For Denise Jess, crossing the street is stressful. Jess is legally blind.
“Crossing the street is probably one of the most scary and harrowing parts of our day because we constantly need to listen, ‘Does it sound like it’s safe to cross? I don’t hear any cars coming, I think it’s okay to go,’” said Jess, the CEO and executive director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Thanks to her advocacy efforts, the city of Madison has added a new pedestrian signal at the intersection of Williamson and South Livingston Streets to make it easier for the blind and visually impaired to cross. She wants to spread the word about the signals to other drivers and pedestrians to improve the pedestrian experience for all.
“It’s reduced my stress levels significantly, I can tell you!” Jess said. “It’s just phenomenal.”
At a Wednesday press conference, Jess demonstrated how to use the signal. The button to cross beeps so that the visually impaired can locate it. Once pressed, yellow lights flash to tell cars to yield to pedestrians and it says: “Yellow lights are flashing,” first in English, then in Spanish.
“When we have audible and accessible pedestrian signals, it is truly a liberating experience to press the button, to get an audio cue to let us know that signals are flashing … and that we then can cross that street, go about our daily business with a sense of safety and security and be able to use our community’s resources just like everybody else,” Jess said.
This type of signal is known as an Accessible Pedestrian Signal (APS). There are already 34 accessible pedestrian signals in Madison, plus 39 that have some audible cue indicating when the “walk” signal is on, but that don’t qualify as APS, said Jerry Schippa, an engineer for the city’s Traffic Engineering division. There are about 281 total Madison signals maintained by the city, Schippa said.
This APS is special for a couple of reasons. It’s the first one installed at a Madison intersection without a stoplight.
Second, the signal is just a few steps away from the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired building at 754 Williamson St., which means Jess, her employees and clients frequently need to cross the “busy, busy,” Williamson Street, Jess said.
Jess hopes the press conference will spread the word to Madison drivers: stop if you see lights flashing in a Madison crosswalk. That could be a person with a disability, an elder who needs extra time to cross, or a kid, Jess said.
When the signal was first installed quite a few cars ran the signal, but the number of cars that stop is increasing dramatically, Jess said.
She also hopes the press conference will spread the word on how others can request a similar signal.
Traditionally, APS are installed by citizen request because the devices are expensive and the city wants to ensure they are installed where there is a need, said city traffic engineer Yang Tao. This system costs about $1,500. An APS on signalized intersections costs about $2,000, he said.
“I would love for folks to know that it is their right to request one if they need special assistance or more time to get across the street, particularly in a high traffic area that they use a lot,” Jess said.
Jess contacted Ald. Marsha Rummel last year with concerns about the intersection. The Madison Police Department the conducted a study of traffic volume and a study tracking how many drivers didn't yield to pedestrians. The city approved 2018 funding for the signal and it was installed in October.
Jess thanked Rummel, and the city for their “work to create inclusivity and welcome for people with disabilities.”
There are about 100,000 blind and visually impaired Wisconsin residents, Jess said, who need to “navigate busy streets to get our groceries, to get to work, to do our banking, to do any of our other business, to see friends, to see families.”