Blind in the City: Demystifying the Eyes-Free Street Crossing

Photo of me standing at an urban crosswalk
My cane is vertical, meaning I’m not ready to cross yet.

Blind in the City is a new series where I will describe how I do something without vision. It’s written in a Q&A format to take some of the mystery out of how we do things, and how you can support us. I hope to expand this series to other disabilities in the future. Today I’ll be describing how blind people safely, efficiently cross streets. I’ll also talk about how you can help if you observe a blind person at an intersection. (Hint: Most of the time, you can help most by doing nothing at all).

Q: How do you know when it’s safe to cross?
A: Generally, it’s safe to cross when the perpendicular traffic (cars on the street you’re crossing) are standing still. On a quiet residential street, I can just wait until I don’t hear any traffic, and then cross. If there’s a simple stop sign, then I wait until I hear either no traffic, or cars idling (standing still) in front of me, indicating that they have stopped. Finally, in the case of a lighted intersection, the traffic movement will alternate between the traffic in front of me getting to go, and the parallel traffic (cars on the intersecting street to my side) getting to go. When the parallel traffic has a green light, the perpendicular traffic has a red, so when I hear the parallel traffic move on my side, I know it’s my turn to cross.

Q: So, the light is green. Why aren’t you crossing yet?
A: When sighted people cross lighted crosswalks, there is a visual timer showing how much time they have to cross, or at least, whether the “walk” sign is on or not. As a blind person, I need to be sure I’ll have enough time to get across before I go ahead. Unless I know the intersection well, I will typically cross only at the beginning of a walk cycle. I listen for the “parallel surge”, or the first initial burst of traffic movement on the parallel street next to me. So if I arrive at an intersection and parallel traffic is moving, but I’m not sure when the light will change, I might wait until the next cycle. Sometimes though, the cycle begins with a turn arrow. I can’t see the arrow, but I can hear whether parallel traffic is going straight, or turning. Once I’ve heard one car go straight through, I know it’s my turn.

Q: How do you find the crosswalk and stay in it?
A: Some crosswalks have tactile markers or landmarks, like a pedestrian push button. Others don’t, but I can approximate the crosswalk by getting as close to the intersection as possible, right next to the spot where perpendicular cars wait during the red light.
Because I can’t see the painted crosswalk lines, I might not stay exactly in the crosswalk, especially if it’s an angled intersection. But I can still ensure a safe crossing by paying attention to where the perpendicular cars are standing and staying as close to them as possible. The sound of standing cars on one side, and moving parallel cars on the other, is a kind of sound beacon I can use to stay straight. Sometimes I might angle a little left or right while crossing to adjust my position. This is OK, and doesn’t mean I am lost.

Q: That sounds scary! Shouldn’t you use a guide dog instead of a cane? It’d be so much safer!
A: Guide dogs can help follow the crosswalk lines, and they can maneuver the handler out of sudden dangers (such as a driver running a red light). However, they can’t read traffic lights or decide when it’s safe to cross the street. A guide dog handler must be able to follow traffic cues and signal to the dog when it’s time to cross. Also, the dog needs to be free from distractions (see below) to guide effectively. There are trade-offs to cane and dog travel, and blind people can safely cross streets using both methods.

Q: What about those chirping crosswalk poles?
A: Audible pedestrian signals (APS) provide auditory access to some visual crosswalk information. They might make a sound indicating when the walk sign is on, signal the nearing end of a walk cycle, or provide auditory feedback to help locate the crosswalk. Blind people I’ve known are quite divided regarding the usefulness of APS. Some find them very useful, while others feel they distract from traffic cues. They can generate a lot of neighborhood noise, and unless they are vibrotactile, they don’t help deaf-blind pedestrians (see below). APS are not available in many places, so blind people must learn how to cross safely without them. I personally like most APS, but I respect the fact that some blind people find them a nuisance.

Q: If I see a blind person standing on the corner, what should I do?
A: Using the techniques described here, blind people cross streets on a routine basis, sometimes multiple times a day. Most of the time, no help or intervention is necessary. In some cases, a blind pedestrian may ask you a question about the intersection, such as checking whether this is the crosswalk. Occasionally someone might request to follow you across or to take your elbow while crossing. Deaf-blind pedestrians, in particular, may request this assistance if they have trouble hearing traffic cues. They may request assistance verbally or by holding up a written card or sign. I occasionally request assistance if there is loud construction noise in the area. Most of the time, if the blind pedestrian does want help, he or she will start the conversation. If you aren’t sure whether or not help is desired, it’s fine to ask “Would you like any help?” and then respect the answer. It’s important to help only in the way that’s requested, because what works for one person might not work for another.

Q: Is there anything I should avoid doing?
A: A few things. Like driving, eyes-free street crossing requires the juggling of a lot of information. Distractions can make it unnecessarily difficult and dangerous. One of the biggest distractions is well-meaning people urging me to cross before I’m ready to do so. As mentioned earlier, sometimes it’s safest to wait until the beginning of a cycle to cross. In addition, the blind pedestrian you see on the corner may not plan on crossing at all. They might be waiting for an Uber, or meeting a friend. As long as the pedestrian is standing on the curb, not blocking traffic, repeatedly pressuring them to cross is just an exercise in frustration for both parties. Along similar lines, please avoid honking your horn at us or shouting at us from across the street. We probably won’t hear you clearly, so it’ll be more distraction than help. Another thing is not to alter normal traffic behavior by blocking the crosswalk with your car, or trying to “stop traffic” with hand signals in an attempt to protect the blind pedestrian. We rely on normal traffic cues to cross safely, so altering those cues can cause confusion and increase risk for all involved, including drivers. If the blind pedestrian has a guide dog, it’s critically important that you leave the dog alone. No petting, talking or distracting the dog in any way. A working guide dog must pay full attention to the intersection and the handler’s commands in order to ensure a safe street crossing. Finally, as in any situation, it’s important not to grab a person or their mobility aids without their consent If you’d like to offer help, a tap on the shoulder is fine, but grabbing or pulling the person mid-crossing can be very distracting.

So if you see a person on the corner with cane or dog, don’t be alarmed. Let them cross without distraction, and once you’re both on the other side, feel free to strike up a conversation if you’d like.

9 thoughts on “Blind in the City: Demystifying the Eyes-Free Street Crossing

  1. This is so helpful! I have always wondered how blind people know how to cross the street. You’re amazing! What a service you’re providing for the sighted community!
    Thank you for educating me! You’re such an inspiration Arielle!

    1. Great article. I’ve been wondering about technique as it seems like those traffic signals are not always to be depended upon.

  2. Thank you so much for this enlightenment. I often have patients in the hospital who are at varying stages of visual impairment, and as sensitive as I try to be with them by always explaining what I’m going to be doing with them and obviously announcing that I’m about to touch them, I look forward to learning more from you so I can know more ways to help them better. Be well. <3

    1. Thanks for reading! Please feel free to explore the site, particularly the publications page, for more information specifically written with healthcare providers in mind. If you want to follow the blog, click the “follow” button in the lower right.

  3. I’ve twisted my ankles on them often, and am curious if the hard rubber mats they put on the ground at intersections help you? Most of the crosswalks in my town have that type of crossing, but a few have cross-hatches etched into the concrete instead. I don’t think we have any of the APS poles. What static crossing aids, or combination of aids, helps you the most?

  4. Crossing a street can be a very difficult task for older pedestrians. With increased age and potential cognitive decline, older people take the decision to cross a street primarily based on vehicles’ distance,.

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