|October 28, 2002|
Comments re: Modifications to street and sidewalk environment, Audible Pedestrian signals and detectable warnings
submitted by: Veronica Elsea
It is my intent here to relate the experiences which have formed my views on how sidewalks and streets can be made more accessible to all pedestrians.
Background: I am an experienced and frequent totally blind traveler. I have been traveling independently since the late sixties, so I have seen changes in the environment and the technology created to help cope with these environments.
I am primarily a guide dog user, but have had experience using the different technologies while using a cane when between dogs.
I have recently had a great deal of experience working with traffic engineers at the local and state levels through the Mission Street Widening Task Force, formed to solicit input from local citizens as this state highway was widened in our town. As part of the project, we became very familiar with state guidelines for placing of detectable warnings at curb ramps. We also installed some of the newer type of audible pedestrian signals. As we are considered experimental at this point, I am keeping data on reactions to the new signals, any problems blind pedestrians have, reactions from sighted pedestrians, and any special engineering concerns or problems.
The type of markings currently used in my area are of no value to me. In fact, I never knew they were there until I found myself debating the subject at one of our task force meetings. I finally looked with my hands and found parallel grooves in the sidewalk that were not feelable with my running shoes at all. With a cane, they felt no different than the rest of the aging sidewalk, full of cracks from previous earth quakes and tree roots.
I have, however, had a very positive experience with the warning markings used on the BART (Bay area Rapid Transit) platforms. I find them useful in several situations:
1. During rush hour: When walking along a platform, especially a double-sided one, crowds often push you or force you to walk further towards the edge than you might during a quiet time. I find I am much more able to relax and let my dog work as she needs if I know I'll feel that bumpy surface before anything happens. In cases where trash receptacles and things are placed on the platform, it makes it so much easier when working with a cane or a new dog when the warnings can be used not only as a training tool to teach a new dog the distance, but as a help to know which way is safer to choose when going around the obstacle.
2. Safer waiting: When waiting for the BART trains, as I don't use the system every day, I'm not completely comfortable with the train schedule. Therefore, I tend to be ready to jump whenever I hear a train approaching. So the question, where to stand. The warnings aid in letting me stand close enough that I can hurry and find the opened door if desired, yet far enough to avoid the potential rush of people exiting the trains
3. Orientation advantages: Particularly on double-sided platforms, when several trains are coming and going, local muni trains are running below, the ground is shaking; add in a little construction and keeping oriented, i.e. walking straight or facing the correct direction can be a challenge. Encountering these warning marks keeps it very clear as to exactly where the platforms are.
In general, yes, I have negotiated train platforms without these warning strips. But when they are present, I can actually concentrate more on the things that are constantly changing such as schedules, movement of people, obstacles, etc.
As for finding these at curb ramps, etc. as some of them are so flat, and many sidewalks are now constructed with asphalt, or brick which continues through the crosswalk, it can be very difficult to know where to stand when waiting for the light to change. I do not listen to traffic in the same way when I am walking mid-block as I do when I'm approaching an intersection. When I am in a new area, of course, I can not rely on a previous knowledge of the general length of a block as a guide to start listening for intersection sounds. Yes, my guide dogs have done very well at figuring out where the "downcurb" is located. However, in the example I described above of the brick sidewalk continuing through the intersection, combine absolutely no tactile clues with a lull in traffic and you have a recipe for disaster. If one is, say, walking past a park, there is no disappearing building line to help either. No matter the skill of the traveler, there is the potential for a deadly mistake.
Finally, as these train platform sorts of markings are quite distinct from normal sidewalk wear and tear, they would be excellent in aiding in the location of mid-block crosswalks.
