don’t have to push a button,” he told me. “They’re automatically acknowledged by the system to have a right to go when it’s their turn. People ought to be given that option also.”

To illustrate his point, Kruckemeyer took me to his most hated intersection in all of Boston: the corner of Park and Tremont streets, right outside Park Street Station. When we met there during a recent evening rush hour, the walk button on the southeast corner of the intersection was hidden behind newspaper boxes, and no one seemed to be looking for it.

“It probably shows that people have learned here that pushing the button doesn’t make a darn bit of difference,” Kruckemeyer said. “And that’s one of the really confusing things in Boston. Sometimes it does make a difference; you’ll never get a walk light unless you push it. So, we have all kinds of different things going on but there’s no feedback from the button that tells you anything so you know what to do.”

All over the country, pedestrian advocates like Kruckemeyer have been opposed to these buttons for years, not just because they can be confusing. These groups argue that a button functions as a placebo: Like a little stress toy, it provides a place for walkers to channel their frustrations as they wait … and wait.

This leads me to the real reason Ken Kruckemeyer hates the intersection of Park and Tremont. “93 percent of the time you’re faced with a ‘don’t walk’ sign, or a flashing ‘don’t walk,’” he said.

The traffic light cycle there is 100 seconds, which is a little long for a downtown intersection in a city like Boston. (Most of the cycles in Manhattan last 90 seconds, and cycles in Philadelphia are usually 60.)

Kruckemeyer and I waited for our walk sign, and almost as soon as we started to cross, the pedestrian signal started flashing “Don’t Walk.”

This is one of the busiest intersections in the city for pedestrians, with about 20,000 Red and Green Line riders popping down to the T station everyday. And even with the walk signal on an automatic cycle—which is supposed to help walkers—pedestrians only get a seven-second walk sign, followed by an 11-second flashing “Don’t Walk.” Cars get the remaining 82 seconds all to themselves.

These groups argue that a button functions as a placebo: Like a little stress toy, it provides a place for walkers to channel their frustrations as they wait … and wait.

Kruckemeyer says the long light cycle, tiny walk period, and iffy pedestrian buttons make this intersection and dozens like it in Boston the worst of all worlds for pedestrians.

But as is so often the case, everything is different on the other side of the river.

In Cambridge, a walk button will always “make sure that the walk phase that you’re asking for doesn’t get skipped,” Cambridge transportation director Susan Clippinger told me.

Clippinger’s office is around the corner from my place in Central Square, and when we went for a walk the other day we actually had trouble finding a pedestrian button to talk about.

“Generally we try not to do the button,” she said. “The button is a thing that allows you to give vehicles more time.”

And prioritizing vehicles is not what they’re all about in Cambridge.

What they are all about is keeping the whole light cycle brief. So, you may still get a really short walk sign like the one that annoys Ken Krukemeyer over by Park Street, but at least you’ll get it more often.

“So we’re not being pedestrian-friendly by necessarily making a walk long longer than it needs to be,” Clippinger said. “What we’re doing is trying to make the time when you can’t walk shorter, because that’s the time when it’s most annoying.”

I told Radio Boston host Meghna Chakrabarti about all this as we waited to cross the street at the corner of Longwood and Brookline Ave.

“It’s during that annoying time when I and, I suspect, many other Bostonians start to contemplate committing a crime,” she says.


“Yes,” she says. “And now when I’m in downtown Boston, I’m never going to know if pressing the walk button did anything, so I’ll feel like I have no choice but to take matters into my own hands.”

Herein lies one of the arguments against pedestrian buttons, especially buttons that are only effective some of the time. The theory goes: Any time people feel like they don’t understand the system, they’re more likely to give up on the system and cross whenever they can, walk sign or not.

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  • L. Spencer

    Finally a story about one of my all-time pet peeves!

    I have long thought that walk buttons exemplify all that is bad in user-interface design. What really drives me nuts is that there not adequate feedback to let you know you’ve pressed the button hard enough, or that the button works at all. That’s why you *never* see someone press the button just once. They *always* press over and over again like a maniac. How hard would it be to make the button respond with a beep or at least a click? Better yet would be an LED countdown.

    And now I read that my darkest suspicions have been true all along: much of the time the buttons do absolutely nothing. I’m not at all surprised.

    Usually, I cross intersections without pressing the button. If I were to press it, I’m afraid of one of two things happening. (A) It will do nothing and I’ll wait forever. (B) I will press it and, suspecting I might have situation (A) on my hands, I’ll walk across moments before the walk light finally comes on, thus aggravating all the motorists as they’re forced to sit there during my unused walk light. Usually, I can get across the street perfectly well without the light, and that’s what I do.

