Jessica Thompson is accustomed to close calls.
At the intersection near her condo in North Seattle, she steps to the edge of the curb and listens. When it sounds safe, she steps into the street.
“I have people honking at me and yelling at me all the time,” Thompson said. “They assume I’d be paying attention to the cross[ing] light.”
Thompson, who is blind, can’t rely on the light. Instead, she listens to traffic patterns to determine when drivers are slowing and stopping at the intersection at Northeast 95th Street and Fifth Avenue Northeast.
At some crossings, audible signals beep to let her know it’s safe to cross.
But in Seattle, the vast majority of pedestrian signals don’t have audible sounds for people who are blind and low vision. This intersection near Thompson’s condo was recently upgraded with new sidewalks and curb cuts, but still has the old pedestrian signal.
Traffic there can be light or erratic, making it hard for Thompson to get a good read on whether cars have stopped.
“The quieter intersections can be the scarier ones when people are going fast,” she said.
A wave of population growth and transportation funding in Seattle has led to what feels like nonstop construction around the city and plenty of newly rebuilt intersections, many with accessibility in mind. A federal consent decree requires Seattle to install 1,250 new curb ramps per year for people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
The city does not face a similar legal mandate for Accessible Pedestrian Signals, which make a sound and vibrate for people who have vision or hearing loss.
More than three quarters of Seattle’s signals do not have such devices.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says it is installing accessible signals as the city has the funding and using feedback from people with disabilities to prioritize where to upgrade first.
Thompson crosses Fifth Avenue Northeast regularly to get to the coffee shop, pharmacy, chiropractor’s office and bus stop. Walking allows her to get around without relying on someone else.
“But,” she said, “I need to be able to cross the street.”
New signals not always required
When crews spent months rebuilding sidewalks and crosswalks near Thompson’s condo, she heard the project was focused on “accessibility.” She lives near an elementary school and the Northgate light rail station set to open next year. So she assumed the signal would be replaced.
Improved sidewalks and intersections don’t always result in a new pedestrian signal.
Though federal rules require cities like Seattle to install accessible signals when they replace old signals or install new ones, crews can renovate large parts of an intersection without replacing the pedestrian signal itself.
A 2017 SDOT memo draws a distinction between a signal that is “significantly altered” and other types of work, like installing curb ramps or moving the pedestrian push button.
Seattle’s lack of accessible signals “does not provide meaningful access” as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, argued Susan Kas, an attorney at Disability Rights Washington, which filed the 2015 lawsuit that resulted in Seattle agreeing to build new curb ramps.
Disability Rights Washington has not brought a similar suit about accessible crossings.
SDOT has increased the number of accessible signals in recent years. The city installed 30 of the signals in 2018 and 66 in 2019, SDOT said. Today, accessible signals make up about 22% of the city’s signalized intersections, up from about 15% in 2017.
The cost to install accessible signals can vary widely depending on how much other work, like digging underground or repairing sidewalks, is needed.
SDOT estimates that each accessible signal upgrade costs roughly $50,000 for materials, labor and associated work like sidewalk repairs. Some locations can cost far more or less, from $10,000 to $100,000 each, according to SDOT.
The department’s annual budget for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) projects includes about $500,000 for about 10 accessible signals per year. More signals are upgraded as part of other projects, like transit upgrades.
Although SDOT has not produced a formal study of upgrading signals, at $50,000 each, upgrading all 875 crossings without accessible signals would cost about $44 million.
Backlog of requests
Charlie Howe, a high school sophomore who lives in North Capitol Hill, uses several busy intersections to get to the bus.
At 10th Avenue East and Miller Street, “it’s tricky because people are turning left, people turning right. It feels like cars go way too fast through the intersection,” Howe said.
Howe’s sight has worsened in the last year and he has trouble seeing walk signals, especially on bright days, he said. He uses a white cane but worries some drivers don’t see it.
This summer, he submitted a request for accessible signals to SDOT and got a response saying the city was working through its three-year plan of locations to upgrade signals. It’s not clear when the city may get to the signals he requested.
“[I feel] a bit frustrated because that’s kind of a long time for me to wait,” Howe said. “It really shouldn’t take that long.”
SDOT has a backlog of requests, many on behalf of blind or low-vision Seattleites for locations near their homes or work. The agency consults with an advisory group of people with disabilities to prioritize the requests.
Howe’s request is one of about 70 outstanding, according to a copy of SDOT’s request log received through a public records request. SDOT prioritized 29 of those for accessible signals from 2019 to 2021. Additional signals are upgraded through regular construction.
Other requests have been marked with expected construction dates in 2025 or 2026, or don’t yet have any estimate for when they’ll be done.
Locations downtown on Pike Street at First, Second and Third avenues include a note from SDOT’s ADA director, Michael Shaw: “These have been requested several times. They are basically ground zero for tourists.” (The locations are marked for new signals in 2026.)
When Michael Forzano was commuting daily to his job at Amazon in South Lake Union, many intersections along the way had accessible signals. Then, just before his office, he’d get to Ninth and Mercer. Forzano is blind and has hearing loss, making reading the sound of traffic hard “even under ideal circumstances,” he said.
Some days, he would use a call-in service to video chat with someone who could tell him when it was safe to cross. He might ask a passerby for help — only to be ignored by some — or spend five to 10 minutes trying to figure out when it was safe to cross.
Forzano, who successfully requested signals at other locations, put in the request to SDOT. The location hasn’t yet been given a construction date.
“That was my commute every day, twice a day,” said Forzano, who has since moved to New York.
In Northgate, Thompson is still hoping for a new signal at the intersection near her home.
“I’m so glad that this world is trying to make things accessible,” she said. “And it is incredibly frustrating when something isn’t accessible.”