Stairs: I illustrate my opinion of placing warning strips of this type at the top of flights of stairs with one example. I actually installed them on the back deck at my home. There are two sets of steep stairs which lead to my yard. I found that some blind visitors to my home were timid about wandering around on my deck. I often get involved in doing something on my deck or have occasion to be stepping backwards. Those warning strips are very helpful. I don't know that they would be needed at the top of every flight in a normal staircase. But they would be particularly important when, for instance, one is walking along a sidewalk not expecting the flight of stairs which allows the pedestrian to go up or down hill more easily.
Conclusion: I think the detectable warnings do have a useful roll in providing information and basic safety in many environments. Most important to me: train and subway platforms, no discernable end of block and unexpected flights of stairs.
Audible Pedestrian Signals
In this section I will relate the benefits I've derived from APS in general, and make comparisons between different types.
First, here I would like to emphasize my abilities as a blind pedestrian. I have traveled and figured out when to cross in many different states as well as several different countries. I have never been injured myself, but have had some moments when I was extremely grateful for the excellent traffic avoidance training my guide dogs and I had received.
When I first started wandering around alone, most of the intersections were quite easy; four normal corners; when any parallel traffic moved, off I'd go, keeping an ear out for right turners in the near lane and left turners in the far lanes. Late at night, I'd often just hold my breath and go!
Now it's a different story. I notice a greater sense of frustration that I seem to need to ask more questions before heading to a new area, primarily because of the increasing number of complex intersections odd crossings and complicated "parking lot" architecture.
Example: Just two days ago, standing at the downcurb at rush hour, I couldn't help noticing just how nice it was not having to guess at the onset of the walk cycle. As I stood there listening, I thought, I'd go now. Gosh, it sounds like it's green. Why isn't the aps talking? Is it broken? No, it wasn't broken. My light was still red. There were an unusually high number of left turners from the perpendicular street to my parallel street. And since the perpendicular street jogs at this intersection, the left turn isn't audible from the downcurb I was on. By the time the traffic sounds reach my ears, the cars are actually straightened out. The perpendicular traffic in front of me was obviously stopped because of the heavy volume of left turners because this light has signaling for left turn pockets. So, without the audible pedestrian signal, I absolutely, using sound judgment skills, would have crossed a busy street on a red light.
My first encounter with an audible signal of any kind came at a "y" intersection, for lack of a better description. Without it, I was forced to not only detect whether or not a lull in traffic on the major street really was a lull in traffic or was a red light for that street, but then which of the other two streets feeding into this major street had the green. Having the aps installed allowed me to get across that major street without doubling my pulse rate, between the concentration, the guessing and the hoping as I hurried across.
The first audible pedestrian signal installed at this intersection was simply a chirping sound when crossing the major street. It was very loud. But it was definitely better than nothing. That is, until a local mocking bird sat in a bush right on the "ped head" and did the most successful imitation of the chirping sound I'd ever heard. Problems mounted as this bird moved around the neighborhood, especially as we are a tourist destination. One night a friend of mine looked out the window just in time to see a blind person crossing this major highway mid block, where no crosswalk existed because the bird sat across the street and chirped. It turned out that this was a tourist who had just heard the chirper at the previous intersection. He wanted to cross the street somewhere and upon hearing the chirping begin, crossed there. He was almost hit by a car.
At another intersection downtown, the chirping is so loud that I have often not heard cars turning right in front of me.
So, as I mentioned previously, we now have the new audible pedestrian signals installed in my neighborhood. We are using locator tones, verbal messages, and the vibrotactile arrows.
