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New App Helps Visually Impaired Riders; 'BlindWays' Is Product of MBTA and Perkins School for the Blind Collaboration

Editor's Note: This version of the story does not include graphics that appear in the print edition. To see these graphics, click here.

This issue of Passenger Transport introduces "ConnecTech Briefs," a periodic series that explores the connections between public transportation and technology, The first article is about "BlindWays," a free app that allows visually impaired public transit riders to locate the exact spot where the vehicle will stop.

Many bus systems face the common challenge of helping their visually impaired riders locate the exact spot where the vehicle will stop, and now a free app called “BlindWays” offers one possible solution to augment publicly available GPS technology and to give these riders the confidence and independence they need.

The Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA, collaborated with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to launch BlindWays in September. Today, more than 4,000 bus stops are accessible through this app with the goal of serving all 7,500+ MBTA stops by the end of January 2017. 

How It Works
While other apps and tools provide GPS-based navigation to within 30 feet of a destination, BlindWays is unique in that it enables individuals with a sight disability to independently cross the final 30 feet. By using sequential navigational clues aligned with a user’s direction of travel, the app can guide the transit user to within 4-5 feet (the length of a white cane) of an outdoor bus stop sign. It also identifies the three bus stops closest to the rider’s current location. It obtains bus route and predictive arrival time information by integrating with General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) and Next Bus APIs. And commuters can easily save their most frequently used bus routes for future reference. BlindWays uses the iPhone’s VoiceOver to ensure customers have access to all information via audio. BlindWays is augmenting pedestrian navigation GPS technology (e.g., Google Maps, Apple Maps).

“Being able to access public transportation reliably allows individuals with disabilities to live independently within their communities,” said MBTA Acting General Manager Brian Shortsleeve. “The MBTA welcomes any opportunity to strengthen our ability to provide that service.”

Laura Brelsford, the agency’s assistant general manager of system-wide accessibility, said, “Customers who are blind or have low vision often tell us that not being able to confidently locate any one of our 7,500+ bus stops is a major barrier to using our service. We believe BlindWays has the potential to help overcome that challenge.”

BlindWays is powered by volunteer crowd-sourced information. Volunteers contribute descriptions of landmarks near a bus stop—for example, a tree, fire hydrant or mailbox—which visually impaired commuters can identify using their cane or hand. Anyone can enter a clue. Because the app is crowd sourced, an incorrect clue can be edited by others.

Adaptable Platform
Although Perkins originally launched BlindWays for MBTA’s use, the app can be adapted by additional public transit agencies. The process would take approximately six months of development and testing plus time to crowd source clues.
Perkins designed and developed BlindWays v1.0 with seed money from a $750,000 Impact Challenge: Disabilities grant. To support BlindWays deployments per agency, Perkins is creating a cost model based on a setup fee plus an annual maintenance charge. This includes Perkins maintaining the software, any technical improvements and providing route updates. Any new features would be additional.

Grants and matching funds relating to technology development and accessibility may be applicable to a city or regional implementation.

Currently BlindWays is available exclusively in the Apple App Store. The only equipment required are iPhone models 4s or newer with iOS 9.3 or higher and Wi-Fi or a cellular network.

Contribute Clues to BlindWays
An important feature of the app is its crowd-sourcing function—anyone can submit a “clue” to further enhance the app’s value and anyone can edit an incorrect clue. Here are some tips, which are specific to MBTA, but easily adapted for other locations:

* Bus stops near you will appear in the “Nearby Stops” section of the app. You can also enter a specific route number to locate a stop via the magnifying glass icon at the top of the screen.
* In the app, stops that need clues are marked with green text “More Clues Needed.”
* Accuracy is key! Be sure to stand at the correct bus stop.
* MBTA often gives its stops a single name but uses “@” (at) and “opp” (opposite) to distinguish on which side of the street the bus stop is located. Make sure you are standing on the correct side of the street for the stop name you are entering clues for.
* Stand at the bus stop sign where the route number is listed, not at the “no parking bus stop” sign nearby.
* Face the street where the bus will be stopping when you enter clues.
* Describe permanent conditions or fixtures that are easy to recognize by touch and with a cane.
* Focus on entering permanent landmark clues that are near the ground within about 30 feet on the same side of the sidewalk as the bus stop sign.
* Remember that pedestrians who are visually impaired sweep their canes about the same distance as their shoulder width. Identify landmarks that fall within that range on the same side of the sidewalk as the bus stop.

Resources at the Ready
Information about the app, ADA requirements for providing equal access to public transportation and APTA standards regarding accessibility is just a click away:
Perkins School for the Blind
Director of Products: Luiza Aguiar
Americans with Disabilities Act
APTA Standards
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