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Erik Burgess, Published October 04 2013

Acting on concerns, Fargo works to replace 'chirping' signals for the blind

FARGO – When Sherry DeFrancesco moved from New York to Fargo in January, she wasn’t too concerned about navigating around town.

DeFrancesco is blind, and has been for half of her life, but with training and help from a guide dog, she lived independently for years in pedestrian-friendly New York City.

DeFrancesco was confident she could handle the streets in much smaller Fargo, until she encountered South University Drive.

The intersection at University Drive and 25th and 24th avenues south is a complicated knot of turn lanes, medians and awkwardly curving roads amid a thundering sea of cars. An estimated 25,000 cars travel on South University Drive each day, with another 4,000 to 7,000 cars on 25th Avenue South daily, according to the city.

It’s an intersection that’s difficult to maneuver for a pedestrian with perfect vision, let alone one that is blind, said DeFrancesco, public relations spokeswoman for the North Dakota Association of the Blind.

“I was like blown away at the intersection,” she said. “It was just very, very scary for me to cross.”

DeFrancesco called the city for help, and now Fargo will install a sophisticated pedestrian signal at the intersection that talks to pedestrians and lets them know when to cross and when to wait.

‘Gold standard’

It’s a pedestrian crossing system that’s become the “gold standard” nationwide and will now be the standard in Fargo, replacing the antiquated “chirpers” familiar to walkers downtown, said Jeremy Gorden, the city’s transportation engineer.

Gorden said the city plans to remove or simply turn off the chirping mechanisms, which were the standard five or six years ago, and install the new systems when it can.

Residents can probably expect the new pedestrian signals downtown when the city digs up NP Avenue next summer to replace aging infrastructure, he said.

“The signal systems are evolving,” Gorden said. “There was never even chirpers before. Before, there was nothing to help the blind.”

This is how the new signals work:

A pedestrian who wants to cross the street pushes the button as they normally would. A voice from across the street tells the pedestrian either to wait or to cross. There is also an audible countdown that warns the pedestrian when the light is going to change, unlike the chirpers, which just quit chirping.

“They don’t help us cross the street,” DeFrancesco said of the chirpers. “What they do is they tell you when the light changes.”

Gorden said the chirpers were installed because a blind resident requested them a few years ago. There are about 20 intersections in Fargo with chirpers, most of them downtown.

While they were standard years ago, chirpers can actually be dangerous, Gorden and DeFrancesco say.

In a dense downtown with buildings on each corner, the chirping noise can bounce off walls, confusing a blind pedestrian by hindering their ability to listen to the traffic flow, DeFrancesco said.

The voice is more targeted with the new system and directed at the corner where the pedestrian is standing, Gorden said.

“They speak to you pretty much constantly the whole time,” he said.

Quick response

The new systems are more expensive. It cost about $1,000 per intersection to install chirpers a few years ago. A new talking system will cost $6,000 to $8,000 per intersection, Gorden said. The city has about 170 traffic signals.

“It would be pretty cost-prohibitive to do it everywhere,” he said, “but where they’re requested and needed, we’ll put them in.”

DeFrancesco said she is grateful the city responded so quickly, and that she and her fiancé, who has a partial visual impairment, want to continue working with the city to find other intersections that need improving, such as those along the busy 13th Avenue South corridor.

She said she hopes other cities across the state take notice that the chirping signals can be dangerous.

“We want to work together with the city, with Jeremy, to identify these intersections that are dangerous,” DeFrancesco said. “I believe that the city is committed to working with us.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518