Dear Mayor Sheehan: We are a group of Albanians who are interested in improving walkability in the City of Albany. We believe that Albany is a beautiful city with a historic, walkable core and transit-friendly outer neighborhoods and that its neighborhoods should be improved to make walking easier, safer, and more useful. We see pedestrian safety as a top priority for the City of Albany, especially as we expect to see an influx of new residents in downtown apartments in the coming years. We are writing to request a meeting with you on the issue of beg buttons. While we think there are a number of improvements that can improve Albany’s walkability, this issue is a very low-cost solution to greatly improve walkability. Perhaps you saw our recent op-Ed in the Times Union or our TV appearance on WTEN.
We have noticed that many newly designed intersections (and even more old ones) are being built with beg buttons—that require pedestrians to press a button to beg for a pedestrian signal, even if the signal is already changing for cars travelling in the same direction. As a result, those who wish to cross legally must often wait through an entire light cycle even though it is obviously safe to cross. Naturally, the overwhelming majority of frustrated Albanians—not content to wait two or three minutes at every corner—cross anyway. In a system designed to prioritize cars and thwart pedestrians, otherwise law-abiding citizens begin to rationalize jaywalking. After all, auto drivers are never asked to roll down their windows, press a button, and wait two to three minutes at every corner.
We believe your advocacy for safe streets indicates that you will agree: beg buttons should not be used to deny pedestrian signals. Although they are important for audible signals for the differently abled, and to prompt signal changes when one would not otherwise occur, they should not be used as an mechanism for denying a “walk” signal.
Beg buttons are designed to prioritize car traffic. This is deeply counterproductive in a city attempting to revitalize its downtown core. Walking is a popular, practical, and desirable way to get around town. It is also key to Albany’s continued growth and vibrancy. According to a recent Urban Land Institute survey, 50% of people rank walkability as one of their top concerns when deciding where to live, while the Brookings Institute found that a whopping 63% of Millennials would prefer to live in an area where they don’t need to drive a car every day. Dense and walkable neighborhoods also generate much more revenue in property taxes per acre than expensive and hard-to-maintain suburban sprawl.
Beg buttons may make sense in an outlying area where the traffic light on a thoroughfare would remain green but for the “beg” from a side-street motorist or pedestrian, but they have no place in a busy downtown or in intersections where the light changes on a regular basis.
Albany’s pedestrian signals should activate whenever the vehicle signals activate. In other words, the pedestrian signals should be reprogrammed to operate as if there was no button when the light cycles through. The greatest pedestrian cities in the world do not force pedestrians to beg for a legal crossing at every corner and wait for several minutes. Smaller cities are also moving in this direction: Berkeley, California, is considering removing beg buttons. Edmonton, Alberta, is considering removing them as well. This issue has attracted a great deal of attention, including this op-Ed in the New York Times from 2014. Albany should be a leader in this area and put pedestrians on an equal playing field with motorists.
We applaud your commitment to street safety and your recent decision to seek a Complete Streets Coordinator. We also appreciate that the newly designed intersections we have mentioned have included a Leading Pedestrian Interval. We hope that you will agree to take the additional step of removing beg buttons as a tool for denying pedestrian signals.
We request a meeting to discuss this topic with you and your relevant staff. To follow up, you can call Andrew Neidhardt.
Sincerely, The members of Walkable Albany
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