UPPER WEST SIDE — New legislation before the City Council would dramatically increase the number of crosswalks with audible walk signals to alert visually impaired pedestrians it's safe to cross.
If adopted, Intro 216, introduced Wednesday by City Councilman Mark Levine, would make it mandatory for the Department of Transportation to add 50 new accessible pedestrian signals (APS) per year starting in 2015.
Under the proposed law, the DOT would have to add APS each year until there's one at the corner of every intersection that has a protected bike lane and wherever it's adding new protected bike lanes in the future.
In addition, intersections where pedestrians either have a head start crossing the street before vehicles are allowed to turn or ones where pedestrians are allowed to cross without any intereference from traffic would also have APS added.
The crossing "chirp" sounds help visually impaired pedestrians at such intersections because otherwise they rely on the noise of traffic to know when to cross. Similarly, bikes are often too quiet to offer a clue as to when it's safe to cross.
The legislation also calls for the DOT to add a list with its assessment of the top 50 intersections needing APS to its website, as well as feature a rundown of the program's funding needs and information about the latest APS technology.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer suggested to Levine that he introduce the legislation, which is now before the council's transportation committee. She said the city had already made progress — adding 28 APS in 2012 and 26 in 2013 — but that the law would move the process along more quickly.
"We need to think about people who are visually impaired or just have visual challenges in general," Brewer told a crowd of at least 100 people assembled Wednesday night for a hearing on the mayor's Vision Zero plan.
"What I don’t want is someone to complain that the chirping is too loud," she added.
Karen Gourgey, chairwoman of Pedestrians for Accessible and Safe Streets (PASS), was one of several audience members who expressed a desire for the visually impaired to be included in the Vision Zero plan after not being mentioned in its initial iteration.
"[Intro 216] is a new level of enfranchisement," she said, adding, "if you are not at the table, you might be on the menu."
Gourgey also called for the addition of sensors at the base of pedestrian islands, which are built to give relief to walkers in the middle of a wide intersection, so that the visually impaired are audibly alerted when they approaching the island to avoid tripping.
A woman who identified herself only as Audrey and was guided by a dog testified that recent changes to intersections, and those proposed in the Vision Zero plan, make it much harder for someone who cannot see to cross the street.
She said the visually impaired have relied on the sound of traffic running parallel to where they walk to know when to cross. Intersections where all traffic is stopped to let pedestrians cross unobstructed have made it much more difficult, she explained.
"Because of all these changes, our joy is stilted and we need to keep that joy going," she said.
She challenged the politicians and audience members assembled to "think about how you would cross if you couldn’t see to cross."
DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg was quick to assure her that although a lot more needed to be done, "you are certainly a part of the Vision Zero and we want to make sure you continue to have joy in New York City."
Trottenberg also offered a statement in support of the legislation. "Audible pedestrian signals are an important tool and we will expand our use of them as resources allow as well as explore other treatments that make streets even safer for all New Yorkers,” she said.
The next Vision Zero Town Hall will be held on April 1 at Borough Hall from 6 to 8 p.m.