Nonprofit Requests Audible Traffic Signal

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The perplexing Columbus Avenue-meets-Broadway-meets-West 65th Street intersection is difficult to navigate for most New Yorkers.

But less than a block away is the Jewish Guild for the Blind, where about a dozen legally blind people work and hundreds of people receive services each week.

After years of lobbying by the guild, the Department of Transportation is now studying a proposal to place an audible traffic signal at the intersection.

“We would think we deserve attention, first because of the concentration of people coming here [who] are blind and vision impaired,” said Peter Williamson, director of communications and public information for the guild. “Then you look at the traffic patterns of Columbus, Broadway and West 65th Street and you see three different rivers of traffic all at once.”

Audrey Schading uses a guide dog and listens to the flow of traffic to get through the intersection, but would be happy to have help from an audible signal. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

A Department of Transportation study that will examine the feasibility of placing an audible traffic signal at the intersection is expected to be complete within the next several weeks. Work was delayed due to the record snowstorm that hit the city Feb. 25 and 26. Such studies are conducted based on requests, generally from facilities that offer services to the visually impaired.

Guild employees and those who come to support groups are adept at traveling around the city on foot. But their usual methods of knowing when it is safe to cross—such as listening to the surge of car noise—can be difficult with three separate traffic lanes. An audible traffic signal for the intersection would make things easier by announcing which street is safe to cross.

There is already a talking traffic signal at Sixth Avenue and East 23rd Street for residents of VISIONS at Selis Manor, a building for adults and seniors with visual impairments. Of the 13 audible traffic signals installed citywide, four are in Manhattan. This would be the first on the Upper West Side.

“The signal to me would be like the light to you,” said Audrey Schading, a rehabilitation instructor at the guild.

Schading uses a guide dog and listens to the flow of parallel and oncoming traffic to get through the intersection.

Catherine O’Haire, an elderly woman in a macular degeneration support group, has to cross the intersection when she takes the bus back home to Eighth Avenue and West 14th Street.

“It’s confusing, but I think it was confusing when I could see,” O’Haire said.

There are few statistics that show how dangerous this intersection can be. But the most recent data from Transportation Alternatives’ CrashStat.org show there were 22 pedestrian accidents at the intersection between 2000 and 2005, including one fatal incident.

Chancey Fleet is an instructor at the center who uses a cane. She can see light and shadow, but says she can get turned around trying to cross the multi-lane intersection. Fleet says he sometimes asks a stranger for assistance.

“I’m a confident traveler. But I’ll ask questions. I’ll just say, ‘Are we clear?’” Fleet said. “It’s intimidating to me.”

Most days, however, Fleet avoids the intersection all together and takes the D train from her Brooklyn home to Central Park West and walks an extra five blocks. She only attempts the “super complex” intersection, she says, on rainy or snowy days.

“It’s not that I can’t use the intersection but it’s a little bit stressful,” Fleet said. “It’s a game of which is worse, weather or intersection.”

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