August 27, 2019

Tech In Transit: Accessibility Improvements

Jordan Walker

A man in a wheelchair secured by an automatic securement system

Tech In Transit is a series that focuses on breakthrough innovations and technological advancements in the transportation and transit industries. We hope to keep you updated on these matters for the purpose of being aware of future changes that could affect the ways you utilize public transportation.

Of the 330 million people in the United States, 25.5 million have travel-limiting disabilities or about 8.5% percent of the population above 5 years of age. In order to ensure that those people have access to public transportation, Congress passed the American with Disabilities Act in 1990 and while today, 97% of transit bus stations and over 98% of transit buses are ADA compliant, still 17% of disabled riders report that their disability makes transit hard to use. In order to improve this situation, various tech companies, transit agencies and other organizations have begun to develop and employ technology that will allow for disabled transit riders to use public transit with more independence, safety, and convenience. We will be looking at a few of these technologies today.

To help those with a mobility-related disability, TheRide, a transit agency in Ann Arbor, Michigan, implemented and began testing Quantum, a system for automatic rear-facing wheelchair securement, on their buses earlier this year. The system was developed and first introduced by international wheelchair securement company Q’Straint in 2013 and allows for a passenger to secure their wheelchair scooter with the press of a button the extends autonomous arms that grip the mobility device, all without requiring manual assistance by the driver. The technology also has been or is being implemented by transit agencies in Santa Rosa, California; Tulsa, Oklahoma and Green Bay, Wisconsin.

To help visually impaired riders navigate transit centers and get information, transit agencies in Spanish cities such as Barcelona and Madrid have implemented NaviLens, a mobile app that uses a smartphone’s camera to scan the environment for colored tags that are similar to, but more robust than QR codes. These tags are placed by the transit agency and when scanned, the app plays audio that tells the user how to navigate the transit center or other useful information such as whether or not an elevator is working. Without such a system in place, visually impaired riders are burdened with having to memorize the layout of transit centers in order to navigate; this becomes especially inconvenient if there is any significant change to that layout. The system also has uses for people without visual impairment since it can be used to help those who cannot read or speak the local language as well since the audio that is played can be set to any supported language.

Robert Manduchi, a computer engineer at UC Santa Cruz, along with researchers from IBM and the Santa Clara Transportation Authority envision a broader accessibility overhaul to public transit, enabled by the “internet of things” (a name for the rapidly growing network of various physical devices, objects or entities that are connected to the internet). This overhaul would very likely involve solutions similar to NaviLens and Quantum but integrate them into a unified system but one of the key elements to this specific idea are iBeacons which allow for precisely tracking someone’s location (more precisely than GPS alone) to provide riders with accurate, useful information. This system would benefit not only visually impaired riders but also riders with cognitive impairments that affect memory, etc. If developed and implemented this system would allow those with various disabilities to be much more safe, independent and capable than ever before; and almost certainly some such system will be implemented on a large scale at some point, especially as transit becomes increasingly autonomous and essentially run via the internet. How quickly that will happen, however, remains to be seen.

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