New Pedestrian Plazas Are a Nightmare for the Blind

By DNAinfo Staff on November 8, 2010 6:38am  | Updated on November 8, 2010 6:40am

By Jill Colvin

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

MIDTOWN EAST — Navigating Midtown streets has always been challenging for West Village resident Maria Hansen, who is blind. But now, it's downright frightening.

The Department of Transportation is in the midst of a massive initiative to re-engineer city streets with pedestrian plazas, extended sidewalks and protected bike lanes. But while the redesigns may slow traffic and reduce fatalities, they're turning many intersections into obstacle courses for the blind and visually impaired, advocates say.

"We find that virtually every one of these improvements makes it more dangerous," said Hansen, who has lived in the city for 40 years, as her guide dog Frisco lay at her feet.

DOT spokeswoman Nicole Garcia said that new projects like plazas make city streets better for everyone by shortening crossings, simplifying intersections and adding pedestrian space.

"New York City's streets have never been safer, and we are committed to doing even more, particularly for our most vulnerable New Yorkers," she said in a statement.

But at a City Council hearing last week, Hansen and others complained that concrete barriers, mid-block pedestrian crossings and new signaling patterns are placing an extra burden on the nearly 30,000 blind and visually impaired adults and seniors living in Manhattan, and accused the DOT of not doing enough to accommodate their needs.

"They need to pay attention to the people that they're serving," said Marie Gilles, who lost her vision eight years ago and now works at Lighthouse International in Midtown East, a non-profit organization that serves and advocates for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Years ago, the city's streetscape was dominated by traditional intersections, where two streets cross at right angles, said Dr. Eugene Bourquin, a leading mobility and orientation instructor who has been studying the new designs as part of the newly-formed Pedestrians for Accessible and Safe Streets (PASS) coalition.

Some of the city's new bike lane configurations have moved crosswalks past sidewalks.
Some of the city's new bike lane configurations have moved crosswalks past sidewalks.
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Courtesy of Dr. Dr. Eugene Bourquin

But with new traffic patterns, he said that has changed.

For instance, the city has been installing new pedestrian refuges in the middle of many roads, but often doesn't warn local residents to expect a change.

"You think you've crossed the street, and you haven't!" Hansen described.

Karen Gourgey, 63, who lives near Union Square and runs the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College, said that the pedestrian mall near Madison Square Park is a another challenge.

"There's absolutely nothing actually marking where the traffic starts," said Gourgey, who is also blind and relies on tactile demarcations in the pavement to tell her when she's hit a road.

"I've come up to places where things just seemed impossible," said Gourgey, who is also president of PASS. "You can't afford to be in a position where your only means of getting across the street is to ask for help," she said.

One easy and low-cost solution, advocates say, is installing Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS), which signal by sound or vibration when it's safe to cross.

So far the city has installed 15 APS across the city, Garcia said, and new legislation being considered by the council suggests there are more to come.

But Dr. Bourquin said the DOT's decisions about where to put the devices has sometimes been off-base.

The DOT installed one APS at the east-west crossing of Lexington Avenue and E. 59th Street — "the easiest crossing in the world" — but not at the more challenging north-south crossing, Dr. Bourquin said.

The DOT also installed an APS near the Jewish Guild for the Blind where West 56th Street crosses both Columbus Avenue and Broadway, but DNAinfo found that the signal only gets a person halfway across the intersection to a pedestrian island and not all the way across Broadway.

Bourquin blamed the mistakes on the DOT's failure to consult with the community.

"To date, we have not been brought to the table," said Gourgey, who also feels the community has been largely ignored.

But DOT spokeswoman Nicole Garcia said the agency is open to discussion.

"If there are additional concerns, we'll absolutely work to address them," she said.

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