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Ongoing Issues with Downtown Audible Signals

December 2, 2009 – by Carli Whitwell

Marcia Cummings and Mike Yale have been pushing for a compromise on the continuously running audible signals that help visually impaired people cross Main Street, but to no avail.

The couple’s latest suggestion, that the signals run constantly from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. and become push-activated overnight, is just not feasible, says Tony White, commissioner of engineering and public works for the District Municipality of Muskoka.

“Unfortunately, the signals cannot be programmed to do what they’re suggesting,” he said.

To switch the signals from continuous to push-button activated and back again would require a technician to visit the site twice daily. “That’s just not practical,” said White.

However, Cummings and Yale aren’t giving up yet.

“It’s definitely an equality issue,” said Cummings on Friday. She added that the position she and Yale have taken has the full backing of all 20 members of the Vision Impaired Peer Support group (VIPS), but they aren’t sure what direction to take next.

The signals have been an issue since late September, when Huntsville council first agreed to and then rescinded a motion to run the audible signals at two downtown intersections 24/7.

After receiving about 20 noise complaints and finding it impossible to turn the volume of the signals down (that’s the lowest they can go, said White), council passed a resolution to keep the signals running at all hours, but only when push-button activated.

According to the municipality’s accessibility advisory committee, that keeps the town in line with several other Ontario municipalities.

But Cummings, who was born blind, says the signals are a basic human right and visually impaired people shouldn’t have to stop to push an activation button, reorient themselves with the intersection, and then cross.

She references a recent decision in the City of Winnipeg. Last December, the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and the city agreed to ensure all Winnipeg intersections are more accessible within the next 15 years, according to a press release from the city.

That means all intersections with traffic signals will eventually have accessible pedestrian signals.

Within three years, most push-button activated signals will be removed in the city’s downtown, and some in the outskirts as well.

The city has redesigned the intersections that remain so the pole for push-button activation is at an arm’s length for someone who wants to cross. That way, they don’t have to reorient themselves with the intersection.

“We bring the pole to you,” Luis Escobar, manager of transportation for the City of Winnipeg, in a telephone interview.

Huntsville is doing just that, says Mayor Claude Doughty.

At a site meeting on Brunel Road last month, the district and town agreed to square off the pedestrian crossing at the Brunel Road and Main Street intersection and install a push-button activated crossing post on the southeast side, in addition to fixing some curbs there and at Centre and Main streets.

Doughty said emerging technology will likely provide a better system soon. One solution, he says, would be for user groups to have a remote control device that automatically starts the audible signals when they near the intersection.

There are other ways to reduce noise impact, said Escobar.

In Winnipeg, the locator poles that emit a repetitive beep to let someone who is visually impaired know where push buttons are have been designed to be softer or louder depending on the noise on the street.

The city also invited engineers at the University of Manitoba to create speakers with a narrow directional path.

However, new technologies won’t be an option in Muskoka unless they’re proven to work, said White.

“I don’t think we could afford to use Muskoka as a guinea pig,” he said. “Right now we’ve got to work with what we’ve got.”

Cummings and Yale had also suggested that when someone presses the activation button to cross the street from east-west, the systems should continue to work without push-button activation to cross north-south.

The district’s system can’t be programmed to do that, said White.

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