The University Record, November 19, 2001

New crosswalks are the talk of the town

By Lesley Harding

Accessible Pedestrian Signals make it easier for Paul Cartman and Deb Murray to cross at the corner of State St. and Liberty St. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)
Your mother probably taught you to look both ways before crossing the street —but now some talking pedestrian signals are making it easier for some walkers who can’t see oncoming traffic to cross the street.

This past summer, the city of Ann Arbor installed Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APSs) at five intersections: State and Liberty, State and William, Packard and Main, Packard and Stadium, and Jackson and Maple. These signals not only give visual prompts to cross the street, but also auditory ones, “giving blind people access to the same information as a sighted person when crossing a street,” says Paul Cartman, commissioner with the Ann Arbor Commission on Disability Issues.

Choosing the right APS system was a two-year endeavor. The city investigated 11 different brands before deciding on the Polara Navigator. Commissioners were looking for flexibility of design, ease of installation and the quantity of information presented to many users. “We looked at which system would serve as many disabilities as possible . . . deaf, blind and cognitive impairments,” says Cartman. City commissioners felt the Navigator with its visual and audio cues reached the largest audience and was the least obtrusive.

The APS is user-friendly. It emits a constant beeping noise. This locator tone is a federal guideline that serves two purposes. It lets impaired people know that they’re at a crosswalk with an APS, and it also helps them locate the button to activate the street voice message, says Les Sipowski, project manger with the Ann Arbor Public Services Department. This voice message gives information as to the street, direction the pedestrian is heading and when the walk sign is on for that street.

“It is very important for people to understand how to use them,” says Sipowski. “To the public, there’s nothing they have to do at these locations. The visual indications work just fine without any pedestrian interaction.”

It’s only when the crosswalk button is depressed for more than three seconds that the auditory prompts come on. “We recommended the three-second push because of its community friendliness,” says Cartman. “Any person, blind or sighted, can choose whether they want an auditory prompt or not.”

“The misconception that people have is how it (the APS system) impacts the function of the cycling of the traffic signals,” says Cartman. “It doesn’t, it absolutely doesn’t. All intersections have a dedicated walk cycle that’s not a result of the pedestrian signals.”

Ann Arbor is one of a few cities across the country that have installed talking crosswalks. In 1990, then President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act. Cartman says this legislation basically states that any service that’s provided for the general public has to be made accessible to people with disabilities. Recent guidelines to that law include accessible pedestrian crossings.

“Ann Arbor has developed the reputation over decades as being a community-oriented place to live, an inclusive community, a diverse community. We feel these accessible signals are positive for business and they draw diversity,” says Cartman.

But many visually impaired people are at a crossroads regarding the crosswalks. “These signals are a hot issue among blind people,” says Christine Brown, U-M coordinator of services for the blind and visually impaired.

Some visually impaired individuals feel the talking walks send a message that they’re incompetent or that they need the environment modified to function, says Brown. This opinion is supported by the National Federation of the Blind.

“The NFB sees blindness not as a disability but as a characterstic like red hair. With the proper mobility training, a blind person can use the rest of his or her abilities to cross the intersection as well as a sighted person,” says Cartman.

Then there’s the American Council of the Blind. Cartman says the ACB does see blindness as a disability, but doesn’t feel it’s disabling to ask for the same information as a sighted person when doing things like crossing a street.

Some pedestrians in Ann Arbor are siding with the ACB. Fred Moss, a doctoral student in the School of Music, says, “I’m not that proud. My inclination is to use as much information as I can get. If those are there, I will use them. It doesn’t mean I will stop listening to the traffic, which is what I’ve been trained to do, but whatever information is available, I will use.”

“I like the idea of the crosswalks at busy streets,” says Jack Bernard, University attorney and chair of the U-M Council for Disability Concerns. “I think it’s a nice thing for the city to be paying attention to these kinds of issues and make the streets more accessible to folks with visual impairments.”