  • Charlie

    Requiring pedestrians to press a button in order to get a walk signal would be like making the traffic signal red in all directions until a car pulls up. However, in reality, vehicles automatically get a green in one direction or another (except of course during an all-cross pedestrian phase). The chances of getting a green light in a vehicle is almost always > 0, however, in many cases for pedestrians it is almost guaranteed to be 0 (unless someone happened to arrive ahead of you and pressed the button).

    Also, it seems a bit counter intuitive to require pedestrians to press a button during off-peak hours, since those are the times when there are fewer vehicles on the road, and even less of a need to maximize green time for traffic capacity reasons.

    Cambridge’s practice of not even providing buttons in the first place and making the walk phase automatic makes a lot of sense, and actually works quite well. One can clearly observe that far fewer pedestrians jaywalk in Cambridge as compared to Boston, I suspect because they know that they will always get a walk signal without too much of a delay and without having to press a button.

    An alternate solution at off-peak hours, when traffic volumes are particularly low, is to make signals flash red/red or red/yellow with walk signals disabled. Pedestrians could then cross at any time (similar to an intersection with stop signs in one or both directions), and as a secondary benefit vehicles would not have to wait any longer than necessary before proceeding.

  • ursonate

    After 15 years in pedestrian-centric NYC, 3 years in car-centric Texas, and 2 years here I am completely dumbfounded by the crosswalks of Boston. Whether or not they are actually automated, they are timed horribly. I find myself competing with busses that ignore red lights on the corner of new Chardon and Congress on a daily basis. Nevermind if there are pedestrians in the street.

    Ugh, once I start ranting on this, I can’t stop. What’s up with Boston drivers that stop at green lights when you are waiting to cross the street expecting me to walk into oncoming traffic, but don’t bother stopping at red lights when the pedestrian has the right of way??? Being a pedestrian in Boston is like Bizzarro world!

  • C. Harder

    The other issue with the Boston walk lights is that drivers ignore the fact that pedestrians have the right of way. For example at the corner of Huntington and Belvidere, there is a walk light built into the cycle, but for crossing Belivedere it’s safer to wait until the parallel traffic on Huntington has a red light and the people on Belvidere have green. If you try to cross with the walk light, you’re liable to get run down by the people turning right from Huntington onto Belvidere; there’s never a time when you have a walk light and there is no conflicting traffic.

    And then, of course, there are the walk lights in places like Dartmouth St. in front of Back Bay station. There is no cross street. The light exists only for pedestrians. Every day I see cars run the red light. I’ve seen cars run the light when there were already pedestrians in the cross walk. I’ve heard cars blasting their horns at pedestrians who were crossing with the light.

    And finally, there are the places where pressing the button does get you a walk light, but only by stopping all car traffic in all directions. Do people like Mr. DeBenedictis actually believe that that’s an efficient way to move people? In civilized cities pedestrians are taken into account from the beginning when traffic lights are being programmed. They’re not treated as aberrations that have to be accommodated somehow. When you get to an intersection you know that within a minute or two you’ll have a chance to cross in whichever direction you need to. And you know that the drivers are aware of it, aware of the fact that they’ll have their own turn, and aware of the fact that trying to run you down isn’t going to get them where they’re going any faster. You can see that in Seattle, New York, Atlanta, as far away as Berlin and as close as Cambridge. So what’s up with Boston?

  • John

    I hate when I have to wait in an island to cross and wait for each direction of traffic separately. They should be timed for a single crossing.

  • rich

    This stupid system is made by a bunch of geeks in some labs who never go outside and who never understand the concept of human interaction!!

  • Jody

    I am not a fan of the set-times (7AM-7PM), automatic pedestrian walk cycles at more complex intersections with limited visibility such as Charles and Beacon Street near the Boston Common. This is the intersection where the two, opposing one-way traffic lanes of Charles St meet and Beacon St turns from two-way to one way traffic. First, this is a high pedestrian traffic area with pedestrians waiting to cross at each light rotation every day until well after midnight. Second, there are 5 traffic signals for vehicles traveling in 5 different directions. Third, pedestrians’ visibility of oncoming traffic is limited. Exiting the Boston Common a pedestrian must strain to make sure cars stop at the light heading up Beacon (cars run this right turn only light frequently) and may fail to notice that the walk sign did not light up and risk being struck by cars entering the crosswalk as they turn from Charles onto Beacon the opposite direction. Confused? Just try crossing there. Be careful too – there have been a few collisions as well. The traffic engineers need to get out of their ‘ivory towers’ and pound the pavement to reassess their system.

