If you’ve crossed the street at a handful of intersections in Austin recently, you may have noticed a new voice beckoning you to walk. It doesn’t sound like the typical robotic voiceover you may hear on a bus or at older crosswalks.
It got one of our listeners, Jenny Stirrat, curious.
Stirrat hears the voice every other day at the intersection of 51st Street and Cameron Road, where she goes running. She thought it was a fluke. Then, she heard it again, near Blue Owl Brewing Company on Cesar Chavez. She said she felt like she was going crazy, but upon closer listen, her husband agreed; she wasn’t crazy.
“I feel like the voice on there is a very Texan-y, Austin-y voice, and I was just kind of curious if that was a conscious decision that somebody made – I kind of assume it was – and how the voice was picked upon,” she said.
So, she asked our ATXplained project:
Whose distinctive "Texan" voice is it on the newer pedestrian crossing machines and was it an intentional choice to choose someone so Texan?
Let’s answer that first part first.
The distinctive voice belongs to Lupe Alvarado, a 13-year member of the Austin Transportation Department’s traffic signal division.
A few years ago, when the department started installing this technology at crosswalks and pedestrian hybrid beacons – those midblock stoplight crossings – Alvarado had some ideas for voice talent.
“The idea is we were going to get some very promising, out-front voices,” he said. “And we had some people that we contacted – employees of the city.”
So the intent of putting employees behind the mic was simple: It’s cheap, and (ideally) they’re pretty easy to track down – until they're not. So, he took matters into his own hands when the deadline was looming.
“The scheduling wasn’t always there, and we were trying to move on with projects,” he said. “And, by default, I started [recording] one, two, three. Next thing I know I’m the one – and only one – who’s doing it.”
As for the “distinctive Texan” portion of Stirrat’s question, Alvarado, a native Texan, says he doesn’t think he has a drawl, but he tries to make his takes sound natural. “One of my assistant directors, when I first started, said, ‘Don’t be too authoritative. Try just to relay the message,’” he said.
Stirrat isn't the only Austinite who has recognized his voice. Alvarado says a while back, the Transportation Department hosted an open house for students from the Texas School for the Blind and the Visually Impaired. “And I had just gotten through talking to them and one of the little ones pushed the button and goes, ‘That’s him! That’s him!'” he said. “Those little ones, they got some good ears.”
Adelyn Granger is one of those little ones. Well, she’s not exactly little. She’s 17. She’s been at the school for three years now and is president of the student council. She cuts hair – one day, she says, she’s going to open her own salon.
“I enjoy what I do. I do hair and makeup, and I cut people’s hair – if they’re brave enough. I haven’t cut anybody so far,” she joked.
She says she plans on going to cosmetology school and getting her barber’s license after she graduates.
Granger has vision impairment from Best disease, a form of macular degeneration that’s genetically inherited. She was diagnosed about eight years ago, but that hasn't stopped her from getting around. Unlike some students at the school, she can go pretty much wherever she wants.
“So, I have full access to Austin. I could go anywhere, but I’m a busy woman. So I can’t go anywhere all the time,” she said. “So I usually go across to the Triangle.”
She hears Alvarado's voice every time she goes over there to her favorite restaurant, Mama Fu’s. (She usually goes to Yogurt Planet afterward before heading back to her dorm.)
But, for her, crosswalks can be overwhelming. She’s got good peripheral vision, but she has light-sensitivity. Lines can appear wavy and her uneven vision makes depth perception and long-distance vision difficult.
So, for her, little things go a long way – things like the grooves she can feel with her cane at the end of a sidewalk or the raised arrow on crosswalk buttons. But, “the voice,” as she calls it, helps make crossing easier by actually telling her with sound.
“It makes me feel secure. And it’s good to have somebody else tell you, straight-up, ‘Walk sign’s on,’ because sometimes you’ll be like, ‘Is it on?’ Like, you’re not really sure, so it’s good to have confirmation, backup,” she said. “He’s got my back, which I appreciate.”
So, when Alvarado stopped by her school last week, she got excited – just a little.
“It’s so crazy! I was so excited to put a face to the voice that I hear when I go to Mama Fu’s!” she said.
When the Transportation Department began installing these beacons, they reached out to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
At first, the school told Alvarado and his team that the recordings were too loud; that they may drown out other auditory cues folks with visual impairments use to cross the street.
After that, the department installed more voice-enabled beacons and signals across the city. And, eventually, Alvarado became the voice. Now he’s on around 80 percent of voice-enabled signals in the city and almost all the pedestrian hybrid beacons, according to the Transportation Department.