What’s the rationale behind Berkeley walk signal sounds?

Audible walk signal sounds can help orient disabled pedestrians in a variety of ways. Photo: morethanreal

In response to an earlier Ask Berkeleyside post about walk signals in Berkeley aimed to help the disabled, one reader asked a follow-up question about signal sounds, or the lack thereof: “I’m curious about the sound supplements to the buttons. Most of them in Berkeley don’t produce a sound when pushed. Some of them ring. Some of them buzz. Some chirp. Some of them talk. And they don’t seem consistent. Some buzz any time they are touched but produce no other audible sounds. Others seem to be giving other cues. I haven’t been able to figure out precisely what these sounds are meant to signal in all the different configurations.”

City spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said she turned to Berkeley’s Transportation and Disability Compliance staff for the answer.

“The sounds that you hear are called Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS). The coo-coos and chirps serve as an audible walk signal, with each sound differentiating which street has the walk (cuckoos for north-south and chirps for east-west). Beeps are usually locator tones to help find the buttons without sight. The buzzing sound is used in vibrotactile push buttons, which if held down will vibrate and sometimes include an audible message when it is time to cross.”

Clunies-Ross said Berkeley was an early adopter of these signals, and started installing them in the early- to mid-80s.

“This was far in advance of any regulatory requirements or industry standards so, while Berkeley’s current APSs are largely standardized, there are still a couple of working examples of previous product generations,” she said, via email.

About 98% of local government entities use the coo-coos and chirps, she continued, and the vast majority of Berkeley signals use them, too.

Berkeley’s Disability Compliance staff helps residents and visitors get oriented to the system with written materials and personal assistance.

If something around town has you mystified, write to Berkeleyside at tips@berkeleyside.com (subject line: “Ask Berkeleyside”) and we’ll do our best to track down an answer.

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  • Aethelberht

    Never noticed the directional difference between the chirps/cuckoos, and I lived (carless) in Berkeley for five years. Just like how I never remember whether one or two rings signify an elevator going up/down, since I don’t rely on them as cues as the blind do.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UTAORC2LANQF2ONEFJYXBSITTA bingo

    I didn’t know about the N/S vs. E/W sound designation. cool!

  • TN

    Emilie,

    Thank you for following up on my query.

    Does the City have any plans to make the signals more uniform?

  • emraguso

    I can ask. :)

  • Joan Strand

    I have lived in Berkeley since 1963, have noticed chirps and cuckoos only at the Shattuck-University intersection, knew only that they had something to do with the light changing. The city’s infrequent mailings should include this information. It does no good if few people know about it.

  • New Englander gone west

    Chirps and cuckoos–and the directional impact they deliver–have been in use in Boston’s near suburbs since the mid-1960′s. For once, the disability access community he wasn’t close to being in the lead.

  • serkes

    I’m baffled by the N/S E/W explanation.

    Perhaps Right/Left or To/Fro for the US, and Left/Right or Fro/To for the UK?

    Ira

  • serkes

    I’ve noticed people like that all over Berkeley.

    Ira

  • David D.

    Huh? Cardinal directions are fixed, so it’s best to use them. We don’t want blind people walking into oncoming traffic because they got their lefts and rights mixed up.

  • David D.

    The chirps and cuckoos have been in use in suburban San Diego (where I grew up) since the 80s as well. Possibly even before that but I would have been too young to know. Hopefully Berkeley decides to standardize the few outlying intersections so that visitors aren’t confused by all our variations.

  • serkes

    That’s actually my point.

    Certainly important to know which direction you’re going … but it seems more important to know if you’re walking into traffic rather than N/S or |E/W …. hence my comment of one sound for traffic moving perpendicular to you and another moving parallel to you.

    Ira

  • David D.

    One sound represents traffic moving north/south and another represents east/west. The chirp/cuckoo is comparable to a walk signal. Don’t see it = don’t cross; don’t hear it = don’t cross.

  • serkes

    I’m curious how someone who’s vision impaired knows which cardinal direction they’re headed.

  • emraguso

    Here’s the scoop, via the city: “We move to greater uniformity in the signals as the older equipment wears out or when other changes or repairs make it necessary.”

  • Joan Strand

    People like what?

  • sunset

    On Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 5:51 PM, Judith Holland wrote:

    The Walk Signals along the Shattuck Avenue corridor are notoriously SHORT and I am ashamed that a City with such a public posture of “accessibility” has not paid any attention to this disgraceful small but crucial detail. Visitors to Berkeley comment on the short timing of the 4-lane major street signals. Anyone but a youthful and athletic Berkeley High School student, walking alone and not engaged in socializing, gets caught up on the center islands OR must dodge and weave against oncoming traffic for the second half of their crossing as their Walk light has disappeared. Take a look at the parents with strollers or toddlers, the seniors, the disabled, the homeless, the groups of friends trying to cross together in conversation – they are usually stacked up on the niggardly center islands waiting for the light to turn to “Walk” a second time so they can complete their crossing safely. This is a shameful oversight which could and should be fixed by some observant and thoughtful City employee!
    This would be such a small but user-friendly improvement to the fractured downtown district that we continue to hope will put on a better face! JHolland

  • toketee

    On Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 5:51 PM, Judith Holland wrote:

    The Walk Signals along the Shattuck Avenue corridor are notoriously SHORT and I am ashamed that a City with such a public posture of “accessibility” has not paid any attention to this disgraceful small but crucial detail. Visitors to Berkeley comment on the short timing of the 4-lane major street signals. Anyone but a youthful and athletic Berkeley High School student, walking alone and not engaged in socializing, gets caught up on the center islands OR must dodge and weave against oncoming traffic for the second half of their crossing as their Walk light has disappeared. Take a look at the parents with strollers or toddlers, the seniors, the disabled, the homeless, the groups of friends trying to cross together in conversation – they are usually stacked up on the niggardly center islands waiting for the light to turn to “Walk” a second time so they can complete their crossing safely. This is a shameful oversight which could and should be fixed by some observant and thoughtful City employee!
    This would be such a small but user-friendly improvement to the fractured downtown district that we continue to hope will put on a better face! JHolland