#TIL: What do bird-calls and a Grammy winning song have to do with traffic crossings?

OMI Foundation
2 min readApr 14, 2022

By Apoorv Kulkarni

In the early 1900s, designing inclusive cities was not top-of-mind for most town planners. But, when the first electrically operated traffic signals were installed in 1914 in Cleveland, USA, the change of signal was accompanied by a ringing sound. Traffic lights were a novelty for most road users back then, and the sound was meant to catch their attention.

Audio signals specifically to assist the blind and low-vision pedestrians first came up in Japan in the 1920s and spread to Europe and America in the 1960s-70s. These Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) were inspired by bird-calls. A speaker attached to a pole at the traffic intersections emitted a cuckoo sound when it was safe to cross at the north-south crossing and a chirping sound at the east-west crossing.

(99) Chirping sounds crosswalk in Japan! — YouTube

People with visual disability appreciated the intervention, but complained about the difficulty distinguishing between the calls of actual birds and the audio signals from the traffic lights. In response to their feedback, the traffic crossings began using alternative sounds.

Additionally, the APS also incorporated other innovations, such as ambient sound sensitive audio levels to restrict noise pollution, tactile and vibrational feedback to assist Deaf Blind users and much more. In fact, the audio from APS was used by Billie Eilish in her 2019 Grammy winning song ‘Bad Guy’ signalling how they are becoming a part of a city’s cultural identity.

(98) Why Australia’s Crosswalk Buttons are the Best (ft. Billie Eilish) — YouTube

Today, the APS are being used all over the world making streets safer for disabled and non-disabled people alike. Recently, APS were installed in cities like Nairobi, Delhi and Bangalore (closer to home).

Automated pedestrian crossings : Nairobi gets crosswalks technology
We tried to use Bengaluru’s new pedestrian crossing system Here’s what happened

However, installation of APS needs to be supported by extensive public sensitization campaigns to get the full benefit of these signals.

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OMI Foundation

OMI Foundation is a new-age policy research and social innovation think tank operating at the intersection of mobility innovation, governance and public good.