  • Adam Ragusea

    C. Harder,

    Interesting to read what you have to say about exclusive walk phases (i.e. “there are the places where pressing the button does get you a walk light, but only by stopping all car traffic in all directions”).

    John DeBenedictis told me Boston is moving away from that model in most locations and going with concurrent walk phases instead (i.e. you walk when the cars moving parallel to you get their green light).

    The problem with concurrent signals is exactly the one you describe at Huntington and Belvidere, where conflicts occur between pedestrians crossing on the walk sign and cars turning on the green light.

    Sue Clippinger told me they try to get around this in Cambridge by giving walkers a “leading interval.” Basically, the walk sign comes on a few seconds before the concurrent traffic light turns green. That gives pedestrians a head start, and lets them “own” the crosswalk before cars get the opportunity to cross into it.

  • Ned Shamon

    Great story! Please, Boston, follow Cambridge’s (also NYC’s) model.

    Boston mismanages its pedestrian traffic light system to a very large extent and doesn’t even know what its settings are. For example, the information supplied by the city and protrayed on the Google Map is inaccurate. For example, CLINTON & RAMP CS-SA & SURFACE SB is identified as PED RECALL for 1 hour late at night, 10-11PM (a rediculous setting!). I live next to intersection and know its on PED RECALL all day. Yet for 2 of 4 crosswalks at the intersection, a DONT WALK is shown during each light cycle when ALL auto traffic is RED. Pedestrians stand there staring at stopped cars. Mismangement.
    I could go on and on with other examples.

    • Adam Ragusea


      I noticed that one AM/PM typo in the city’s data when we were dumping it into google maps. Of course, since I couldn’t be absolutely sure that it was a typo, I elected to just display the data as provided. If we can spot a couple other irregularities I might go back to the city for some follow-up.

  • NFG

    I think Cambridge is on the right track as far as this goes. It’s a good way of accomodating all who use the public ways. One real pet peeve of mine is when cars block the crosswalk, either while turning on red or when they simply ignore the stop line. A simple soloution to that problem is what they do in Germany and some other European countries: The traffic signals are aligned with the stop lines (and are usually placed between the stop line and crosswalk), so that cars have to stop at or before the stop line in order to see the signal, also pedestrians will pay more attention to the walk signal than the traffic signal, since it is more visible from the crosswalk than the traffic signal.

  • MarkB

    I’m not sure what the problem is. Pedestrians automatically get their light – there’s no need of a button if traffic is going to be stopped for you automatically. Do you want to eliminate automatic cycling of red lights? Or do you want timed red lights, AND the ability to stop traffic on call? So as soon as cars get their green light, some Nimrod hits the button and traffic stops after ten seconds of driving? Please remember, every time that red light comes on, CO2 comes pouring out of the vehicle exhausts, doing nothing to get people where they want to go. Which means more global warming. So more car stops means destroying the planet. Please keep that in consideration when you’re bitching about waiting another five seconds on the sidewalk. The world does not revolve around you.

    • Adam Ragusea


      I think you raise some terrific arguments. I just wanted to chime in and clear up how the button affects the cycle in Boston (during the hours in which the button is operating, of course). Hitting the button won’t stop traffic on demand, per se. What it will do is insert a walk phase into the cycle. So, take the intersection of Park and Tremont. Phase 1 is the greenlight for the cars on Park, Phase 2 is the greenlight for Tremont, and Phase 3 is the exclusive pedestrian walk. If you’re there at night when the button is on, the cycle alternates between Phase 1 and Phase 2. Say you get there during Phase 1 and hit the walk button…the system will NOT insert a walk phase between Phase 1 and 2. Everything must come in order, so you’ll have to wait for Phase 1 and Phase 2 to pass before you get your Phase 3 walk sign. The lengths of the individual phases remain the same regardless, so a situation in which “some Nimrod hits the button and traffic stops after ten seconds of driving” is impossible, unless said Nimrod hits the button during the last 10 seconds of Phase 2. All of this is according to my interview with John DeBenedictis.

  • tvhwy

    I understand that the system is tuned to hold motorist convenience above all else, and *that’s* why I’ve given up on it as a pedestrian!

  • Matt

    Linden and Brighton is similar: people race along Linden like a highway, and there is a constant stream of right-turners from Brighton that are always in a hurry. It’s easier to cross when Linden is green, because then at least the right-turners stop for the right turn on red! And the walk signal goes off once in 10 minutes, approx, if you are lucky. I think that someday that intersection will be where I get hit by a car.

    Let’s not forget the stupid insistence of drivers in this state of racing through the yellow only to get stuck in the intersection, blocking all and sundry from crossing. They even block the trolley. Time to start ticketing for blocking-the-box, like in NYC.

