Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kansas City welcomes talking crosswalks

From The Kansas City Star:

Trucks and cars hum down Prospect Avenue, but under the traffic noise, Melvin Smith can hear the steady “ping” sounding from the crosswalk at 75th Street.

The ping helps Smith, who is blind, find the crosswalk.

As at most intersections, a button activates the crosswalk signal, but this one plays a recorded message telling Smith when it’s OK to walk. He uses it every day to get to his job at Alphapointe Association for the Blind, a nonprofit agency that trains and employs people with blindness.

“It’s like another weapon in the arsenal,” said Smith, who has lobbied area cities to install more of these devices.

Accessible pedestrian signals are a long way from being commonplace, but several cities are gradually installing more.

Kansas City has them at 20 locations, with plans for more than 30 others in the next two years. The city has 550 to 600 signalized intersections.

Prairie Village, Overland Park, Independence and Liberty use similar devices at a handful of places.

The policy of the Kansas City Public Works Department is to add audible crosswalk signals whenever an intersection gets a new traffic signal, city spokesman Dennis Gagnon said.

It’s relatively inexpensive to place the devices as part of a larger project. And officials believe that accessible signals will become a standard.

“People shouldn’t have to always make requests,” Gagnon said.

That’s how it used to be in Kansas City, and how it still is in many communities. The signals go up only because a citizen asks for one. Most cities say they get few requests.

“I think people don’t like to advocate for themselves,” said Smith, who jokes: “I’m not shy. I’ll talk to the devil himself.”

Australia and Sweden have used accessible signals for decades, but they didn’t start catching on here until the 1990s, according to Janet Barlow, a North Carolina-based consultant with Accessible Design for the Blind.

“It’s fairly new technology for traffic engineers,” Barlow said.

The National Federation of the Blind, a leading advocacy group, doesn’t take a hard line on accessible pedestrian signals. They can be useful, especially at roundabouts and high-traffic intersections, an official said, but it’s more important for people with low or no vision to get mobility training, which helps them navigate their homes, offices and neighborhoods.

“Unless and until these devices are universally installed … blind people are going to have to deal with intersections that don’t have them,” said spokesman Chris Danielsen.

Alphapointe, where Smith works, is contracted by Missouri to provide mobility training. People who are blind can get around without accessible signals, but the devices increase safety and accessibility, said Clay Berry, Alphapointe’s director of rehabilitation.

“It’s life or death when you’re out in traffic,” said Gina Gowin, the nonprofit’s director of development and public relations.

Barlow agrees that mobility training is essential. But she argues that it’s only fair to install accessible pedestrian signals.

“Blind people deserve to have the same information as sighted people,” she said.

The accessible signals are more expensive. Overland Park spent about $8,000 to install the devices at one intersection, city traffic engineer Brian Shields said. The regular signals cost a few hundred dollars.

Seven or eight Overland Park intersections are equipped with accessible signals, and most were placed in the past four or five years, Shields said. They’ve all come about because someone in the public asked. The first was near a school attended by a blind student.

Though the city definitely will work with citizens who make requests, Overland Park has no immediate plans to make accessible signals a standard feature.

“It’s possible,” Shields said, “but at this point, there are a lot of issues we would need to look at.”

For example, he said, engineers have to consider noise pollution. It’s one thing to install a constantly pinging signal near a business district, but it might not be appropriate right next to someone’s bedroom window.

And Gagnon said it’s likely that accessible signals will require more maintenance than current devices.

Independence isn’t making accessible signals a standard, but the city — whenever it builds or upgrades an intersection — will consider them, said public works director John Powell.

In the recent past, Lee’s Summit has had only one request for audible signals, traffic engineer Michael Park said. The city studied it and decided it was more cost-effective to offer that person mobility training instead.

There is still some debate over how widely audible signals should be used, he said.

“I don’t think there is 100 percent agreement in the industry.”

At this point, Liberty has one such device. Alma Rodick, who is blind, asked for it at Gallatin and Mill streets in 2009.

Rodick uses that intersection whenever she walks her son to classes at Franklin Elementary. The traffic at that corner can be tricky, she said, so an audible signal helps her cross safely.

Liberty agreed to her request without a big sales pitch, Rodick said.

“At first, they weren’t really aware of the need,” she said.

Rodick would love for Liberty to install more accessible signals, especially on its square.

“You can never have too many of those.”