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Technology Guides Blind Transit Riders Right to the Bus Door

Boston, Austin and other cities are using Bluetooth and other digital aids to help blind and visually impaired riders better navigate their way to bus stops and train stations.

Bluetooth technology, crowdsourcing, and connected devices are making mobility easier for blind, visually impaired or disabled transit riders. In Boston, transit officials, through a partnership with Perkins School for the Blind, have been contributing data to the app BlindWays, which combines GPS data with special clues to get users to the exact location of a bus stop.

The clues are important because the average sighted person doesn’t need them when they use a trip planning or map app. “If you want to have a stop location that indicates a stop is on the corner of Block A and Block B, if you can see, that’s not a problem. You’ll get close enough to it, and if it’s 100 feet away from where the pin drops, I can see the physical bus stop,” said David Block-Schachter, chief technology officer with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

“If you are blind or visually impaired, you get there, you think you’re waiting at the bus stop. But you’re 100 feet away from the bus stop and guess what, the bus stops and the bus doesn’t pick you up,” he added. “And so that’s a huge issue.”

BlindWays provides crowdsourced visual clues to help users navigate the last few final and crucial feet. MBTA is also in the early stages of placing Bluetooth sensor technology on bus stops that act as beacons and can guide BlindWays users to the exact spot through a series of cues from a person’s smartphone.

“We found those cues are very helpful for the most part, but it doesn’t necessarily get people down to the last five or 10 feet,” Block-Schachter explained. “So what we’ve been experimenting with is putting these beacons on bus stops.

“If you have the app open, as you get closer to the stop, your phone buzzes differently the closer you get to the stop, which can really be incredibly helpful,” said Block-Schachter.

The Bluetooth beacon project is still in planning phase and will gravitate to a pilot in the next several weeks where two bus lines with about 100 stops will be equipped with the technology, say Boston transit officials. 

The approach is not unlike a similar pilot program launched in Austin, Texas, where riders who are visually impaired can get real-time bus information via their smartphone when near a bus stop. The information could be related to service alerts, schedules or other rider-related data.

The pilot is a partnership between Capital Metro, the transit provider; and Connecthings, an international technology firm that uses Bluetooth technology, beacons and other digital infrastructure to transform public spaces filled with street furniture, bus stops, monuments and more into connected points. The partnership also includes the app BlindSquare, which is designed to be used by blind and visually impaired residents, and works with GPS technology in a smartphone’s operating system to determine location. A third partner is BlueCats, a maker of Bluetooth beacons.

“This project is an opportunity for Capital Metro to explore smart beacon technology and its potential applications for transit,” said Martin Kareithi, program manager for Accessible Services at Capital Metro. The pilot is set to run through mid-May and will involve 16 bus stops in downtown Austin.

“Working with BlindSquare, Connecthings and BlueCats is a chance for us to dip our toes into accessible wayfinding,” said Kareithi. “Generally, through technology, there are many ways in which we can improve service for the public, including people with disabilities and older adults,” he added.

In the last couple of years, Boston has been involved in a comprehensive accessibility survey of all of its train stations and 8,000 bus stops. That information is then made available to trip-planning sites like Google Maps or apps like BlindWays, in an effort to give all users — regardless of their disability — detailed information related to how accessible stations and stops are.

“We’ve been gradually adding to it over the last couple of years,” Block-Schachter said of the survey. “But we made a really big push in the last six months to up the quality of our data, including bus stops. That was a really big deal, enabled by a really large systemwide survey.”

“There’s nothing worse than planning a trip — and if you’re in a wheelchair — and finding out, ‘no wait, I can’t get on,’” he said.

The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada has built the Mobility Training Center, a nearly 15,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 2016, and includes complete mockups of buses, sidewalks, ticketing kiosks and other objects encountered in the outdoors. Instructors offer free training to physically disabled, blind, visually impaired or elderly riders who use the bus system in the Las Vegas region.

Since opening, “our mobility training specialists have provided one-on-one training to 213 people with disabilities and group training to 911 seniors,” said Catherine Lu, manager of government affairs, media relations and marketing at RTC. “They have also provided classroom and in-the-field training to 878 students with disabilities with our local school district.”

Additionally, RTC’s mobile app rideRTC provides audible cues for users while they’re using the bus. Users can plan trips and find the location of buses, as well as purchase fares, through rideRTC.

Los Angeles Metro has a project planned to install 700 Bluetooth beacons in its historic 161,000-square-foot Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to provide audio directions to visually impaired passengers via a smartphone. The project is expected to go live in July 2018, according to Daniel Levy, chief civil rights program officer for L.A. Metro. 

Other transit agencies like TriMet, which serves the Portland, Ore., region, place textured tiles along boarding platforms and ensure that all ticket kiosks have instructions in audio, Braille and raised lettering.

All of these improvements — technological and others — make for better transit systems, say officials.

“What we’ve found is that it makes it so much better for everyone else. The benefits really rebound — not just for people who are blind or visually impaired, or not just for people who are in a wheelchair or have mobility issues — it helps everybody,” said Block-Schachter, in Boston.

“The benefits are specific and large for one community, but are diffuse across our ridership, which is really cool,” he added. “It continues to make the case for making these improvements.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.