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Chicago makes it harder for blind pedestrians to cross streets safely, lawsuit says

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Only 11 intersections are safe for blind or visually impaired people

A downtown intersection with train tracks overhead. There are tall towers around the sidewalks and a large group of people crossing a street.
South Wabash Avenue in Chicago.

On Monday, a lawsuit was filed against the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) claiming that the city ignores blind pedestrians in infrastructure planning and even deliberately makes it more difficult for them.

The nonprofit advocacy group suing the city isn’t asking for money. The American Council of the Blind of Metropolitan Chicago just wants CDOT to follow federal law and install the accessible crosswalks it has been promising.

In November 2018, only 10 crosswalks in Chicago had accessible pedestrian signals (APS) which are beeping or buzzing noises that alert blind or visually impaired people it’s safe to cross the street. At the time, the city said they would be installing about 50 more accessible pedestrian signals in early 2019.

In July, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a plan to install 100 accessible pedestrian signals at crosswalks within two years and make Chicago the “most inclusive and accessible city in the nation.” Plus, any new traffic signals, reconstruction projects, and modernizations are required to include accessible pedestrian signals.

Despite those announcements, only 11 out of 2,672 intersections with traffic signals can relay information to blind pedestrians, the lawsuit alleges.

Blind or visually impaired pedestrians must listen for moving traffic to know when to cross the street which can be unreliable with L tracks over many intersections, loud buses and trucks, and other city noises, the lawsuit states. Many people who can’t rely on the visual cues are left waiting for other pedestrians to help them across the street, or end up avoiding independent travel.

The lawsuit states:

If a blind pedestrian accidentally crosses against the light, sighted pedestrians, when present, will often grab or shout at them, an experience that is frightening and humiliating. The difficulties of crossing noisy, busy, or complex streets without APSs are indeed so severe that some blind pedestrians attempt to avoid risky intersections altogether by using indirect, longer routes, or by taking paratransit, even though paratransit must be arranged for 24-hours in advance.

In 2015, the city received a grant from the Regional Transit Authority to install accessible pedestrian signals at Clinton Street, Canal Street, Washington Street, and Madison Street in the Loop, according to the lawsuit. Those signals have not been added to those intersections.

The lawsuit also says that signal phases at some intersections has made streets “less safe for blind pedestrians.” A signal phase is when pedestrians will get a few seconds head start before vehicle traffic gets the go ahead. For blind pedestrians, who might depend on traffic and surrounding noise to know when it’s safe to cross, it could cause confusion.

CDOT does not comment on pending litigation, but the agency did say they were committed to providing safe and accessible transportation system for every resident and visitor in Chicago.