Navigating with Accessible Pedestrian Signals in Washington, DC

April 22, 2019

As a DC transplant from New York City, I am used to having to cross busy intersections with a lot of traffic as a legally blind pedestrian. With proper mobility training, I am able to listen to traffic flow and decide when to cross safely.

Even with mobility training, however, walking around the city is not always easy. Quiet cars make it increasingly difficult to listen to traffic. Traffic patterns are different in each intersection, even in the same neighborhood, and intersections have become increasingly complex. When crossing unfamiliar streets, uneven patterns and quiet cars mean that I need to stand there for two or three traffic cycles to figure out when it is safe to cross. For a busy professional like me, this is inefficient. A fifteen minute walk in an unfamiliar area could easily turn into 45 minutes to an hour.

There is a solution to this problem.  Accessible pedestrian signals (APS) use audio signals to let pedestrians know when they can cross.

In Washington, DC, All APS I have encountered constantly make a low pop sound to alert pedestrians that they can press a button to get audio information. In Washington, DC, most APS have an arrow that points to the street that the APS signals for. When I press the button, it says “wait” in a male computer voice. When it is time to cross, the arrow vibrates and a voice announces the street name and that the crosswalk sign indicator is ‘on’ to cross. Usually, it will only announce that the crosswalk sign is ‘on’ two or three times, even if pedestrians still have the light. In a few intersections, the APS can detect when a pedestrian is waiting to cross, and a female computer voice activates to tell the pedestrian that the walk sign is’ on’ to cross.

Interestingly, the length of time the APS speaks seems to be unrelated to the traffic cycle. If I press the APS one second after the walk signal turns on, the APS will prompt me to “wait” even if I still have 30 seconds or more to cross. This can be frustrating, especially on streets when the next walk signal won’t be on for over a minute and 30 seconds. However, the system is still faster than standing for several cycles to listen and analyze traffic patterns, so this is a small price to pay.

The DC system is different from New York City, where I used to live. In NYC, I encountered APS less frequently, but I don’t know if this is objectively true. The APS there only made an audio sound when it was time to cross, without providing more information.

Despite APS’ benefit to pedestrians with disabilities, they are not widely available around DC.  I have encountered them in busy streets with fast-moving traffic, but not all Streets that fit this description have them. In my experience, APS are available every two or three blocks in some neighborhoods (such as Dupont Circle). However, other areas with busy streets (such as Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill) don’t have many, if any at all.

The DC Department of Transportation has little to no information on its website about existing intersections with APS or its process for deciding where to install more.  (If it does, I couldn’t find it after several hours of searching). I emailed the Department of Transportation to ask about this but have not received a response as of this writing. The city’s Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Transition Plan does state that “whenever the department paves, repaves, resurfaces, or engages in construction of a roadway, bridge, or tunnel, it will bring that portion of the PROW [public right-of-way] into compliance with the ADA”. This likely includes APS, but given the slow process of completing new construction projects, the city will likely not have APS on every street any time soon. (In contrast, New York City has a website with a list of all APS intersections, the process for deciding where to put more, and a form where pedestrians can submit a request for the city to consider installing an APS at a specific intersection).

APS help pedestrians like me be more confident while walking around, and they do not affect sited pedestrians or drivers, but they are not widely available in DC and across the country for several reasons. First, noise is sometimes a concern. APS have a tone locator that constantly makes a sound to alert pedestrians that it is available, and a voice must announce that the walk sign is on to cross. While the sound is not overwhelming, communities already concerned about the level of noise pollution in their areas have sometimes opposed them. Second, cost can be a factor. The US Access Board estimates that it costs about $2,800 extra to install APS in one intersection. In an era where infrastructure funding is lacking in many places around the country, spending more can be a challenge for governments with competing priorities. However, as Thomas Logan here at Equal Entry has shown, it is possible to lower the cost of manufacturing APS significantly. Third, some blind people have also opposed them because they believe they have the necessary mobility training to navigate traffic and because they distract from listening to the environment around them. Finally, not all intersections have pedestrian signals. In these cases, it is not possible to install an APS.

Despite these challenges, my experience in DC suggests that it is worth investing in APS and exploring technologies that make them cheaper to produce. APS will never replace proper mobility skills, but they can make it more enjoyable to walk around by giving blind people similar information to sited pedestrians. The more information they can provide, the better. DC’s accessible pedestrian signals provide the street name as well as the walk signal’s status in a given intersection, which is more than other APS models. DC and other cities should build on this success and expand their efforts to make the streets accessible to all.

Accessibility Consultant | Washington D.C.

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