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Albert, Bill, Candace, and Donald know the limitations of the ADA all too well. For all the advancements provided by the Americans With Disabilities Act, these four blind people in their 50s and 60s still have a hard time riding public buses when not all destinations are announced or drivers simply blow past a stop.

That’s why researchers at University of California, Santa Cruz, have developed a public transit assistant app to help blind bus passengers navigate routes to their destination. The app doesn’t require internet or GPS. The passenger only needs to be within range of a wi-fi access point, which can be installed in buses and at bus stops.

“We developed a prototype public transit assistant (PTA) system to increase information awareness of blind travelers, specifically those riding buses. The system uses Wi-Fi access points (APs), installed in vehicles as well as at bus stops, to communicate with users’ Android smartphone or tablet. It requires no Internet connection and does not need to use the device’s GPS,” say Germán H. Flores and Roberto Manduchi, authors of “A Public Transit Assistant for Blind Bus Passengers.”

How did the app fare according to the four people with visual impairment? (The three men were tech savvy. Candace was not. Researchers created names for the four participants to protect their privacy.)

All of them loved the system, but had one overarching complaint that all of us can relate to. They needed to know exactly where the bus pulled over in relation to the stop so they could be prepared to board.

“The system allows for preselection, via a specially designed accessible interface, of the desired bus line and destination. Passengers waiting at a bus stop receive a notification when their desired bus is approaching; once inside the bus, they are informed well in advance of when the bus is about to arrive at their destination stop. Information is produced as synthesized speech. Users can request the system to repeat its last announcement as well as query the system about other available information,” write the authors.

The researchers said they could also implement bus-tracking apps such as OneBusAway or NextBus to give the travelers bus arrival times even sooner.

Blind participants in the public transit assistant (PTA) system user study. Clockwise from top left: “Albert” interacting with the PTA application on his tablet; “Bill” being informed that his desired bus is approaching; “Donald” pulling the stop request cord; “Candace” waiting to hear from the system whether the approaching bus is the desired one.

Blind participants in the public transit assistant (PTA) system user study. Clockwise from top left: “Albert” interacting with the PTA application on his tablet; “Bill” being informed that his desired bus is approaching; “Donald” pulling the stop request cord; “Candace” waiting to hear from the system whether the approaching bus is the desired one.

Public transit assistant app: How other apps’ woes informed its design

The researchers studied other apps and assessed their shortcomings, not the least of which were the low accuracy of GPS positioning and providing no layout of a bus stop so that blind passengers will know exactly where to go.

“Besides accessing trip-related information, visually impaired passengers often have difficulty recognizing a bus stop or orienting themselves in a transit hub. Standard mapping services such as Google Maps and accessible GPS apps such as BlindSquare or Sendero’s Seeing Eye GPS can be used for this purpose, but they have critical shortcomings. For example, Google Maps provides the location of bus stops but not descriptions of their layouts,” they said.

Bus stop Wi-Fi access point (AP) locations in our user study. Top: Science Hill–East (left) and Science Hill–West (right) face each other. Bottom: East Remote Parking–West.

How the public transit assistant app works

The app is fairly simple to use.

The user approaches the bus stop with the app turned on. The app will detect the bus stop’s access point and guide the user toward it. If more than one bus stop is within range, the app will ask the user to select one. While waiting for the bus, the user can ask the system as many times as needed when the bus will arrive.

When the bus arrives, the app alerts users and switches to the bus’s access point. Once on board the bus, users can get as many updates about all upcoming stops as they want.

Furthermore, the app will tell users when they are approaching the stop right before the final destination to allow enough time for them to pull the stop cord, gather their things, and head to the front.

Map of the bus routes on the University of California, Santa Cruz campus included in the authors’ user study. The eastward and westward routes are pink and light blue, respectively. Colored circles indicate bus stops, with the characteristic Wi-Fi symbol indicating the AP locations.

How passengers with visual impairment rated new app

After the four study participants used the app to navigate the University of California at Santa Cruz campus, the researchers conducted interviews to find out what worked and what didn’t.

To begin, the participants described some general challenges they have previously faced while taking the bus, such as more than one bus arriving at a stop, buses that stop too far from the curb, and bus drivers who are not helpful or won’t stop at all.

After using the app, the participants all agreed that it worked very well. In fact, Albert said it was the best prototype he has used in years. All of the participants agreed that being able to select their destination was one of the best features. They also appreciated being told in advance when their destination was coming up.

The participants also had suggestions.

“According to Albert, blind travelers at a bus stop need to figure out the exact distance between where they are waiting for the bus and where they must board the bus. For example, the Science Hill–East stop has a shelter with a bench that is almost 10 meters away from the edge of the curb where buses pull up. A blind person needs to plan when to get up from the bench upon the bus’s arrival, and where to move to catch it,” the authors say.

Bill also wanted to know if bus stops even had benches to begin with, saving the traveler time searching for a bench that isn’t there.

With these and a few other adjustments, the researchers believe the PTA app could be of great use to visually impaired passengers.

“Our study shows that a PTA, implemented as a mobile app, has great potential to improve travel-related information access for blind users, and it has highlighted the main features that such a system needs to be really useful to blind travelers,” they say.

 

Related research on tech for the visually impaired in the Computer Society Digital Library: