Adventures in traffic signaling

New York to Minneapolis, May 7, 2018 | My trip to the airport started with a subway ride to Astoria, suspenseful as interruptions along the way had me thinking I'd miss my plane. I caught a medallion cab on Astoria Boulevard, and picked up speed until we hit a stretch of construction where three lanes merged to two and two to one. In spite of the traffic, all was calm until the driver of an Infiniti livery car started laying on his horn and trying to pass everyone from the side. It was one of those situations where there was absolutely nowhere for anyone in front of him to go, but he continued pressing on the horn. My driver was incensed. "Honk honk honk!" he said. "What's the point? We can't go anywhere!"

In Minneapolis for the 175th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, I walked through the Downtown West neighborhood in the late afternoon. Heading north along Nicollet Mall, sidewalks were broad enough to accommodate block after block of outdoor dining. Although every table was occupied, the rest of the sidewalks were easy to navigate. The northern extension of Nicollet Avenue, Nicollet Mall is carfree for several blocks, open to buses, cyclists, and skaters, while east-west streets are open to all vehicles. Streets were lively, but there was a profound sense of calm. There were colorful benches and chairs on some corners, and for the first time in years, it occurred to me that it would be lovely to sit outside and enjoy the streetlife. During the hours I was outside, there was no honking, even when drivers waited for a "slow" driver to move when a light turned green, and because there was little to no street parking, there were no horn-based lock signals - something that makes a difference to pedestrians and outdoor diners.

I noticed the buses that passed, including one with the destination "Free Ride" and several hybrid buses. Whenever a bus stopped to let off and pick up riders, I waited for the piercing beep that accompanies each stop with New York City buses, but there was no such sound! There was just a gentle, peaceful, naturally occurring wooshing sound before each bus quietly drove on. Imagine that!

No detail is too small when it comes to product development, transportation, urban planning, and sound.

Minneapolis, May 10, 2018 | So it turns out some of the buses here do feature a beep when the bus "kneels" for people to board, but it isn't as loud as the New York City kneeling bus beep.

Yesterday I walked through the Theater District and the Warehouse District, and as in the Loring Park area, had the heavenly experience of hearing city sounds with almost no honking. Today I heard only three honks. Yesterday I heard four, one from a bus driver honking at a pedestrian who was standing in the bus's path.

As I walked north towards the Minneapolis Central Library, I passed a musician on a corner playing Viva La Vida on an electric violin. The song was so achingly beautiful that tears came to my eyes. But just then, I heard that voice call out from the pedestrian crossing guidance box: "Wait!" "Wait!"

Minneapolis, May 8, 2018 | While the quiet and calm of Minneapolis continues to amaze me, the talking crossing signals could stand further improvement. Usually instructions intended for visually impaired pedestrians don't carry more than a few feet from the devices, but when they do, they have a strange effect. "It sounds like someone is starting a fight," a fellow traveler said, and that describes it well. The first time I heard the disembodied voice, it sounded like an escalating argument.

It's good when a department of transportation is responsive to complaints about a beeping bus stop, and especially good when a sonic debacle is abandoned, but you can't help wondering why local residents aren't brought into the planning process.

It's interesting to note the difference in the effect this level and type of sound has in the context of the existing sound that preceded it.

In a city like New York, where traffic noise is already too high in many places, having to process more aural distraction is difficult to endure.

In a city where there is almost no honking, the occasional disembodied voice giving crossing instructions or amplified music just outside an Irish pub in a commercial district don't add another layer of stress.

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