    Two years ago, when I came to visit for the first time in ten years, I walked up to a light on a cross-street of Cambridge St by Bowdoin Station, hit the button and waited. And waited. And waited. Then I watched everyone else jay-walking, and understood why.

    When we look to NYC let’s keep in mind that everyone and their grandmother jaywalks there. But really, I think that is appropriate. Cities should be for pedestrians first, there should be no such thing as “jaywalking” but rather “jaydriving.” The biggest mistake of urban planners in the last hundred years is to bring highways and large amounts of cars into city centers. It kills walking, it kills sociability, and it kills cities. Just look at Pittsburgh, where Downtown is deserted by 5:30pm every day, except for the occasional crackhead and lost car. Our finance district has a similar feel to it.

  • hmm

    Apologies in advance for the poor english.

    Since real estate is slim in boston, why not create walk ways above the street in such intersections like park st station.
    have it partialy funded by the transportation dep fed or state or combination thereof, connect the elevators, and if necessary, escalators. not like this is a new idea compared to other global cities. i know boston is trying to keep its historical looks but at what cost? the light cycles are there to minimize vehicles on the road right? less road time, less fossil fuel expended for travel from point a to b.
    Would a nice skywalk be that disgusting?

  • Coleen

    This is so obnoxious. And I’ve noticed bizarre behavior on the corner of Stuart and Arlington. There’s a point where the one-way traffic is stopped on Arlington (the cars get their yellow light, then the red light–of course, just-turned-red means “speed up” in Boston car language, but that’s another story); if you haven’t pressed the button, it doesn’t go to WALK right away, it waits until another of the three separate intersections have had their go…why wouldn’t it become WALK as soon as those cars had to stop? They’re not going anywhere for two more light cycles. Also at that intersection is an island–each segment of the crossing is separate but the island has no button to press!

    The ones that start flashing DON’T WALK almost immediately make me crazy–what about people who have trouble walking? Even those of us who can run across can’t make it before the thing starts flashing. And the right-on-red thing–I’ve been almost hit plenty of times by cars making a right on red–EVEN WHEN IT’S POSTED “NO TURN ON RED”–while I’m in the crosswalk.

    None of this should be a surprise to me, having lived in Mass. all my life and worked in Boston for 12 years, but it still grates. Meanwhile, when I go to Manhattan, I’m amazed to see traffic stop on a yellow light–even the otherwise wild cab drivers. And they don’t block the crosswalk either. It feels so much safer.

    In London, big boxes show clearly when you’ve pressed the button (a visual icon changes), and there’s an audible beep as well for the visually impaired. Surely we can do a BIT better.

  • Ann

    Where to begin??? I live in Dorchester and am trying DESPERATELY to raise two little pedestrian children, but the system here is just plain whack. At Codman Square, we push the button, wait for the “all way” pedestrian light and then RUN across and down to a second smaller crossing on Norfolk St to avoid having to wait for another light cycle. We also have picked up the horrible habit of the “diagonal cross” at Peabody Sq/Ashmont because we know we’ll get just the one chance with the walk signal and then have to wait for the cars to get their chances all the way around before we get another go from the button. I drive in Dot all the time too and am infuriated by all the people who stroll through intersections regardless of the walk signals, but can’t entirely blame them, since there is no real “system” for them to use. Just time the walk signal to cross with traffic like th rest of the world and hope the next generation learns how to cross the street properly!

  • Seth

    So wait? This is a story complaining that the city of Boston dares to push the button for you during peak pedestrian hours? How is this a problem? Your placebo button is exactly as effective as it would be at midnight (when the button press is required) because someone has already pushed it.

    You are ostensibly complaining because your push doesn’t do anything more than the automatic push that happens in “the system”, but you might as well be complaining because the guy on the other side of the street already pushed it.

    Your real beef seems to be with the timing cycles of the lights themselves, and if you are ready to do the research, math, and simulations necessary to propose a better solution to that, I strongly encourage you to write that article, rather than take an easy pot shot a a non-problem.

    (and no, I don’t work for the city. I just hate this kind of semi-balanced, semi-involved, semi-advocacy journalism)

    • Adam Ragusea


      This story isn’t “complaining” about anything. It’s a piece of explanatory journalism, not a column. I’ve always wondered if/how these things work, so I found out, and I told you / everybody else who listened/read what I learned.

      The opinion Sue Clippinger and others I talked to expressed is that having the city “push the button for you” during some hours and not during others leads to confusion, and when people are confused by the rules, they tend to disregard the rules. This is one of the reasons why NYC has been gradually tearing out their push buttons, most of which they stopped using a decade ago.

