Reality check: Does hitting the ‘close’ button on an elevator make the door close faster?

Hitting that button won't close the door any faster. / Getty Images

If you visit New York City, don’t expect to get across the street any faster if you hit the pedestrian button at a crosswalk.

A recent article in the New York Times found that most buttons installed at Manhattan crosswalks do nothing at all. Traffic lights are controlled by a computer, and almost all of the buttons that remain are non-functional. They cost too much to remove, so the city left them there.

Similarly, hitting the “close door” button on an American elevator usually won’t have any effect.

But if you’re impatient, it’s good to be Canadian.

It turns out that most Canadian crosswalk and elevator buttons actually work.

According to Wilson Lee, spokesperson for the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, which inspects and licenses Ontario elevators, hitting the “close door” button does just that: closes the door.

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Or more precisely, it starts the door closing. If the doors were already closing, repeatedly hammering the button won’t make them move any faster, as much as you might sometimes wish.

Crossing the street

Crosswalks are a bit more complicated. Phil Landry, director of traffic services for the City of Ottawa, says that pedestrian buttons in Ottawa fit into two broad categories: those that only trigger the “audible signal” to help people cross the road, and those that actually make the light change.

For that second type, mostly found outside of the city core, pedestrians must press the button in order to get a ‘walk’ signal, he said.

“The way it works is you’ve got your main street green phase. And then at the end of that sequence, just before it would go into flash ‘don’t walk’, it checks to see if there’s demand. Either someone’s pressed the push button or there’s a vehicle there or a bicycle. If there isn’t then the light stays green and waits for that whole cycle to begin again. If there is demand then the light will flash ‘don’t walk’, go to amber and red. If someone presses the push button then the light on the side street will come up as ‘walk’.”

If there’s only a car and no one pushes the button, then there won’t be a ‘walk’ signal in that direction.

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Most of the intersections in downtown Ottawa though are on a fixed timed schedule. So, a walk sign will appear for a given amount of time, whether or not anyone pushes the button.

In that case, the push button isn’t so that people can cross, it’s just to trigger the chime for people who are visually-impaired. In Ottawa at least, you have to hold the button for three seconds to trigger the audible cue. That’s so that people living nearby aren’t constantly annoyed by the noisy beep of the intersection, said Landry.

“When those buttons get stuck, we do get complaints from residents in terms of the noise it emits, especially during the middle of the night when they’re trying to sleep and it’s summer and the windows are open.”

Landry believes that most cities in Canada operate their pedestrian traffic signals in a similar way.

So go ahead – push the button. In Canada anyway, it actually could help you get moving faster.

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