204. Writing & Critical Analysis 995. Physical Computing

Push to cross: power and access [Part 2 of 2]

continued from part 1 here

While thousands of NYC push-to-cross buttons are inactive, there are ~150 special new push-to-cross buttons. They are called Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APDs), and they look like this:

Unlike the crosswalk buttons of old, the primary purpose of APD’s are to help blind and low-vision pedestrians navigate crosswalks more safely. They also provide a legend to the 3 modes of the crosswalk light (from a visual management perspective, this seems unnecessary if not counter productive).

From the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT), APDs are:

“wired to a pedestrian signal and send audible and vibrotactile indications when pedestrians push a button installed at the crosswalk.”

In other words, they vibrate upon touch, and also make the following audible noises:

  1. A command to “Wait” every time the button is pressed when the cross light is red:

  •  The “Wait” command every few seconds after the initial press to confirm the light is still red:
  • A very annoying clicking sound to indicates a green light:

There is no doubt it is very fun to touch the button because it give a bit of vibrating feedback every time. But does this actually help blind and low-vision people navigate? From first-hand experience you may know the clicks you hear upon a green light are audible, but do they really help people know where to go?

According to the American Council of the Blind (ACB), the rapid ticking sound, along with the direction of the button’s arrow are useful, but it does not say how useful. The council just confirms its superiority over the overhead “chirping” systems (common in suburban areas) that was causing confusion.

Are these APS’s really the best long term solution for this problem? The ACB highlights a list of challenges with the current APS, some of which don’t feature any real solutions, such as this one:

“Because dog guides are trained to avoid obstacles, they may be reluctant to approach poles that support pedestrian pushbuttons.”

To me, the APS seems more like a band-aid solution, and in NYC this band-aid can be seen as expensive. According to the 2005 DOT report on APS, for the 33 intersections where APS were installed in that year, the total cost was $871,077 – an average cost of $26,396 per intersection. The DOT is therefore very careful about choosing where to install them – they have an involved ranking system based on “off-peak traffic presence, the current traffic-signal patterns and the complexity of the intersection’s geometry, including crossing distance” to determine where to put the next one.

Is this really the best we can do? Perhaps a mobile-based guide of some kind would be better for the user, and cheaper to implement. In the balance between budget and real accessibility, I think the jury is still out on street crossing.

One thing is for sure, that tactile button sure is fun to press.

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