Sydney CBD is bringing back pedestrian “beg buttons”

See comments on Hacker News (85 comments) in the footer below and on Mastodon. See also recent posts: Shining a Light on the Traffic Signals of Sydney (July 2023) and Mapping pedestrian traffic light timing in Sydney, Australia (June 2023).

Corner of Elizabeth St & Park St

Transport for NSW (TfNSW) has recently installed these around the Sydney CBD – a sticker on top of a pedestrian “beg button” explaining the button must be pressed between 10pm and 6am. Not only does this sticker look like it will last a few weeks, but if you have to explain how something works, it isn’t designed well.

The Active Transport strategy recently released by TfNSW specifically states (on page 12) that key initiatives for metropolitan and urban areas include:

prioritising pedestrian movements at key destinations, including prioritising pedestrians at traffic lights


upgrading existing paths and streets for better walking and cycling experiences

This begs the question – if a key TfNSW initiative is to prioritise pedestrians in urban areas, and we’re prepared to automatically give pedestrians a green light every cycle during the day when car traffic volumes are highest – why not prevent the confusion and remove/cover the buttons permanently?

Even more perplexingly – we previously had fully automated buttons and they were accepted (if not widely celebrated by pedestrian & cycling advocates), so why go backwards?!

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Fully automatic crossings during the pandemic

From March 2020, pedestrian crossings across the CBD were automated so that touch contact wasn’t required.

At first, no physical alteration was made, however behaviour is hard to change so signs like this were installed:

Image: Chris Duckett/ZDNet

Eventually blue covers were affixed so pressing the button wasn’t possible, while audio-tactile feedback of the PB/5 units was left uncovered to assist visually-impaired pedestrians.

Not only a sensible decision to reduce physical contact during a pandemic (especially when virus transmission was less understood), you probably aren’t surprised that automatically guaranteeing pedestrians a traffic light cycle makes walking easier and faster.

In 2007, Copenhagen firm Gehl Architects wrote a report for the city of Sydney evaluating public spaces, which specifically highlighted the Australian phenomenon of prioritising motor vehicles at street intersections:

Push buttons are a widespread phenomenon all over Australia and in Sydney, where all crossings are supplied with push buttons. The installation of push buttons is part of State Government law. Here you have to apply to cross the street and if you press the button in time the digital device will give you between 7 and 10 seconds of green light to step off the kerb, before the lights start to flash red to tell you to finish walking across the road. Red periods are long, often lasting between 60 and 90 seconds. This system takes the elderly, children and people with disabilities hostages since they will often not be capable of moving across the streets at the pace needed. It also sends a clear signal that cars have higher priority than people.

Sydney – Public Space Public Life, 2007, Gehl Architects

TfNSW removing automatic operation

On Friday the 16th of December, Transport for NSW announced:

From mid-December 2022 Transport for NSW is removing the push button hard covers but maintaining the automation of pedestrian crossings at traffic signals during daytime hours. This is to reduce overnight noise for local residents and allow for more efficient intersection operation for all users when activity is low.

TfNSW Argument 1: More efficient intersection operation

Requiring manual pedestrian button operation does improve intersection operation for cars at the expense of all other modes.

However, car traffic volumes are lowest at nighttime and congestion is decreased, so intersection efficiently does not need to be ruthlessly prioritised at those hours.

Remember, the TfNSW Future Transport Strategy states (page 9):

We will focus on getting more out of our existing investments, by reallocating road space to more efficient modes of transport like buses, walking, cycling and micromobility devices.


Our vision for transport in NSW “We will stabilise traffic levels in Greater Sydney to improve productivity and manage congestion, ensuring we accommodate growth without sacrificing quality of life.”

So we now have in writing that TfNSW say that they are no longer prioritising traffic volumes at the expense of all else.

Sydney aspires to be a city with a vibrant nightlife, and there are often large pedestrian volumes late into the night and morning. Pedestrians at these hours are also most likely to be under the influence of alcohol and if inconvenienced, may be more likely to “jaywalk”

TfNSW Argument 2: Reducing overnight noise

Noise from the pedestrian buttons “activating” when pedestrians are allowed to cross is an interesting argument. I can emphasise with urban dwellers in noisy environments (I currently live in Inner Sydney), but the automated signal map covers few (if any) streets with low rise residential buildings – this is the centre of the largest city in Australia after all!

The National Cooperative Highway Research Program study Accessible Pedestrian Signals: A Guide to Best Practices, has been adapted by the NCHR into this online best practice resource. It states:

  • All devices respond to ambient sound, both for the locator tone and the WALK indication.
  • APS [Accessible Pedestrian Signals] are sometimes turned off at night due to neighbors’ complaints about noise.