General comments: As these were installed, I met with the "signal tech" in order to adjust the volume levels of the locator tones and verbal messages. Are aim was to find the quietest possible setting that would work for the locator tones and the clearest possible level for the verbal walk messages, as the walk messages only speak when someone pushes the ped button. We agreed that it was okay if the locator sound took us a second or two longer to find because it wasn't set at full volume. We didn't think this was so much of a safety issue as really hearing the correct verbal message. What I discovered was that when I approach these intersections at 5:30 am, it's really hard to find the locator tones because they're really really quiet. It's easier when the traffic is heavy because the volume is raised as the ambient sound gets louder. Another key to these sound levels is the placement of the poles. The closer the ped button is located to where I must stand, the quieter it can be. Ours are not close to the corners at all. At that, when I ask most sighted people what they think of the locator tones, they say, what? We actually have some sitting right in front yards of homes and have had no complaints from the residents of those homes. We have also received no complaints or negative comments from owners of corner gas stations, who would hear these tones all day. The adjustment of the locator tone levels are crucial because if one is too loud, it can mask the sound of another, making sound location difficult for the blind pedestrian. My experience has been that for the most part, setting levels that are acceptable to nearby residences and businesses usually serves the blind pedestrians better as well. At that 5:30 am hour, I can just barely make out the locator tone two houses away from the corner.
Using the locator tones: I have discovered some surprising extra benefits to these tones. First, the obvious. As I stated earlier, the location of our walklight poles is much less than ideal. I'd never find some of them without the locator tone. It just wouldn't occur to me to turn around, back up and step up on a curb to find the pole. In addition, we have one intersection which features a corner that is so rounded, it's difficult to feel. Because of the traffic pattern, it's really easy to go around the corner and not realize it right away. As I approached this corner for the first time with my most recent guide, surprise! I heard the locator tone and was able to catch her before we made that mistake. True, my life would have continued if I had made that mistake and just turned around. Of course, figuring out where to stand would have been my first guessing point and then crossing correctly at this oddly angled crossing would have been my second guess. It does make a difference to eliminate one guess, building confidence for the odd crossing. Another surprise: This is a corner at which most of the vehicular traffic turns. They are coming off of the freeway and turning on to a residential street to bypass the major street. We have now actually caught some cars slowing down and looking over at the locator sound. Of course, this meant that they actually noticed the pedestrians there. Because of the tones we are noticing sighted pedestrians actually walking over and using ped buttons that we've seen previously ignored.
Another benefit: Earlier I described our local "y" intersection. When crossing the first of the two smaller streets, one must angle way off to the left before crossing the second. I realize that some blind people object to any audible signals because of the perception that sighted people may have about how we as blind people do travel. This morning, as I heard that locator tone at the "y" and we angled towards it, I couldn't help thinking how nothing gives bad perceptions of how we travel like watching a blind person wander around, seemingly aimlessly in the street because of a failed attempt to guess at the angle at which to aim for the traffic island or funny crossing.
More information: The absence of the locator tone at one intersection actually let me know that no pedestrians were permitted to cross there. Without any audible information, there is no way to know that any city has no painted crosswalk on any corner, or a sign forbidding crossing there.
Most importantly, without the locator tone, there is almost no point to installing audible signals. If we don't know they're there and we can't find them, we certainly aren't using them. With the locator tone, we can cope with less than ideal locations of those walklight buttons. Of course, the closer to the crosswalk those poles are placed, the quieter all sounds can be and the safer the crossing will be.
Verbal messages: For me, the use of the verbal "walk sign" messages represent a tremendous improvement in safe and accessible travel. Again, pole location is also crucial here. The further away from the crosswalk the speaker is, the harder to hear and understand it becomes. Having said that, the advantages of the messages over the older "chirp" and "coo-coo" are numerous.
