If there was a competition for world’s best crosswalk button, Australia would have gold locked in with the remarkable PB/5 button. Its distinct sound has been streamed over 1 billion times on Spotify and YouTube thanks to a collaboration with Billie Eilish. There’s not a competition by the way, but this video explains why the design is so clever.
View on Youtube: https://youtu.be/FwbNFRbqwfg
When you think of good design, you might think of your favourite fashion designer, or a beautiful home on something like on "Grand Designs." What you probably don't think of is something like this. And I wanna convince you today, that Australia has designed not only the best pedestrian crossing button in the world, but that this is one of the best designed things to ever come out of Australia. Let's do it.
Yes, it might feel like a strange thing to get excited about, but let me have this one. Because in a world of crosswalk buttons, none of them have anything on this. I'm talking about the PB/5 pedestrian button, a type of auto-tactile pedestrian detector, or simply a crosswalk button.
Now, this has been featured in museums, acclaimed by the media and here's the thing, even if you've never crossed a street in Australia, I'm willing to bet that you've heard it before. And that's all thanks to a surprising duet with Billie Eilish, I'll get to that.
This design goes back to the 1970s, when the New South Wales Department of Roads were after a system that could help vision and hearing impaired pedestrians. So, you might ask what actually does make good design when it comes to something like a pedestrian crossing button?
Let's start with the sound, and this is how Australian traffic crossings work. When you can't cross, the light is solid red, and you get this regular clicking sound to indicate where the crossing is and to stop. When you can cross, it becomes the little green man, and the buzzer sounds like this. And the final state is flashing red with no sound, which means you can finish crossing, but don't start.
And, of course, people who live in apartments right near streets, and they have these buttons just outside their house. So, you might wonder how annoying is it, that these things continue to beep? This sound system was designed by legendary Australian acoustic engineer, Louis Challis, who understood this challenge. Now, his other work included architectural acoustic design of buildings like Parliament House and Olympic Stadium. So, he designed a system that includes a microphone that takes in regular readings of the ambient sound and sets the volume to be audible above street noise, but not be unnecessarily loud. When he created it, he was offered the right to patent this invention by the New South Wales Department of Main Roads. But he declined to do so wanting it available as widely as possible at the lowest cost.
One of the features these buttons is this. Now, this is a clearly defined arrow, which shows the direction of the crosswalk. So, now, this plate can be adjusted because this box isn't always mounted with the crosswalk straight ahead. So, this can say whether to cross left or right. And, in some cases, in either direction.
Now, another feature with it, is that this is actually a tactile arrow. So, if you're vision impaired, you can actually feel for yourself, which direction it runs in. And not only does it make a sound every time it beeps, but this vibrates, so if you're both vision impaired and hard of hearing you can know when to cross.
One open secret of pedestrian buttons around the world is that pressing them doesn't always make a difference. Basically, the traffic engineers just turn on the crossing for each cycle. Normally, this is done in busy areas, or at busy times. So, in the Melbourne CBD, this is the case at the majority of crossings most of the time. And this has actually become more common during COVID times to reduce the number of people needing to touch the button.
And there's another interesting case, some Orthodox Jews consider pushing these buttons or using any other electrical device to be work. Something which shouldn't be done on the Sabbath. So, in places with a high Jewish population, they'll have the buttons set to be automatically on during these times.
And Melbourne has a few other twists on the PB/5 design in crossings, including this tactile paving that lights up alongside the traffic light. Something useful for people who are on their phones and also repurposing the buttons into a speaker to give you tram updates.
And the PB/5 found its way into the top song of 2019, Billie Eilish's, "Bad Guy," listen carefully for this sound, right here.
[Billie Eilish] Duh!
When "Rolling Stones," did an interview with Billy Eilish and Finneas O'Connell, to explain exactly how this came to be.
[Billie] My mom and I went for a walk in...
[Billie] Sydney. We were like, across the street from the hotel and the crosswalk is this little like, you press it and it's like, doop, doop. And I was like, "That's hard." That. That's the sound that it makes when you have to wait. And then I was not prepared for this part.
[Finneas] I basically like, put it into a quantized bar section, and then put samples in it, so it was wider. And then it became.
The Australian Media and Transport for New South Wales were pretty happy with this collaboration. So, while the PB/5 is indeed an impressive invention, including winning the Grammy for Song of the Year, maybe Australia isn't done improving on it, just yet.
[TV] A young Melbourne school girl has come up with a clever invention to help stop the spread of germs. Grace created a kick-me pedestrian button, so people don't have to use their hands at traffic lights.
Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed it, please do subscribe. We've got more interesting videos about Melbourne, about cities, about design, and beyond. That's it for me.
[Finneas] The hilarious part about all this, is we just were in Australia in May. And my dad goes, "Have you heard these crosswalks?" And I was like, "Yeah, it's the chorus of "Bad Guy."
"Bad Guy," he goes, "What?" And I was like, "Yeah, we... Nevermind, man."