Council Pushes to Make 'Dangerous' Union Square Plaza Safer for the Blind

By Jill Colvin on January 25, 2012 7:11pm 

Annalyn Barbier, from VISIONS, demonstrated the difficulties of navigating the new Union Square pedestrian plaza.
Annalyn Barbier, from VISIONS, demonstrated the difficulties of navigating the new Union Square pedestrian plaza.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

UNION SQUARE — Lawmakers are pushing for new legislation to help blind and visually impaired New Yorkers navigate the city's new maze of pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, which many say have turned the streets into an obstacle course.

While the Department of Transportation says the street re-engineering is designed to make streets safer for everyone, many who can’t see say the changes often pop up overnight, without warning, and are designed without crucial features that would help them navigate where busy roadways begin and end.

At a rally Wednesday in Union Square, where a pedestrian plaza has been recently built, residents said the new configuration along Broadway at East 17th Street is an especially difficult spot, since the DOT has failed to install tactile cues, like graded pavement or curbs, that would signal a change from pedestrian space to traffic lanes.

Annalyn Barbier, of VISIONS services for the blind, demonstrated the problem as she tried to cross the street using a walking stick.

“This is a very, very difficult situation for a blind person,” she said, pointing to the surface. "You don’t know where the pavement ends and where it begins.”

Residents agreed that the intersection is a recipe for problems.

“It’s very dangerous, very dangerous,” said Darryl Barton, 49, who lives at Selis Manor, a community on West 23rd street that caters to the blind, and said he was completely caught off-guard when the changes were introduced, without any formal notification from the city, in late 2010.

“It’s very different, with the turning cars and the sidewalks, especially when there is no one around,” he said, explaining that learning to navigate a new street configuration is an enormous task.

“It’s like learning how to walk again,” he said.

Victor Andrews, 25, who lives with his guide dog, Lucky, in Brooklyn, agreed that navigating the new plazas have been “like hell.”

“My dog can’t see it and I can’t see it. He can’t even feel it with his paws,” he said, explaining that he’s now often forced to rely on other pedestrians for assistance and is left helpless when no one’s around.

The new legislation, introduced by Upper West Side City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, would force the DOT to install “detectable warning surfaces” around the perimeter of all pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, to help those who can’t see.

Additional legislation now under consideration by the council would force the DOT to ramp up its installation of accessible pedestrian signals, which beep when it’s safe to walk, instead of just flashing lights. A third bill would force the DOT to post notices about street changes on its website in a format accessible to people with disabilities, so they are better informed about what’s to come.

“This is a serious civil rights issue,” said City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca, who said he first became aware of the challenges of new street designs from his father, who was blind.

In testimony delivered to the City Council following the rally, DOT officials recognized some of the problems the new street designs pose.

“We understand that these projects often change the design and geometry of the right-of-way, and the results can be initially confusing to some, especially in the disability community,” Deputy Commissioner David Woloch said in prepared testimony.

He said the DOT has already installed 24 APS signals, and is planning another 24 over the coming year, and also expressed support for the website plan.

However, he said the DOT already installs rumble strips on pedestrian ramps near bike lanes, and argued that the rule would force the city to add warning strips between bike lanes and traffic lanes, which might lead some to believe they’re crossing into a safe pedestrian space.

“To require a treatment to be implemented for hundreds of miles of bike lanes at a great cost to the city that would in fact detract from safety is not something we believe we can support at this time,” he said.

Still, he said the DOT recognizes that there are plazas where the city could do a better job differentiating between walkways and roadways and said staff are “actively looking at solutions to improve tactile demarcation along plazas.”

Karen Gourgly, 64, who lives on 14th Street with her guide dog, Isabel, said that efforts like the proposals would go a long way to helping people like her, who've had difficulty navigating the new streets.

“I’ve had the experience so many times [where I was left thinking] where the heck is the street? Where does it start?” she said.

There are an estimated 30,000 blind and visually impaired adults and seniors living in Manhattan, advocates say.

According to DOT officials, the pedestrian plaza has made Union Square significantly safer, with a more than 50 percent drop in speeding along Broadway north of the square, a 35 percent reduction in injuries, and 28 percent fewer pedestrian injuries in the area.

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