Advocating for Accessible Pedestrian Signals

You are standing at the corner, about to cross a street. You hear that traffic has stopped, but has the light really changed color, or is it just a break in traffic? If you cannot see the “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” signage, the only other way to know for sure is to either wait for a car to travel parallel to you, or to use an accessible pedestrian signal. Accessible pedestrian signals (APS) provide an audible indication for when the light changes.

Hear a short clip of what an audible signal sounds like (Sound Library from Polara Enterprises, an APS Manufacturer)

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 12101), requires access to the public right-of-way for people with disabilities, including pedestrians who have vision impairments. The Federal Highway Administration strongly encourages states to implement the draft Public Rights-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines (PROWAG) policy to install APS when conducting new construction, major reconstruction and retrofitting current traffic signals. The national trend is to incorporate APS devices where feasible.

The number of APS varies from city to city, depending on the accessibility-mindedness of city officials and advocacy done by people who are blind or visually impaired living in those regions. For example, San Francisco had APS at 202 intersections as of October 2016. New York City had APS at 131 intersections as of November 2015, and the city promised to equip 75 more intersections each year. In Madison Wisconsin, 73 of 386 lighted intersections are APS, making it the third safest city for pedestrians of the 104 medium to large cities in the US. In Milwaukee there are 722 controlled intersections, with officials committed to making more of these APS.

Think about the streets in your community. Is there an anxiety-inducing intersection you avoid crossing? If you would like an APS installed on your walking route, find out the specific request process in your town. Talk to municipal traffic and city engineers. Learning more about the process is the first step to making change.

In most cases, traffic engineers and city officials will want to hear from a person who is directly impacted by the need for the signal. Traffic engineers will look at individual need and the complexity of the intersection to decide whether to install an APS. Engineers like to put APS where streets can be made safer for everyone.

A sign reading "push button to turn on warning lights" mounted above a button on a street pole.
An accessible pedestrian signal placed at an intersection features a large arrow button to turn on audio cues to cross the street.

Many people can benefit from APS installation. People with other mobility issues will get an audible as well as visual cue and will be more confident about crossing the street. Families with young children can use the audible signal as a teaching tool, since the signal gives both audible and visual alerts. Parents can use this information to teach children how to cross streets safely. Audible signals are often helpful for anyone when there is a glare, or when the sun is shining at the wrong angle, preventing people from seeing the visual sign. They will be able to hear that it is safe to cross. Audible signals reduce the confusion about inconsistent icon use. They are also useful for people who experience colorblindness. The aging population is increasing. Audible signals will give them more time to cross the street, since they can begin the crossing sooner.

APS are uniform in design and affordable to install-especially at the beginning of a construction project. The total cost for installing an APS is approximately $2,800, whereas retrofitting one to an existing signal costs over $10,000. Therefore, it is important to keep up with news about intersection construction in your area. Contact Alders and City Council and advocate for an APS right away. Attend public meetings about the project, write letters and call traffic engineering to explain personal circumstances. It is important to persist and stay on top of the process, so remember to follow up often.

People working together get more done than one person working alone. Organize an effort among family or friends. Talk to neighbors, a local low vision support group, or community center. Do not assume someone else will advocate on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired. It is up to you to organize an effort. The Council can help by providing public education and awareness. Feel free to reach out to the Council for talking points. Remember that you are not alone, and audible signals impact and benefit everyone.

Keep in mind that while accessible pedestrian signals are helpful, they are not perfect. Having them installed will not solve all mobility problems, since it is hard to hear them when there is construction noise. Drivers occasionally run red lights, which is also a safety hazard. The signals are not a guarantee; they are just another mechanism to help create more safety.

Click Here to listen to a 10-minute interview with Denise Jess, CEO/Executive Director on Wisconsin Public Radio (Judith Siers-Poisson) about visually impaired pedestrians.


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