Skip to main content

When you really go blind – A True Story of Pedestrian Safety & Inaccessible Public Transportation

October 4, 2022
Author: AO Editor

It’s a little windy and a little chilly. I hate the wind. It might rain too. That’s when you really go blind-Standing next to the road on a rainy windy day…

At an intersection that doesn’t consider safety, accessibility, or universal design for people with disabilities.

In fact, at inaccessible major intersections, where the only way for a blind person to know if it’s safe to cross is through sound, it can be pretty stressful. Worse, it can be deadly. This is what Pete Buttigieg had to say about pedestrian safety during Pedestrian Safety Month.

“We live in an era when it is safer to fly in an airplane 30,000 feet above the ground than it is to walk down the street.” - U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

Standing on the Northeast corner of 22nd Street and Pantano Road in Tucson Arizona, I’m on my way home from the post office. The bus stop is across the street. I need to catch the number 10 southbound.

Universal Design and Accessible Transportation Adapts on the Fly

It’s a unique intersection from a bus stop perspective. Why? Because unlike every bus stop I’ve experienced in Tucson, the bus stop for this intersection comes one hundred feet or so before the intersection, rather than one hundred or more feet passed it.

That hard lesson was already learned before on one long trip home. The pain, frustration, anger each time those number 10 buses heading southbound drove passed me. I’ll only make that mistake once.

Imagine a senior citizen, person with a cognitive impairment, or a blind person in this same scenario for the first time. How would they ever know? How do they safely find the bus stop if every other trip of their entire life the bus stop was located after the intersection?

The short answer is they couldn’t. And they won’t. I didn’t either.

In fact, given their travel-limiting disability, the only chance they’ll learn where this bus stop is if another pedestrian kind-hearted enough stops, engages, realizes the problem, knows the answer, and is able to provide instructions accurate enough for them to cross back over the intersection and successfully find it. Again, I know from experience.

Unless, they could independently be informed ahead of time where the bus stop is at every intersection, such as with accessible smart route planning, or be informed on location in real-time, such as with accessible orientational navigation guidance and data visualization capability.

Public Transportation Accessibility Does Not Equal Intersection Accessibility

The only technology at this intersection helping me are the toes of my Nike tennis shoes, planted at the bottom of the curb ramp, nestled up to the lip of where the street meets the sidewalk.

Extending a 64” white cane out into the intersection, alerting drivers in the best way possible of my presence, and of my intent to cross the street, my shoulders remain straight as I turn my head to 22nd and listen closely to the traffic.

Focusing my complete attention, there are no gaps in the Westbound traffic. It’s busy. For a blind person, this can make crossing intersections safer. Traffic moving in the same direction you are provides a wall of protection against opposing perpendicular traffic.

Turning my head and attention back forward in alignment with my shoulders, I hear the Southbound traffic on Pantano idling. Idling traffic tells a blind person vehicles are stopped for a reason. In this scenario, Pantano’s Southbound traffic is stopped at the intersection with a red light.

With the wall of traffic on 22nd street protecting me, I quickly step off the curb and briskly move out into the crosswalk. I’ve got a bike lane and 7 traffic lanes plus a median to cross before I’ll be out of harm’s way on the other side of the street.

I hear it to my left, moving fast. There’s no time to think. It just happened.

Universal Design & Accessibility Saves Lives or Pedestrians Become Statistics

Turning left on to Pantano, a vehicle whips by inches away from my face, ripping the white cane from my hands. Scrambling to pick it up off the ground, I find it and scurry back to the curb.

Scared, panting, upset, worried, and mad all at once. Traffic keeps moving. Seconds ago, a life was almost lost. Right now, it’s as if nothing happened here.

And if history repeats itself, it didn’t. Nothing happened. Until someone dies.

“Fine,” “Uneventful”, or “Boring”, should almost always be the answer when asked, “How was your trip to the post office?”

That should be the whole story. Because while fine, uneventful, or boring, it’s also safe. No life was lost.

And this is what the real story of what pedestrian travel should be today in the United States. It isn’t with over 6500 pedestrian fatalities in 2020 alone. Over 6500 during Covid? Yeah…

Call it a distracted motorist, honest mistake, or a product of rushing home after a long day to get the kids to soccer practice. Call it whatever you want. I call it preventable.

Are Pedestrian Fatalities Preventable with Accessibility and Universal Design?

