Illustration by Olivia Stephens

Proceed with Caution

Booming Seattle is the antithesis of progress for those trying to navigate it while blind.

By Stuart Eskenazi

Illustration by Olivia Stephens

Crammed within a single half-block of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, scores of orange diamonds and white rectangles splay themselves out along curbs, sidewalks and streets, forming a confusing kaleidoscope of a city under construction.

Detour. Right Lane Closed Ahead. Caution Steel Plate on Roadway. Motorcycles Use Extreme Caution. Trucks Leaving. Bikes Merge with Traffic. Abrupt Lane Edge. Bump.

Inserting himself into the chaos, Alan Bentson gets off his bus and unfurls a collapsible white cane. As the crow flies, three blocks separate his bus stop on Howell Street from the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library on Ninth Avenue, where he works. But this is Seattle, where the straightest of shots can transmute into the most roundabout of routes within a blink of an eye. A foot-travel strategy that worked swimmingly in the morning might be obsolete by mid-afternoon.

Across the street from Bentson’s bus stop, a chain-link fence cordons off the construction site for the soon-to-be-arriving, sure-to-be-fabulous 8th and Howell Hotel.

Sidewalk Closed Ahead. Crosswalk Closed. Cross Here.

The cluster forces him to cross busy Ninth Avenue to avoid the block with the fence where the sidewalk used to be, and then cross it again to return to the side of the street where he started—and wanted to be in the first place. Somehow, Bentson is not cross about it all.

“If you’re going to live or work in a city, this is how it’s going to be,” he says with reluctant acceptance. “You expect a city to be like this.”

While that may be true, people who are blind or visually impaired rely on a certain level of predictability to navigate a city safely and successfully. They scope things out ahead of time and proceed along routes they know well.

As Seattle has grown, my city has sort of shrunk.

But the offshoots of a city growing incredibly fast—pop-up barricades, construction noise, crowded sidewalks—can ambush their best-laid travel plans.

“Obviously, we don’t see the signs, so it’s even harder for us to tell what’s going on,” says Marci Carpenter, president of the Washington state chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, the nation’s oldest and largest organization led by and for blind people. “There’s just a lot more that we have to deal with right now.”

For Bentson, a lumbering fellow with a gentle disposition, it means dealing differently with his workday. Employed at the Talking Book and Braille library since 1981, he routinely used to venture out for lunch to grab a quick bite at a McDonald’s less than four blocks away.

“But now my territory is bounded,” he says. “I haven’t ventured much beyond Ninth Avenue for a long time. It’s just too complicated. As Seattle has grown, my city has sort of shrunk.”

Every Friday, Jim Owens volunteers at the same library to proofread new braille books. He says he has begun to dread his commute from Capitol Hill to South Lake Union.

“Ideally, I want to be able to travel about independently,” says Owens, who has been blind his whole life. “But I realize there are situations where I really can’t do that. There’s no way I can know ahead of time what sidewalk is going to be blocked off, or when. So it’s a matter of understanding the parameters I have to work around.”

Owens says that instead of going out on his own, he increasingly is hooking up in advance with folks who can see so they can do all the dirty work for him. He will either have them meet him at his bus stop or carpool with them to wherever he needs to go.

“I let them figure it out,” he says. “I’m just along for the ride.”

Even our best intentions can create unforeseen obstacles. As we fall all over ourselves in self-congratulations for Seattle’s embrace of bike shares, blind people struggle to stay upright when they encounter Lime bikes squeezed onto our city sidewalks.

Blind people are taught to attend to cues of sound and vibration in order to move with the flow of traffic. At some Seattle crosswalks, they also are aided by audible signals that either chirp or cuckoo in sync with the green walk light. Such prompts, though, can get drowned out in the cacophony of booming Seattle.

“Sometimes it’s so noisy with all of the traffic and the construction, I’m not sure if I can cross a street or not,” Bentson says.

It’s not just loud noises and blocked-off pathways that can create confusion and hazards for blind people. As Seattle traffic has worsened, drivers have grown impatient. They are more apt to enter intersections or sneak right turns ahead of crossing pedestrians—right as the birdies sound their signal.

“Just because the light has changed doesn’t mean it’s safe to cross,” Carpenter says. “I assume the last car through is going to run the light. If I hear a car kind of encroaching in the crosswalk, I wave my hand at my side to get their attention: ‘Hey, I know that you’re there! Please notice that I’m here, too!’”

Even our best intentions can create unforeseen obstacles. As we fall all over ourselves in self-congratulations for Seattle’s embrace of bike shares, blind people struggle to stay upright when they encounter Lime bikes squeezed onto our city sidewalks.

“Bike-share bikes are a big issue for us right now,” says Carpenter, who sits on the city’s transit advisory board. “They are left all over the place—on sidewalks, blocking crosswalks. And they aren’t always parked standing. When they’re just lying there, my cane doesn’t always find them first. My body does.”

Bikes, in general, make moving about the city more challenging for blind people, Owens says. The protected bike lane on Second Avenue, for example, can be perilous for those who have yet to decipher its customized signal patterns or realize that it runs two ways on a one-way street.

“They teach blind people that the way to know if it’s OK to cross the street is to listen to traffic,” he explains. “Well, motorized traffic is one thing. But if it’s bikes, that’s something else entirely. If it’s pin-drop quiet, I can hear a bike. But with the everyday sounds of construction and even people on the sidewalk just talking, it’s real hard to hear.”

Then there are the city’s planning decisions that sometimes seem to have little regard for blind people. Bentson would like to know whose bright idea it was to place planters and benches on sidewalks leading to and from a library … for the blind!

“They steal my sidewalk, basically,” he says. “Those benches are, like, calf-high. And they’re mean.”

On the mean streets of Seattle, where sidewalks vanish, bicycles appear out of nowhere and pedestrian routes shift almost daily in the name of progress, Bentson ambles on. No relief in sight.

Illustration by Olivia Stephens