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SF slow to install pedestrian signals for visually impaired

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Pedestrians converse at the intersection at Geary Boulevard and Masonic Avenue in San Francisco Calif., on Tuesday, August 14, 2018.

San Francisco is moving at a slow pace when it comes to installing accessible pedestrian signals for pedestrians who are blind or have impaired vision.

A report from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency showed that out of the 1,252 signalized intersections in The City, only 252 intersections have the signal, said Dusson Yeung, an associate engineer with the SFMTA.

The device, which has a large button, helps the visually impaired determine when it is safe to cross the street by emitting a fast ticking sound and vibration. The device works in sync with the countdown pedestrian signal.

To help people find the button, the device makes a slow ticking sound. The device also has the street name in braille on the button sign and makes an audible announcement of the street location when a person holds the button for one second.

Yeung said at the SFMTA’s Policy Governance meeting last Tuesday that there will be 100-plus intersections that will receive the accessible pedestrian signal, either through capital projects such the Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue bus rapid projects, street improvement projects, or by requests received through The City’s 311 system.

SFMTA’s Director of Sustainable Streets Tom Maguire said:

“We’re also trying to be really pragmatic. Whenever we have a capital project, whenever we do a new signal, whenever we’re upgrading a corridor, we always make sure this part of it.”

There have been 71 requests for the signal through 311, according to the SFMTA.

People who make a request through 311 will receive a response within 90 days confirming the intersection and rank of priority and if the SFMTA plans to install a signal as part of a future project.

Some of those projects are still at least a year away and advocates are pushing the transit agency start speeding up the process.

Natasha Opfell, a community organizer with Walk San Francisco, said they receive a number of complaints about the signals not working, the low volume of the signals, and the lack of signals at dangerous corridors in The City.

Opfell urged transit officials to find a way to a provide a faster process to install the signals:

“We urge The City to look into how to provide a faster and more equitable accessible pedestrian signal program that provide the support that our blind and low vision community needs”

Opfell added:

“252 signals of about 1,200 is not enough. 100 locations in the next three years is not fast enough.”

Yeung pointed out that there are some challenges and costs to installing the signal at some locations in The City.

First, all the crosswalks have to have an existing pedestrian countdown signal.

Second, the underground wiring has to be able to accommodate additional circuits for the accessible pedestrian signal.

Yeung said sometimes underground can be damaged, or be full and unable to accommodate any new wiring.

Installing the signal can range anywhere from $20,000 to upwards of $1 million, depending on the conditions above and below street level, said Yeung.

An excavation of the poles and conduits may also require the installation of new curbs that would cost approximately $160,000 for the entire intersection.

Gwyneth Borden, a SFMTA board director who sits on the committee, agreed with Opfell that the transit agency is slow to install the accessible pedestrian signals:

“I have to agree a few hundred intersections when there’s 1,200 is so slow.”

Borden asked if there was any new technology available that would not require the transit agency to deal with rewiring work, but Yeung said he was not aware of any technology.

She said:

“I feel like this just not fast enough and the process that we have undergo, I actually think the future isn’t all this rewiring of systems the way that we do today.”

Maguire said the transit agency will look into other technology and also look into a faster turnaround time to install the signals:

“Our vision ultimately is to equip every signal in The City but we don’t have time frame for that.”

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