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How a 'Smart' Public Transit System Can Better Serve Riders With Disabilities

A team of researchers is designing a system to ensure riders are at the right stop at the right time.

Neil Conway/Flickr

Accessibility for public transit riders with visual impairments and other disabilities has come a long way since Peter Cantisani rode New York City’s subway and buses in the 1980s. Back then, he says, you just had to memorize the station’s layout to get to your destination.

Today, Cantisani, who has been blind all his life, benefits from audio announcements, various transit apps, and the GPS in his phone to get from his current home in Alameda, California, to the Amazon office where he works some 40 miles away. Still, there are things that throw him off—like finding the correct stop at a busy bus station. “They don’t always stop where they say they are going to stop,” he says.

Then there’s the matter of making sure the bus at your station is the one you’re supposed to board. Cantisani admits he’s gotten on the wrong bus a few times. “I’m sitting at the right bus stop but it’s the wrong bus,” he says. “The bus is turned off and the driver is on a break.”

Uncertainty surrounding these situations is stressful for any commuter. But imagine the frustration “if you can't see or if you have anxiety problems, cognitive problems, or a little bit of dementia where you forget things,” says Roberto Manduchi, a computer engineer focused on assistive technology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. These are the kind of obstacles that can uproot someone’s confidence to travel alone.

So Manduchi and his collaborators, including researchers at IBM and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, propose a “smart system” called RouteMe2 to solve this very information problem. Last week, they won a nearly $1 million research grant from the National Science Foundation to figure out what that system would look like.

Manduchi says they’re still in the early research phase of the project, which will last three years, but he envisions a system that will use bluetooth sensors and the so-called “internet of things” to ensure that commuters are exactly where they are supposed to be. “I would like the system to track me as I go around,” he says. “The system needs to be smart and understand, each time, that you are waiting for the right bus at the right place.” Not only will it tell users where to go, but if they’re at the wrong station, an app will send out an audio alert to their phone.  

It won’t just be for the visually impaired, but also senior citizens and people who have cognitive disabilities—as well as those who are simply in an unfamiliar place. The system could also let people monitor their family member’s trip and send alerts along the way.

A user demonstrates how iBeacons can connect to a mobile devices. (Jona Nalder/Flickr)

All the technology is there, Manduchi says, adding that it’s just a matter of putting them together and incorporating it into a city’s mass transit infrastructure. In his vision, the hero are iBeacons, small sensors that can track a person’s location more precisely than the GPS. First introduced by Apple for indoor navigation in 2013, iBeacons were largely heralded for their potential in the retail industry. Shops could track when a customer was approaching and send promotion details to their phone.

But developers are finding out they can also do much more. A GPS can tell you if you are on the right street, says Manduchi. But if a beacon is placed at every bus and every bus stop, for example, it can tell you if you are waiting on the right corner.

Currently, Manduchi’s team is working with researchers at IBM on building out a cloud system to place beacons on buses, trains, and their respective stations and stops. The cloud will also integrate real-time updates from transit agencies as well as input from both the user and any authorized family members monitoring the trip. So far, they’ve teamed up with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority for a trial run that will install five to seven sensors at the Great Mall Transit Center to test how strong the signals are at different distances and see what errors they might encounter, says Divyesh Jadav, research group leader at IBM.

The team isn’t the first to use such technology to help the visual impaired. In Bucharest, Romania, a fleet of buses and trolleys is in the process of being fitted with 500 such sensors. As CityLab has previously reported, a nonprofit called Wayfindr has also been testing an app that uses beacons to give users turn-by-turn directions on the London Tube.  Manduchi says his team will need to figure out what their own app might look like—right now they’re focused on researching how to lay out the infrastructure—but they’ll look to make the system as “interoperable” as possible.

But if they build it, will budget-constrained transit agencies want it? Jadav isn’t concerned about that. Once a new technology has proven to be effective in in one city, he says, it’s likely that other cities will want it too. Manduchi adds that the system could also work with existing wi-fi systems instead of beacons. If that isn’t an option, beacons—which he says can also be used in other ways, like smart ticketing—can be bought in bulk for $10 to $20 each.

As for Cantisani, who is a peer reviewer of Manduchi’s project, he says there’s always room for improvement in the mass transit system.

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