Exploring Round-Abouts and Circles
by Dona Sauerburger, COMS
May 1996 newsletter
Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA)
Since our last newsletter, WOMA members, visually impaired travelers, and others1 have gone to several traffic circles to find out what features can make them safe for crossing by blind pedestrians. For our first session, we went to the small circle on the University of Maryland campus in College Park, and to Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, DC. For the second session, we looked at the new traffic circle at the city docks in Annapolis. This circle is about the same size as the one in College Park (approximately 100 feet in diameter) but it has only three intersections where streets enter the circle.
We found that at the small circles in College Park and Annapolis, where there are no traffic signals, the sound of traffic in the circle or its intersecting streets masked the sound of traffic approaching the crosswalks, making it impossible to know when it is clear to cross. At College Park it became quiet enough to cross about every 5 minutes, but in Annapolis, where the traffic was heavy, it never got quiet enough. Once, when the blind participants thought it was quiet enough to cross, a car that they hadn't heard passed in front of them.
On the other hand, blind people can cross safely at Dupont Circle, even though it is a large circle with heavy traffic and almost a dozen intersections, because the traffic at the intersections is controlled by signals.
The round-about planned for Towson will be very similar to the one in Annapolis. Engineers and city planners from Baltimore listened to the traffic at the Annapolis circle with blindfolds, and discovered that the sound of many of the approaching cars was completely masked by the sound of cars which stopped to allow pedestrians to cross or which were moving on the opposite side of the street.
One of the engineers asked why blind pedestrians couldn't simply put their foot into the street to stop the traffic, as sighted people were doing there. The difference was that the sighted people could see whether the cars all stopped for them. In a classic example, one driver stopped as we waited at a crosswalk, and held his arm out the window to halt the cars in the second lane. He yelled that it was safe for us to cross because he was stopping the traffic. Because of the sound of his engine, however, the blind participants were unable to hear that at least three cars in the second lane simply ignored all of us and the helpful driver, and proceeded past the crosswalk.
One other difficulty at some of the circles' intersections was that some of the median strips would be difficult for many blind travelers to find. This could be a problem at places like some of Dupont Circle's intersections, where it isn't safe to continue crossing from the median strip until a later phase of the cycle.2 One of the difficulties was that some of the median strips at College Park and Annapolis were cut through at the crosswalk, with very little texture difference to indicate you were passing through the median strip. Several circles had short median strips, making it a challenge to line up accurately and find them. If you veered and missed one of them, you wouldn't know if you had veered to the right or the left of them.
The engineers and city planners said that their experience at the Annapolis circle helped them understand the difficulty that uncontrolled intersections would pose for visually impaired pedestrians. They are considering our request to install pedestrian call signals at their crosswalks.
1. Attending one or both sessions were Debbie Grubb, Frela Grubb, and Vernon Griffon, who are visually impaired travelers, and O&Mers Jim Keim, Cecilia Rose, Colleen Calhoon, Sharon Hargrove, Martha Schlue, and Dona Sauerburger. At the session in Annapolis, we were joined by John Wetmore, who is producing a cable TV series "Pedestrians in Peril," and four people involved in planning the round-about in Towson: Linda Singer, special assistant to the district engineer; Carol Carpenter, director of the Baltimore Office of Commercial Revitalization; Ed Myers, design engineer for Hurst-Roche; and Mike Niederhauser, traffic engineer and coordinator of round-abouts for the Office of Traffic and Safety.
2. One intriguing feature of Dupont Circle is that at many of the intersections it is safe to cross only half the street at a time. That is, when the walk signal on the median strip indicates it is time to cross, the signal on the far side of the street indicates it is unsafe to continue walking from the median strip to the opposite curb because perpendicular traffic is moving there, and vice versa.
We decided that a blind pedestrian could realize this only by listening to the complete cycle; if the traffic is light, he or she might need to hear several cycles before recognizing it. This situation emphasized the importance of listening to the cycle before crossing any unfamiliar intersection. These intersections could be useful for demonstrating to our students the importance of this safety principle.
At our April meeting, ten WOMA members met at the roundabout in Towson to consider a request from the Maryland State Highway Administration to make an auditory map of the roundabout. With canes and blindfolds, we tried unsuccessfully to figure out how the intersection could be accessible to blind people. Our letter responding to the request explains what we did and our conclusions:
by Dona Sauerburger, COMS
May 1999 newsletter
Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA)
May 28, 1999
Special Assistant to the District Engineer
State Highway Administration
Maryland Department of Transportation
Dear Ms. Singer:
This letter is in response to your request to make an auditory map of the Towson roundabout for visually impaired pedestrians. The Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA) discussed this issue on April 26 during our quarterly meeting, which was held at the roundabout. This meeting was attended by ten Orientation and Mobility Specialists who work within agencies and schools throughout Maryland and Washington DC, teaching children and adults who are blind or visually impaired to travel independently. All ten support this letter.