1. Clarity: Usually, when traveling in an unfamiliar area, as a blind traveler I tend to know the name of at least one of the streets at any intersection. If I hear "chirpchirp" I must first figure out to which crossing that chirp applies. By the time the traffic pattern is clear enough to answer that question, I've lost any lead time I may have had because that walk message was there. A verbal message provides me with the name of the street to which the walk sign applies. At this point I can begin the process of crossing, exhibiting the body language that says "I'm going" and listening for right turning cars. However, in many cases now, our lights are set to give the pedestrians a head start. So I just have to make sure no one is running the red or sneaking that right turn in. Because of these messages, I am often at least halfway across the street before the cars enter the same crossing. Because the verbal messages are so short and quiet, I can hear bicycles which would have been surprises if the overhead chirpers had been in use. Because the older chirpers were also associated with directions, another point of confusion can arise. If the chirp means crossing going east/west, imagine the fun when the street curves. I can walk down one street, cross with the chirp, turn on a "perpendicular" street and still cross with a chirp. So I find that much more training is required to use this type of aps. Once in an unfamiliar area, I crossed when it seemed correct to do so, based on the chirping and the traffic. My surprise? I was walking along a street that was about to jog to the right. I had heard the chirp for the westbound traffic, not eastbound, which included me. The sound of the chirp and of the traffic bounced off of some buildings, making me think they were actually going east. Again, using years of excellent training and practice, I made a nasty error. If I had heard a locator tone, found a ped button close by, I would have waited for that specific street name before moving, regardless of what I thought the traffic was doing.
I have heard the argument that the verbal messages would be problematic for non-English speakers. My thought here is that regardless of the primary language, all blind persons need to learn street names. If a German is looking for King Street, he or she could not stop someone and ask if this is Koenig Strasse. So, given that everyone has to learn which bird call applies to which street. Everyone has to know some street names. If using verbal messages, non-English speakers would need to learn the words "walk sign". I believe that two words which are consistent would be far easier for non-English speakers to learn than would be which sound goes with which, a confusing event for many English-speaking blind pedestrians as well. This is especially true if the blind pedestrian doesn't have a good enough command of English to ask for help if necessary.
Dignity: The honest truth, I found the loud chirp and coo-coo to be quite embarrassing. Every time that bird call would shriek I found myself wanting to shout back, "I'm smart. I have a Master's degree!" As I go from place to place, my world is full of verbal messages aimed at everyone, not just blind people. "caution, the doors are about to close" says the automatic announcement on the train. We hear countless announcements on loudspeakers at airports, in grocery stores, etc. So the verbal walk message isn't a shock to the neighborhood's system, or to mine. Since the information is in a form that the general sighted population can also grasp, I don't feel so different. I have also had the experience of finding two buttons on the same pole and enjoying the braille label, or the additional message, assuring me that I was pressing the button I intended to press. Surely, anyone can identify with the level of discomfort that comes from not knowing exactly what to do or if what you've done is correct. If this happens intersection after intersection all afternoon, by the end of the walk, we have used up much more energy than our sighted counterparts. Yes, that's how it is being blind. However, when technology comes along that allows us to relax and also benefits the rest of the community, where's the harm?
Safer crossings: As I walk across town at 5:30 am, I'm really struck by the difference between the older bird calls and the newer verbal messages. Again, because they respond to ambient sound, as I reach my first crossing, it very quietly tells me the walk sign is on. This is extremely important because until 6:00 am, the major street has a constant green. Those crossing the major street only get the green light when tripping the sensor or pushing the button. I usually have no parallel traffic at this hour and the walk phase is very very short. But because I have the information at the very beginning of the walk phase, I can leave the downcurb immediately. I actually find that I no longer rush across streets. I walk at a consistent safe pace, partly because I'm not worried about the guess and am not feeling the adrenaline rush. Because I'm not rushing, I'm also more able to focus on my surroundings, namely, listening to traffic, following my dog if the street angles, etc. Overall, this improves my reaction time to any sudden changes or surprises.
Since installing these new audible pedestrian signals in my area, I have had so few "traffic checks" (a term given to surprise encounters with cars that require a guide dog to help take evasive action) that I hope my dog will still react when it's necessary. Oh what a pleasant problem to have!
