Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new app uses crowdsourced data to make intersections safer for visually impaired pedestrians.
Can I hear traffic slowing to a stop? Is the curb sloping downwards? Can I feel the rumble of engines on a perpendicular street?
For people with visual impairments, safely crossing the street can be a tricky task, even at designated crosswalks. A 2007 report prepared for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program outlined the sensory cues that visually-impaired people note when locating and navigating an intersection. It requires a lot of maneuvering: How wide is this block? Are there any medians? What will I encounter on the other side?
Without audible cues, it may be difficult to estimate how much time you have to get across the street. And even when there are aural cues, they might be hard to understand. Accessible intersections can vary dramatically from place to place, and even within the same city.
Take Portland. Roughly 250 of the city’s 1,200-plus intersections feature sound cues—but those range from spoken phrases to bird chirps to clicking, ticking, or buzzing sounds, KGW News reported. Such inconsistencies can cause problems, especially when people struggle to differentiate the beacon’s cues from other ambient sounds. The Oregonian chronicled instances of people charging out into the street, thinking that the chirps were indicating that it was safe to cross—in fact, the mechanical coos sounded a lot like the cardinal’s call; plus, birds perched on wires learned to imitate the crosswalk sound and deploy it at their whim.
There’s a lot of information to process, and a dearth of resources to help sort it out. A new app aims to streamline the process by crowdsourcing as much information as possible for crosswalks all over the world.
Users can log on to SeeLight—free in the iTunes store—and add information such as duration of the walk signal or presence of raised bumps indicating the crosswalk’s borders. The app, which uses an open API, adds a GPS tag to the intersection so the location is searchable.
The app’s creators believe it can help mitigate outdated technology and infrastructure that’s constantly in flux. Vlad Sitnikov, creative director of Hungry Boys, the app’s Moscow-based developers, explained to Fast Company:
"Public bodies can be notoriously slow at being proactive and temporary traffic lights are forever popping up when roads are being worked on. SeeLight helps manage this uncertainty."
Retrofitting existing crosswalks with accessible technology can have a hefty price. It would cost about $12,000 to outfit a four-way intersection with an audible signal, Dylan Rivera, the spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, told KGW News.
Overhauling and standardizing accessible intersections is a long-term project. In the meantime, SeeLight could help make crossings easier—and safer—to use.