While we appreciate the concern you have shown by your request, we have decided not to make an auditory map of the Towson roundabout. We are concerned that doing so would imply that we believe it is feasible to cross there safely when in fact we don't think it is, based on our experiences which are explained in this letter. People who are blind or visually impaired who would get a copy of the auditory map might plan their routes to include the Towson roundabout because they would feel that being familiar with the layout would somehow make them be able to negotiate the intersection safely. They would be unprepared for the fact that except for soliciting assistance, there is no way for blind people to cross there without incurring much more risk than would be incurred at most intersections.
During our meeting we went to the roundabout with white canes and blindfolds to try to come up with strategies that could enable blind people to cross safely there. We quickly discovered that we could not rely on drivers to stop for people using white canes. While standing on the median strip we attempted to cross the lanes of traffic designated for cars that are traveling east on Joppa Road; despite our white canes and the signs to yield to pedestrians, very few drivers stopped. Many drivers also failed to yield the right of way when we tried to cross other legs of the roundabout while using white canes.
Occasionally drivers did stop for us. However, the masking sounds from other moving vehicles often made it impossible to detect the idling car; when we did not begin crossing because we did not realize the car had stopped, the car proceeded. We were also concerned that if we stepped in front of a car that was waiting, we might be hit by a driver going around the waiting car in the second lane.
Since we could not rely on drivers stopping for us, it was necessary to cross during a gap in traffic. To do this we needed to determine whether we could recognize if there was a gap in traffic long enough to cross safely. We found that when we walked very quickly, we needed approximately 5 seconds to cross two lanes of traffic (curb to median). Thus, in order to recognize when there was a sufficient gap to cross, we needed to be able to hear cars at least 5 seconds away so that we'd know for sure that there was nothing approaching that could reach us before we finished our crossing. This crossing time of 5 seconds does not take into account small children, the elderly, or people with disabilities, who probably would need more time.
While standing in front of Barnes and Noble trying to cross the lanes designated for traffic traveling east on Joppa Road, we were unable to hear many of the cars until they were only 2-3 seconds away (conditions were optimal with no masking sounds or wind). If we had stepped out just before we heard the cars approaching, we would have crossed in front of moving cars that were only 2-3 seconds from impact! This was not enough time for us to clear the crossing before the cars would have reached us, and it did not seem long enough for drivers to be able to react and stop. When there was noise from traffic going through the roundabout it became even more difficult to hear many of the approaching cars. Often we did not detect them until they were in front of us, or sometimes not at all. These masking sounds from traffic going around the roundabout could pose even greater problems during rush hour.
Because of these circumstances, we were not able to come up with any strategy that would enable a person who relies on hearing to cross independently without incurring much more risk than any of us would personally be willing to undertake, and much more risk than we think would be professionally ethical to advise our students to undertake. This is because the strategies and informational needs of blind people, who rely on hearing, are quite different from those of sighted people, who rely on vision. The crossing strategies and information gathering techniques that enable blind people to cross most streets safely are not effective at the Towson Roundabout.
It is our feeling that the reason the Towson Roundabout is not accessible to blind people is because of the engineering design, not lack of information. The solution is not a map, nor familiarization with the intersection, nor even a combination of all the accommodations that have been provided such as pedestrian signs, tactile warning surfaces, and the tactile map. The solution must provide some way for blind people to know when it is safe to cross.
We feel, however, that there are solutions that might enable pedestrians who are blind to cross safely at or near the roundabout, including acoustical warning surfaces for approaching traffic; raised crosswalks; strict and consistent enforcement of laws requiring drivers to yield the right of way to pedestrians throughout Maryland (a police car was among the many vehicles which failed to yield to the pedestrians while we were there); traffic control that could be designed so it does not impede the flow of traffic in the circle; safe alternative routes such as the Barnes and Noble underpass if they were available 24 hours a day; etc. Some of these solutions would probably also benefit other pedestrians who, because of other disabilities, age (such as children or elderly people), and/or cognitive processing limitations have difficulty determining when it is safe to cross at the roundabout.
We are encouraged that you are working hard to make this intersection accessible. We would be pleased to work with your department and engineers to develop solutions that would improve the safety and accessibility of the roundabout to all pedestrians. We feel that this could result in a win-win situation.
WOMA Members Barbara Barnes, Colleen Rae Calhoon, Charlene Finlay, Jim Keim, Joani Myers, Gertrude Payne, Dona Sauerburger, Linda Starner, Gayle White, and Dena Zorbach, Orientation and Mobility Specialists
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