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Idiot buttons: The brutal truth about Berlin’s pedestrian crossings

Think those sweet little Ampelmännchen are making a mockery of you? Patrick Maynard investigates.

Image for Idiot buttons: The brutal truth about Berlin's pedestrian crossings

But will it though? After studying 30 pedestrian crossings in Berlin, we found that pressing the button had no effect on the length of time you might wait for a green Ampelmännchen to show up. Photo: IMAGO / photothek

Most residents in the German capital would not consider themselves idiots. And yet, every day, at thousands of pedestrian crossings across the city, people press with complete sincerity a nearly useless device known to industrial designers as an ‘idiot button’. That’s right: those buttons do pretty much nothing. You may have suspected it, but we bet you still press ‘em anyway.

After landmark legislation was passed in late January to improve the lot of Berliners on foot, you might think that the city would have developed a bit more respect for us gullible pedestrians. But an audit of dozens of crossings in the city conducted by Exberliner proves that the Hauptstadt has a long way to go if it wants to be truly Fußgänger-friendly.

After studying 30 pedestrian crossings, we found that 28 of the buttons had no effect at all on the length of time you might wait for a green Ampelmännchen to finally show up. (The two exceptions were at tram crossings, where it’s likely that the variation in timing could actually be down to the presence or lack of trams, rather than the pressing of a button.)

So, you’re standing at the kerb hoping for that traffic light to turn, and it feels like prodding below the ‘bitte berühren’ sign is as unproductive as blowing toward the windmills at the edge of town… Well, it’s probably not just your imagination. It’s likely that the whole silly dance is futile.

The idiot button, known more diplomatically as a ‘placebo button’, is one of a whole class of devices that are made purely to deceive users into thinking that they have control of a situation. The lie behind idiot buttons is benevolent, designers would argue, but it can leave users feeling cheated when they learn they’ve been duped.

Some elevators have this type of deception, in the form of a close-door button that does nothing. This means that the coworker you politely try to avoid will surely make it in time to squeeze through the sliding doors before they close. Similarly, many office thermostats are idiot buttons, as the actual temperature control is carried out by either an algorithm on a basement computer or some cadaverous lackey on the top floor.

Image for Idiot buttons: The brutal truth about Berlin's pedestrian crossings

Turns out you might be waiting a while before the green man appears at most of Berlin’s pedestrian crossings. Photo: IMAGO / A. Friedrichs

One man who isn’t surprised by the use of idiot buttons on Berlin’s city streets is Tobias Trommer, a pedestrian rights activists and leader of a protest group opposed to the city’s A-100 motorway extension. “[Some in Berlin’s leadership] frankly make out the pedestrians to be idiots,” he says. While some in government are working to improve the pedestrian experience, even the Greens can sometimes engage in a superficial approach to road use “typical” of the city, he argues, for example by prioritising political stunts like the painting of all bike lanes green instead of more practical tasks like advocating for pedestrian access on bridges or creating better road crossings.

The Berlin government, for its part, is unapologetic about the way the buttons function. A spokesperson for the city’s transport department admitted in a written statement that the buttons don’t do what many pedestrians think they do, but insisted that this is by design. For example, the statement says, while most pedestrian crossing buttons do not bring an earlier light, some might extend the time during which a green light is active. At other lights, the button might activate an acoustic or tactile signal for blind people.

Since the buttons are acting as designed, the statement says, the government has no plans to replace them with devices that speed up the arrival of green signals. Meanwhile, the city is moving ahead with several other types of pedestrian improvements, like increasing the number of refuge islands and improving footpath lighting.

In any event, pedestrians might ultimately have the last laugh. As cars continue to zoom around European cities spurting out greenhouse gasses, a study by the British Geological Survey (BGS) recently warned that hot and dry summers on the continent are expected to lead to “shrink-swell activity” on roads and pavements. So if an urban hiker waits long enough at that light – not minutes, not hours, but decades – the road itself may devolve into a mess of cracks, sinkholes and crevasses that’s useless to cars. Then there would be no need for buttons, and the only option would be to walk.

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