      You disagree with Sue. Great! I wish I had found someone who could’ve expressed your opinion as articulately as you do for my story, but hey, that’s why we have comment threads.

      As for the timing of the light cycles, that’s an ancillary issue that came up while I reported the story (and again, an opinion my sources expressed, not an opinion I expressed). In the case of Sue Clippinger, she HAS done the “research, math, and simulations necessary to propose a better solution” in Cambridge, which is what she was talking about.

      Ken Kruckemeyer was simply arguing that pedestrians deserve a longer than 18 second walk phase at a 100 second intersection where pedestrians regularly outnumber motorists, which doesn’t strike me as a particularly math/research/simulation intensive fix, but I could be wrong. Knowing Ken, he probably has some math/research/simulations to show for it, but that’s a different story (and one I’d be happy to write, if you’re asking).

      I don’t think my story is semi-anything. I think it’s nuanced, which is something that seems to throw people in an age where every other news item they encounter is not a news item, but a polemic. And THAT’S my opinion.

  • Scott

    A related problem is that some walk signals in Boston indicate “don’t walk” for long periods when it would be impossible for a car to legally cross the crosswalk, button pressed or not. For example, near here: 42.344222,-71.104234.

  • GregP

    Thanks for the story, Adam. Dealing with ped signals during my 3o years in Boston always drove (sorry!) me crazy, for all the reasons expressed here. Now that I live in Seattle, I am bemused that in this extremely ped-friendly city (with overly courteous drivers), almost every signalized intersection has ped buttons, as opposed to the concurrent walk lights you find in NYC and Cambridge. Pedestrians hit the button with what I call the “two-whack slam”, bam-bam. And in most cases you get the darn walk light anyway, whack or not (I’ve not inquired of the city engineers if they are set to automatic, Boston-style. Yet just up the road, and across the border, in Vancouver, BC, there are NO ped buttons, and every light cycle gives concurrent walk signals. Oh, Canada!

  • Dianne Cowan

    The city did once do something about the Park St crosswalk. They put up a sign that said, “Cross at the wrong time, and get a free tattoo!” And it showed a picture of the little crosswalk icon guy with …. I wish I were making this up … tread marks.

    It made me furious – it was obvious that the timing on this signal was off, and what does the city do? Do they adjust the timing? No, they blame the pedestrian and use a cutesy sign to boot.

    I don’t know if the sign is still up – this was about a decade ago.

  • Matthew Fabian

    “A related problem is that some walk signals in Boston indicate ‘don’t walk’ for long periods when it would be impossible for a car to legally cross the crosswalk, button pressed or not.”

    Seconding this. In downtown San Francisco, every intersection has a countdown for the pedestrian cycle and the very second it hits 0 it isn’t safe to walk anymore.

    In Boston, the “Don’t Walk” symbol shows up way before it’s actually unsafe to walk. The city assumes you are stupid and can’t gauge if you’ll have enough time to cross the street so they put the “Don’t Walk” sign up early to allow for some buffer time.

    This actually causes people to not trust the walk/don’t walk sign at all and leads to more jaywalking. Way to go, Boston!

  • http://www.wbur.org/people/aragusea Adam Ragusea


    I’m reaching really far back in my memory now, but I believe cities are bound by federal regulations as to the length of the flashing “don’t walk” cycle. Those cycles may seem a little long to you and me, but they’re designed for older folks, or people who for whatever reason don’t walk so fast.

    Thanks for commenting, though. Not sure why so many people are suddenly reading this story like four months after I wrote it…

  • imshandon

    “……. Not sure why so many people are suddenly reading this story like four months after I wrote it…”

    I would thank Stumble Upon in my case. ;-)

  • Elio Del Greco

    I feel at this time the commonwealth should do away with the walk and don’t walk lights. They don’t work. Lets go back to the Red and Yellow pedrestian lights, much better. We don’t need to follow the European way of traffic signals. And also pedrestians should adhere to the Red and Green lights and not cross on a Green light.

  • Jackibingert

    I live in new jersey and have recently become car-less. As I am forced to walk and cross very busy highways I always press the button which seems to do nothing. So i googled the question and up popped your story. Those buttons don’t do anything!

  • Validemailtocomment

    And none of this matters if cars turning corners don’t stop for pedestrians WHEN PEDESTRIANS HAVE THE WALK SIGNAL.  Ruggles and Huntington in Boston is a total nightmare.  This is no joking matter either, as a woman pedestrian was killed there in the past year.

    [And as for why I'm reading this old story today -- there's a story on Yahoo news today about walk buttons being placebos (sometimes).]

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