Lying To Us To Make Us Feel Better: Those Fake Crosswalk Buttons

In the classic science fiction story “The Marching Morons”  by American writer Cyril M. Kornbluth,  the world hundreds of years in the future is a reverse-eugenics nightmare. Between centuries of intelligent people not having children (perhaps to address climate change?) and excessive breeding by fools and dolts, the typical member of the public has an IQ of around 45, while an elite few who have IQs of 100 or more work around the clock to save the world, and the morons, from chaos. One of their tricks is to manufacture cars that make lots of noise and create the illusion of high speeds to fool the morons, who are (as we all know) wretched drivers. In truth, the cars crawl along more slowly than tricycles.

I thought of this when reader and frequent commentator here Charles Green noted in his excellent newsletter that those buttons at pedestrian crosswalks in major cities are an intentional fraud on the public, a placebo to keep us calm and feeling in control when we are not. Charles link was to my old hometown paper, the Boston Globe, but it’s behind a paywall. Never mind, though: newspapers have periodically been noting this phenomenon for years. They apparently think it is amusing. It isn’t.

The New York Times reported in 2004 that the city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the advent of computer-controlled traffic signals.  Today there are 120 working signals; about 500 were removed during major construction projects. But it was estimated that it would cost $1 million to dismantle the rest of non-functioning mechanisms, over a thousand of them, so city officials decided to keep them in place. And people keep pushing them. After all, sometimes, by sheer luck, the light changes soon after the button has been pushed. It works!

Tribal rains dances “work” the same way.

ABC News reported in 2010 that it found only one functioning crosswalk button in a survey of signals in Austin, Texas.; Gainesville, Florida, and Syracuse, New York. Other studies have turned up similar results in dozens of other cities. To be clear, presenting a button to pedestrians that is represented as a legitimate tool to cross the street when in fact it does nothing is a lie. It is an intentional falsehood, designed to deceive. Continue reading