Let’s go to the mailbag marked “pedestrian safety that’s more confusing than need be.”

Q: I understand the benefits of having an audio alert at busy intersections to tell blind pedestrians when the “walk” signal is on. But it seems like every other crosswalk in Portland has a different sound. In fact, the latest sound effect is a lot like a machine gun. How does that translate into “it’s safe to cross the street”? Why can’t the city just settle on one standard to eliminate any confusion?

A: The Portland Bureau of Transportation has been trying to decide on just the right audio alert for its Accessible Pedestrian Signals for more than a decade. But local traffic engineers have been more indecisive than Kim Kardashian trying to settle on a hair color.

In 2003, the city tested a “talking crosswalk” that said something like this: “The walk light is now on to cross 41st Street.”

Simple as a dimple, right? Push the button and a voice using actual words would announce when it was safe to enter the crosswalk. 

But three years later, the city decided to go with what was then the international standard for APS devices used in Europe, Canada and elsewhere: A “coo-coo” for north-south crossings and a bird-like “chirp-chirp” for east-west crossings.

I’m not sure how anyone didn’t see, er, hear the Big Bird-size flaw in that plan. “There were cases of visually impaired pedestrians mistaking actual birds for the chirping crosswalks,” said Jason McRobbie, a PBOT electrician who works with traffic signals.

In fact, Canadian researchers found that the recorded chirps sounded exactly like the song of the northern cardinal. Making matters worse, traffic experts discovered birds perched on wires above intersections had started imitating the signal sounds. There were reports of real birds causing visually impaired walkers to stray into traffic.

So a few years ago, the federal manual for traffic control devices adopted a new standard. It uses an eight-tick-per-second “chattering” sound. A 2007 National Cooperative Highway Research Program found the chattering produced the “fastest and most accurate responses regarding which crosswalk has the ‘Walk” indication.” It also cut through the cacophony of traffic better than the chirping, McRobbie said.

Portland’s talking crosswalks have a long — and even scary — history of sounds. 

Great. No one was going to mistake that for birds. Portland started using it in new APS devices at crosswalks.

But like you said, the recording sounds a lot like a machine gun. It wasn’t long before the city heard complaints from veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, McRobbie said.  “It became obvious that we would have to use something different,” he said.

Fortunately, the U.S. Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (I read it so you don’t have to) still allows APS devices to use verbal alerts. “That’s the new standard we’ve settled on,” McRobbie said.

Wait. Isn’t that what the city started out with more than a decade ago? Yep. Meet the new talking crosswalks, just like the old crosswalks.

Along the MAX Orange Line in downtown, for example, the newest talking crosswalks say, “Walk sign is up to cross Fourth Avenue.”

Of more than 1,200 crosswalk signals in Portland, 242 are outfitted APS devices. Unfortunately, Portland doesn’t have the money to reprogram previous generations. As a result, you’re going to have to live with a mish-mash of signal sounds.

If it bugs you too much, you can move to the suburbs, where traffic engineers toyed briefly with the chirps, but settled on the verbal alerts.

“We didn’t even try the machine gun sound,” said John Fasana, Washington County traffic engineer, who manages signals along some of the region’s busiest roads.

Of course, I’m partial to the talking crosswalks on Lake Oswego’s South State Street. Hit the button before it’s safe to cross, and it tells you, “Wait!” Hit the button in rapid-fire succession and it evokes the scratching from a 1980s Run-D.M.C. rap track.

“Wait. Wa-wa-wa-wait! Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wait! … It’s Tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that’s right on time.

I know: Grow up.

— Joseph Rose
503-221-8029
[email protected]
@josephjrose

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