Sound levels: Here again I mention my 5:30 am cross-town walk. I leave my neighborhood with quiet bits of information. Ten minutes later, as I push the next walklight button, I cringe as the chirping screams out. I want to apologize to those neighbors I've just jolted out of a sound sleep. But I don't get a light unless I activate the chirper. Sometimes I don't push the button just for that reason. I catch a lull and just go. I was once grabbed by three young men, who held me, pounded on me and screamed in my face saying "It's your fault we can't sleep at night! We hate you!" I admit it was that moment which determined the vehemence with which I would advocate for verbal messages in my own neighborhood. If the older bird calls had been my only experience with audible pedestrian signals, I'm not sure how strongly I'd be writing these comments. But better technology is emerging and it's important that those who advocate for or against its use actually have experience with it.
Community reaction: Sighted pedestrians love the verbal messages. It usually takes a time or two for them to understand the words because they're not expecting it. However, we've heard comments such as, "Gee, now I can look at the traffic instead of just at that little man." I've noticed school children start out playing with the aps because it talked, then actually continuing to cross at the signalized intersection because it became just the habit.
Our chamber of commerce and visitors bureau has actually told visitors that if they get lost on the west side of town, just hold down the walklight button and it will tell you which street is which. People say it really helps at night. Our school crossing guards report that their ears don't feel so tired as they did listening to the chirping all day. At the "y" intersection I described earlier, I've notice sighted people make the angle and cross correctly because of the aps. It is very tempting to take both streets at once and head straight across.
Vibro-tactile arrows: In our installation, these are the least effective of the features. They are an excellent tool for pointing in the direction of the crossing, if they are installed properly and actually point in the right direction. Anyone needing to rely on the vibration as notification of the onset of the walk cycle must keep one hand placed on that arrow. This is only really successful if the pole is placed in such a way as to allow the person to be standing in the crosswalk while holding that hand on the arrow. Only two of our crossings actually allow for this. If I stood with my hand resting on the arrow, by the time I felt the vibration and returned to the crosswalk, it would be too late to initiate a safe crossing. If they are located right by the crosswalk, they would not be a good replacement for verbal messages because crowds may prevent me from standing there. I may be carrying groceries and not have a hand free to hold up there, especially for a long light.
Installation: Yes, they do require a little more time and effort when installing aps with verbal messages. The messages must be specified and recorded. Levels must be adjusted. But installation is already easier than when we started our project two years ago.
Conclusion: I would hope that jurisdictions could be made to understand that even though the older chirp/coo-coo systems may be cheaper, taking advantage and even including the newer technology in street and sidewalk design benefits everyone, not just the blind pedestrian. There are many reasons to include such features even though no blind person may be seen at the intersection when the studies were conducted. Every community includes people who may be aging and losing vision, but may be in denial. There is no way for the traffic engineer to know that this person is not really seeing the oncoming car or can't see the walk symbol up high. You never know when I may visit a sick relative in your city and make that trip to the grocery store late at night. I would love to know that I don't have to risk life and limb as I walk from a hotel in a strange town, heading for that job interview.
In general, I am just self-conscious enough to be very aware of when I think the cry for access is out of hand. Personally, if I dine at a nice restaurant, what matters is that I find out what my choices are, and that I enjoy a nice meal. If someone tells me the choices, I feel I have no less access than I would have if I had been handed a braille menu. I'm more comfortable talking to the bus driver than I am relying on automated announcements which may speak at the wrong times. I mention these only to emphasize the value I place on street safety. There are often no sighted people around to assist. When there are, they often panic if they see that a blind person is about to cross incorrectly. Quite often, the panic and shouting from the sighted person who thinks we're in danger actually does put us in even more danger. As we are taught to make a decision and behave in a consistent manner, the sudden jolt as we're grabbed, or that sudden freeze in the middle of the street because someone's screaming can startle us and surprise any driver that may be trying to adjust to our actions. But of course, if we truly are in danger, cars are moving faster and faster these days, giving us less chance to compensate for a guess which turns into an inadvertent error. In places where we all make life and death decisions, true unambiguous access really does matter.
I hope my comments have been helpful and welcome any inquiries or questions.
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