Should Pedestrian Crossing Buttons be Automated to Dampen the Spread of Covid-19?

In Whitehall, where Swords Road and Collins Avenue meet, the sun is trying to break from the clouds. The air is still and humid on a Friday afternoon.

A teenage girl breaks into a light jog as she makes her way from the footpath to the island in the middle of the junction.

She doesn’t check for cars. It’s 4:33pm and the Covid-19 lockdown has left this crossing – normally hectic – near empty.

On the island, the girl pulls the sleeve of her crisp white jumper over her wrist and down past her hand. No skin exposed, she smacks the pedestrian crossing button.

Then whacks it again.

After 15 seconds, the red man turns to green. She jogs to the other side.

While most Dubliners are doing their best to avoid one another, there’s certain spots or surfaces across the city that those out walking, or running, still find they touch.

Among them: the pedestrian buttons that switch the lights from red to green so they can cross the road. Some cities have opted to make that automatic, to keep pedestrians from having to press the buttons.

A pedestrian button is a surface that is frequently touched by people, says Kim Roberts, assistant professor in virology at Trinity College Dublin.

“There is a reasonable risk of transmission. People need to be aware of that,” says Roberts.

Automating Buttons

Cities worldwide – from Los Angeles to Sydney – have switched pedestrian crossing buttons to automatic timers, so people don’t have to touch them to activate.

In Dublin’s city centre, some crossings already have automated timers, says a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.

Most signals cycle green or red for pedestrians automatically from 7am to 7pm, they said. “Outside of these times it is by activation.”

Pedestrian buttons outside of the centre are activated by pushing the button and a timer will start.

They will not be changing this system during Covid-19, said a spokesperson for Dublin City Council.

In Dublin, “the pedestrian signal requires all opposing traffic to be halted,” says the spokesperson.

Other cities allow cars to pass through a green pedestrian crossing if it is clear, says the spokesperson.

But in Ireland at pedestrian crossings, cars have to stop so it’s difficult to automate these intersections, they said.

There’s also the issue of noise, says a spokesperson. Crossings have alarms built in that trigger when a green man is live to alert visually impaired people, says the spokesperson.

That would be a great disturbance to the area, says the spokesperson. “This would cause this sound to be constantly occurring every minute during the night.”

A spokesperson for the council said that the buttons are big, too. So they “have a large area for pressing and do not need to be pressed by hand”.

What Is the Council Doing?

There are other changes happening to pedestrian lights, though.

Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney says she got the council to cut waiting time at pedestrian crossings in her constituency in Clontarf.

Making the crossing times more frequent limits crowds of people gathering at the pedestrian lights, she says. “It helps them maintain the two-metre distance.”

They’ve now changed the sequence at Sybil Hill near the main gate to St Anne’s Park, she says.

Waiting for the green man is now on average 60 seconds. It was previously 85 seconds, said a spokesperson for the council.

“We have also increased the minimum green time for 6 to 8 seconds,” said a spokesperson for the council.

The council has said they’re happy to look at requests, said Cooney. “Just to get in touch with them and they can check if there is an issue there.”

Different Choices

Some other cities have been taking a different approach.

In New South Wales in Australia, the city’s transport department has automated some pedestrian crossings, since the Covid-19 lockdown.

The city “has removed the need for the pedestrians to touch hard surfaces at high traffic areas across the road network”, says a spokesperson for its transport department.

This automation already existed in the central business district for Sydney, but is being expanded to key traffic intersections, says the spokesperson.

In New South Wales, cars can go even when lights are green for pedestrians in “low-risk zones” which makes it easier to automate on a timer.

They’ve audio too so people with visual impairment know the light is green but they’re keeping those on, said a spokesperson. “To ensure the safety of all pedestrians.”

New South Wales will also have the pedestrian crossings set on a timer “in the immediate vicinity of major health precincts”, says a spokesperson.

Dublin City Council didn’t say it’ll do the same. “The push buttons used in Dublin City Council area are of a type that do not need to be pressed by hand but can be pressed by an object or elbow etc,” says a spokesperson.

Just Forgetting

Back at the junction at Swords Road and Collins Avenue, a man also waits to cross the road.

Walking his dog, headphones in, he catches his breath and pulls on the leash.

He runs across the junction at a break in the light traffic – but only after pushing the pedestrian button with his bare hand.

“If people are going to be touching the buttons, use your knuckles rather than your fingertip because you’re less likely to touch your face with your knuckle,” says Roberts, the Trinity professor.

The virus can stay on plastic or steel for up to three days, Roberts says.

Depending on the surface, the virus can last from a few hours to several days, says the World Health Organisation.

Or perhaps for less time outside because sunlight can break down the virus genome or the air humidity can dry it out, Roberts says. “It’s not very black and white.”

Roberts recommends people take a hand sanitiser out with them.

“When you are out and about there is nowhere to wash your hands. Then you might forget and touch your face,” she says.

The best way to protect yourself and others from Covid-19 is practicing good sneezing etiquette and washing your hands thoroughly, says the HSE.

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Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

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