Today, and as a result of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, government agencies and municipal entities can choose different. They can choose accessibility. They can lead with universal design.

There’s over $1 Billion in 2022 alone, and with significant funding allocated for projects including universal design and accessibility for all, I’m looking forward to reading the upcoming grant award recipients as soon as they are announced.

It’s a choice. What will your elected officials choose? What will they make a priority in your community?

I am so blessed to have had tremendous Orientation & Mobility instructors since I went blind as an adult. They taught me how to safely go from A to B, up and down stairs, cross intersections, and even the skills needed to get back on track when I realize I’m lost.

As great as that is, the best O&M instructors and the best O&M skills cannot protect me from aggressive, distracted drivers running late for work, picking up the kids from practice or school, or rushing to the post office before it closes.

Like wheelchair ramps and closed captions have helped innumerous people without disability in their daily and digital lives, making intersections more accessible will better protect all pedestrians, not just those with disabilities. Here are some of the ways I’ve been considering intersections could be more accessible if they leveraged existing, readily available, and cost-efficient technologies

  1. Alternative accessibility communication methods for pedestrians to activate intersection crossings and receive real-time status updates of the intersection, such as when it is safe to cross, which direction is safe to cross, and how much time until the light changes from green to yellow/red.
    Enabling someone using a powerchair shouldn’t prevent them from engaging with the intersection they need to cross.
  2. Ultrawide-band systems to keep blind or cognitively impaired pedestrians in the crosswalk while crossing the street and notifying pedestrians when they have successfully finished crossing the street in real-time.
    Walking in a straight line can be difficult for people with various travel-limiting disabilities while other intersection crossings are not straight or have a single median. Such as the intersection of Wilmot at Speedway, where there is an odd second median in the northwest corner of the intersection.
  3. Connected pedestrian, micromobility, and automobile communication networks informing vehicles and electric scooter drivers vulnerable pedestrians are crossing the street or are nearby.
    Who hasn’t seen a scooter get into an accident first-hand or nearly hit by a scooter themselves that’s speeding by? Whether driving a scooter or a huge SUV, if a motorist is proximal to a vulnerable pedestrian, informing the motorist of the pedestrian’s location could save lives. Especially at night when visibility is severely impaired for motorists.
  4. Advanced and renewable lighting systems to provide necessary visibility for pedestrians to cross the intersection safer while providing advanced visibility to motorists.
    This is an easy decision. It’s harder to see at night. Headlights can cause shadows, distort perceptions, and impair a driver’s ability to react in an emergency situation. Providing smart night-time lighting can potentially fix this and save many lives, especially as most pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. happen at night.
  5. Enabling pedestrians to trigger extended time to cross the street so they do not get stuck in the middle of the intersection.
    Whether a senior citizen, person with a mobility impairment, or someone without disability needing extra time to cross, pedestrians should have the capability to request this accommodation. Because that’s exactly what it is, an accommodation.

How Are Technologies for Pedestrian Safety and Accessible Intersections Different?

Improving pedestrian safety with technology and improving both public transportation and intersection accessibility are the same thing. They are one in the same!

My story is just one anecdote of the larger pedestrian fatality and inaccessible intersection narrative here in the United States. The technology and accessibility capabilities are there. What’s lacking is executive sponsorship and implementation.

Currently, most of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grant funding is limited and restricted to municipalities, government agencies, and reservations. While each of these types of entities deserve funding, not putting in requirements to include accessibility technologies designed and developed by U.S. small businesses, disability-owned businesses, and service-disabled veteran-owned businesses seems extraordinarily short-sighted. While there is special funding set aside for infrastructure accessibility and transportation equity, suggestions and “prize money” for including the disabled in your grant proposal doesn’t line up with the historical disability inclusive approach of the Biden Administration.

Across the United States, municipal entities procure and leverage innovative technologies for public transportation, autonomous vehicles, analytics, tracking, and a lot more. When will municipal entities choose to start leveraging the readily available innovative technologies that improve safety, independence, access, and quality of life for people with disabilities? Or better, when will the ADA be updated, or another act introduced, that will fix this unacceptable technological negligence.

To learn more about what the US DOT is doing for pedestrian safety specific to accessing public transit, such as bus and rail stations, you can learn more about Improving Safety for Pedestrians and Bicyclists Accessing Transit here.

While an interesting guide with “interesting” opening disclaimers, you can see some recommendations for improving lighting at intersections here.

Like this article? Share it!

Join our Newsletter