COLUMBIA — When Gretchen Maune comes to a busy intersection, she stops, listens to the traffic or uses a cane before stepping out and crossing the street.
Maune is the former president of the Tiger Council for the Blind. She went blind seven years ago, and since then, crossing busy streets has become dangerous for her. Two and a half years ago, Maune and her guide dog, Keeper, were almost hit by a car while walking downtown.
"It really scared me," Maune said. That's when she suggested the city install audible pedestrian signals.
After years of planning and coordination, city officials, members of the Columbia Disabilities Commission and the Tiger Council for the Blind have identified 12 intersections where audible pedestrian signals will be installed. Contracts for signals at four of those locations are set for bidding in October or November this year.
The city's fiscal 2014 budget estimates it will cost $40,000 to install the signals at the intersections of Providence and Stewart roads, Providence and Business Loop 70 and Old 63 and Broadway. Meanwhile, $70,000 is proposed in the fiscal 2015 budget to pay for the signals at College Avenue and Broadway. Those would be more expensive because there are no existing pedestrian signals at the crossing.
As more money becomes available, the city also plans to install signals at eight other intersections:
- Providence Road and Broadway
- College Avenue and Ashland Road
- Mick Deaver Memorial Drive/Tiger Avenue and Stadium Boulevard
- Providence Road and Nifong Boulevard
- Garth Avenue and Business Loop 70
- College Avenue and University Avenue
- Providence Road and Stadium Boulevard
- College Avenue and Rollins Street
Homer Page, former chairman of the Disabilities Commission, said those intersections tend to be busy, dangerous and frequently crossed.
"This is part of the implementation of an overall plan to have our intersections adequately accommodate all pedestrians," Richard Stone, traffic engineer for the city's Public Works Department, said.
Page estimated that more than 500 people in Columbia will benefit from the audible signals.
Stone said the city has been working with the Disabilities Commission for several years to find ways to improve signals. Finding a solution, however, has taken time because the department wasn't comfortable with previous audible signal technology.
"The chirps and the beeps that came with those units were confusing, or didn’t provide good information to blind pedestrians," Stone said. Although audible systems have been around for about 20 years, it was not until the last four or five years when real advances were made to make the equipment less maintenance-intensive and more able to meet the needs of people who are visually impaired.
The Public Works Department is finishing the design and looking at certain criteria for the system.
Stone said the equipment needs to function at different temperatures and have specific capabilities, such as an option to turn a voice recording in the uniton or off. The noise level of the system needs to be adjustable, too, he said.
"If you’re nearby, you shouldn’t be able to hear it past a certain distance. About 10 feet away, you really shouldn’t hear much," Stone said.
The department tried to identify locations that had pedestrian accommodations already in place. Stone said the goal is to remove the pedestrian button in place and add an audible pedestrian signal.
"That’s still not necessarily cheap or free, but it is a lot less expensive than installing completely brand new equipment," he said. "If the intersection doesn’t have any pedestrian features at all, you’d have to create sidewalks and ramps and other features."
The city hopes to begin installing the signals this winter and to be done by spring.
In Springfield, audible pedestrian signals have been around since December 2007. The city has 13 full systems and plans to put up another 13 or so in the coming year.
Springfield traffic engineer Jason Haynes said the installations were a result of the discussion with the Accessibility Committee at Missouri State University. He also said government agencies are required to put up audible signals because they are mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The feedback has been rather mixed, Haynes said. Although the system has received compliments from the community in general, one person with a visual impairment complained that the system is a distraction that prevents him from listening to cars clearly. The person told Haynes he was trained to listen to traffic.
Maune said several cities have audible pedestrian signals, and downtown Columbus, Ohio, was one that impressed her.
"You don’t need to push the button, which is good because sometimes it’s hard to find the button especially when you can’t see," Maune said. "When it’s OK to cross, it would just start beeping."
Maune also thinks it would be better if the button vibrated while informing people to cross the street, which would help people with hearing problems.
"If we can save one life, we’ve done something good," Maune said.
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