After ceremony, mixed signals on new pedestrian safety devices

The recent installation of Audible Pedestrian Signals at Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street (mere steps away from Selis Manor, a living facility for the blind and visually impaired) has been greeted by locals as a welcome addition — with ample room for improvement. But that cautious optimism didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm expressed by Selis Manor residents and other neighborhood pedestrians who joined electeds, activists and city officials on the morning of September 28 to celebrate the installation of the devices at one of Chelsea’s busiest intersections.

“New Yorkers want to hear that their streets are getting safer,” noted Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — who went on to cite crash data from 2005-2009, which identified Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street as having more pedestrians killed or seriously injured than 97 percent of all intersections in Manhattan (21 pedestrians were inured, resulting in one fatality).

“This is a great start,” proclaimed City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in reference to the upgrade. “But I can’t wait until Commissioner Khan and I are at the last one of them.” With the audible devices currently fixed to 21 pedestrian signal poles citywide — and another 25 planned over the next year — Quinn may have to wait awhile (there are 12,000 potential sites throughout the city).

Citing one minor quality of life concession for a greater good, Sadik-Khan noted that the devices are, “loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that they’re a nuisance to the community.” Given the alternative, most would seem to prefer the presence of low-volume chirping or buzzing or a spoken word instruction that it’s safe to cross (those features vary according to the particular device installed at any given intersection).

In an October 4 phone conversation with Chelsea Now, Nancy D. Miller (Executive Director and CEO of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired) noted that, in general, “I can say the constituents are pleased with the results that occurred at Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street. Now that doesn’t mean blind people are happy about all the bike lanes and the turning lanes. These are very difficult for blind pedestrians, because of the way they’re laid out. You have the sidewalk, then you have to cross a bike lane, then you have a median, then your major traffic lanes, then your sidewalk.”

Of the different types of signals located in close proximity to Selis Manor, Miller notes that both her organization as PASS (Pedestrians for Accessible and Safe Streets) have been taking their concerns and observations to the DOT. “There are differences of opinion amongst blind people and the professionals who serve them, as to what signals are best,” says Miller. “For a very experienced traveler who is blind, it won’t matter. They will use the information, whether it’s a talking or a beeping signal. Those cues can be used by a blind traveler with mobility training.” But for a less experienced person who is blind and also may have hearing loss, Miller cautions, “The fact that the signals are not consistent is a difficulty. The feedback we’ve gotten from tenants who live at Selis Manor as to whether they prefer the signal to talk as it does on Sixth or beep as it does on Seventh, have been mixed.” Some do not find either option useful, she notes, because, “It’s just more street noise. So what we’ve said is, ‘Please contact us in advance so we can be part of the planning process. Make sure there are blind individuals and certified mobility instructors who are part of the planning group.’ ” Still, she emphasizes, the very existence of the present system in Chelsea is an improvement: “When you have more information about how much time you’ve got before the light changes, that’s a positive for all pedestrians who are crossing. That’s what the [September 28] celebration was about.”