This implies that the the noise produced is lower at nighttime when there is less traffic noise, and there is already a precedent for pedestrian signals being turned off selectively at nighttime due to noise concerns.

Perhaps it makes more logical sense that only those pedestrian buttons that receive complaints should be set to manual overnight, with a prominent & permanent sign rather than a sticker.

Globally our little PB/5 units are so beloved that they’ve even been bestowed with a Grammy, their design so ubiquitous with simplicity that their main job is to almost blend into their environment, so why not let them and save them from our grubby fingers?

With a simple software update, that was already successfully tested during the pandemic, we can improve the walkability in the City of Sydney – and with any luck, everywhere else!

(…and after that, shorten cycle times and improve light phasing)

10 responses to “Sydney CBD is bringing back pedestrian “beg buttons””

  1. Simon Avatar

    Drives me mad, especially when the traffic flow would have allowed an automatic green man – but no, pedestrians are clearly second class citizens in Sydney. Why change them back from the covid settings? This city is stupid.

  2. David Lattimore Avatar
    David Lattimore

    If we’re optimising for quiet times of the day with minimal traffic, they could change the lights so that they’re all red by default. Then when a pedestrian presses a button or a car arrives at the lights, that cycle can change to green straight away. This would mean pedestrians would need to press the button, but when it’s quiet, they wouldn’t have to wait at all.

    Going even further, you could make all the vehicle signals red by default, all the pedestrian signals green by default and only switch the vehicle signals to green when a vehicle is detected, after switching the relevant pedestrian lights to red and after an appropriate delay.

    1. SiberianDev Avatar

      That’s actually the way it works in the Netherlands. The lights there in general are a lot more flexible. There are no phases, only during which movements can run. Instead, multiple movements can run at once, as long as they don’t conflict with each other. And movements are combined based on the road users present.

  3. Ben Avatar

    Despite our celebrated PB/5 buttons, they need the commonsense function indicating that the lights will grant a walk cycle. In NZ, they use PB/5s, but the walk/wait sign stays off until the press of a button. Other countries have large indicators near or on the button or the walk sign.

    And then there’s the frequent poor placement or lack of the buttons themselves, sometimes hidden on a pole well away from the actual area to cross.

    Also, unsurprisingly, Sydney signals are nearly always programmed to make pedestrians wait by default despite the local traffic or road conditions. Many lights serve oneway streets, which could be partially automated to match the stopped traffic, but are programmed so pedestrians must always press and wait regardless.

    1. Jake C Avatar

      > they need the commonsense function indicating that the lights will grant a walk cycle

      I agree; this is an obvious missing piece of functionality.

      > Many lights serve oneway streets, which could be partially automated to match the stopped traffic, but are programmed so pedestrians must always press and wait regardless.

      I’m interested in methods for mapping & advocating for change of bad signal timing. My understanding is currently timing data is not open data unfortunately. Let me know if you hear of crowdsourced ways of measuring timing data!

  4. Benjamin Oaks Avatar
    Benjamin Oaks

    The author is a sooky lala

    1. Jake C Avatar

      Looking forward to hearing a well reasoned reply as a counterpoint to this blog post 🙂

  5. Robert Avatar

    Stupid changing back to what wasn’t very good in the first place. To think the morons at Transport for NSW believe this is a good idea. But they are just as dumb in Melbourne which leaves the obvious conclusion that the so called engineers/technicians that design this stuff must have learned during their training that pedestrian traffic signals are designed to be anti-pedestrian.

  6. Michael Avatar

    As an immigrant from Europe: these PB/5 units have been my frustration since my first day in Sydney.

    I was blown away on my first day in Sydney when I immediately noticed the prioritisation of cars on crossings. I expected a European city but felt Sydney was nore like mix between what I had experienced in US and EU.

    In many European cities they use solutions that indicate clearly by sound and light that the crossing is in automatic mode or has been activated by another pedestrian before you, and there is no need to touch the button “just in case”.

    Most of these units don’t offer a clear feedback of whether your touch/push was registered. Leading to a popular “give it a few more” style of activating them.
    The floppy button often feels like it’s about to fall off and can’t possibly be in working order.

    The fact that the design encourages the use by feet came as a suprise to me since I never considered kicking them myself, and I feel it’s another aspect of its poor design -> peaple encouraged to touch the same surface that some people apparently kick with their dog poo covered shoes !?

    From my previous experience as a pedestrian in some other western countries I assumed these aussi buttons are just an old but once popular antiquated design thats surely going to be replaced soon (since many of them feel “broken” with the button flopping about).
    I was very surprised that Aussies are quite proud of them and they seem to be here to stay.

    1. Jake C Avatar

      Thanks very much for your European insight, interesting food for thought.

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