There are many little pieces of infrastructure in our urban surroundings that we are aware of but mostly ignore, for example those chirps and tones heard at busy intersections. These pedestrian signals feel like a relatively recent phenomenon, but I suppose we first heard them in the 90s. Most of us probably understand the sounds help people with vision loss know when it is safe to cross busy streets, but not surprisingly, there is more to the story.
I now live close to an intersection with audible pedestrian signals (APS) and realized it was time to learn more. An easy first discovery was to simply look up and see what was emitting all those sounds. Turns out to be a little grey box made by Novax Industries, a BC based company. Pro tip: it wouldn’t take much to redesign the speaker box into a stylized face. Almost there, just lower the third eye to become a cute little nose.
The box is “smarter” than it looks. It listens to the ambient noise level and adjusts output to ensure its chirps are just a little bit louder than the surround noise, be it five purring Teslas or that bellowing diesel bus.
Here is a “did you know” discovery that will amaze your friends: the familiar four note crossing signal (da-da da-daaa) has a name: the Canada Melody. It was first used in Montreal and was designed to be easily identified among the cacophony of street sounds. It is used for crossings that go east-west. In Halifax a cuckoo sound is used for north-south. Many people I know are challenged to identify what is north and south but the Halifax street grid is so wonky I wouldn’t suggest using APSs to tell you how to reach the actual north end (a disputed designation anyway).
On this City of Toronto site, click “How an APS Works” at the bottom of the page and you’ll get to sound files for various signals. Play the Canada Melody over and over again to remind yourself of the charms of the pedestrian crossing experience.
Close friends of APSs are TWSIs: tactile walking surface indicators. These are the panels of raised dots found on curb ramps that help people with vision loss identify where the sidewalk ends and the road begins. The surface of TWSIs can be detected underfoot or with a long white cane. Their contrasting colour also makes them stand out. Because I’m a fan of architectural cast iron I of course like the iron panels used in Halifax that weather to a dark colour, like manhole covers.
A lot has changed on our street corners in the last fifty years. I sort of recall when the first pedestrian crossing lights with “walk / don’t walk” appeared in the 1970s. Many pedestrians were annoyed that we were being infantilized (why did we need another light to tell us when to cross the street?). What today we would call overreach by the nanny state. That everyone did not read English took a while to sink in, leading to the switch to green man / red hand pictograms. Eventually the countdown display gave us information we could really use.
Back in the day when the world was simpler, traffic lights could be slightly more elegant. This photo of Sackville Street from the early 1970s shows all we needed, lights for both directions, atop a single pole. Below is the same corner in a recent Google Streetview, with lights and signs strapped to a pole.
I’m very happy that traffic signals do not fall off their posts, but when you actually stop to look up it does feel like the whole installation could be more refined and attractive. Asking too much?
- Once Halifax was renowned for having the only traffic light in the world located in a cemetery. It was at the corner of Robie and Jubilee Road, just inside the fence of Camp Hill Cemetery. Such a marvel; it was celebrated in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. But totally on brand for Halifax, the city found space to relocate a new set of lights outside the fence, Bland progress triumphs again.
- When we lived in the cove and shoveled ourselves out after snow storms we would hear about the woes of city-plowed sidewalks and how urban pedestrians were disrespected. Now we get to share your pain. Where is that nanny state when we really need her!