Minneapolis is banishing the “beg button” at hundreds of city intersections, automating the walk signs so pedestrians don’t have to touch a potentially germ-ridden surface.

The walk buttons remain in St. Paul, where city officials talked about changing them but decided they had higher priorities.

After COVID-19 began spreading in Minnesota, both cities closed certain streets and made other changes to encourage people to walk outside while urging them to stay 6 feet apart.

Minneapolis decided that shouldn’t require them to press a button, touched by who knows how many fingers, merely to cross the street. Now a walk signal will come on automatically.

“We felt one of the ways we could reduce the risk is by making it so pedestrians do not have to push a button,” said Allan Klugman, a traffic engineer for the city.

There are about 820 signals in Minneapolis. Before the pandemic, about 320 of them — the majority located downtown — had the automatic walk signals that do not require people to push a button. The city is in the process of converting the signals at roughly 450 intersections.

The remaining 50 had features that would make it difficult to change them.

Engineers can make the switch at the city’s Traffic Management Center. The city then sends workers to post signs at the intersections that have been updated.

Minneapolis began the bulk of its work on the signals last week and hopes to wrap it up by the end of this week.

In total, about five people are involved in Minneapolis’ efforts. Aside from the staff time, the only cost was printing signs notifying people of the changes and acquiring the zip ties used to hold them in place, Klugman said.

The St. Paul Public Works Department decided against the idea after most council members at an April 8 meeting said they would rather the department focus on its long to-do list of street projects this spring.

In addition to spending three days reprogramming about 250 signals across the city, public works employees would have had to spend at least a week posting between 1,000 and 1,200 laminated signs telling pedestrians not to press signal buttons, Paul Kurtz, interim public works director, told the council.

“As you’re talking about the effort,” Council President Amy Brendmoen said, “I’m wondering if it is the best way to use our resources, especially given the significantly diminished amount of traffic on our streets these days.”

Correction: Story updated to reflect correct numbers of signals in Minneapolis.

liz.navratil@startribune.com

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