February 2009

Travel Software to Aid Disabled Riders

by METRO Staff

A new travel assistance device, developed by University of South Florida (USF) researchers and tested by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), uses the GPS technology inside cell phones to prepare cognitively disabled riders to exit the bus.

The USF Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) had been working with GPS technology for transportation purposes when Sean Barbeau, research associate, CUTR, USF, teamed up with Mark Sheppard, a travel trainer for HART, for work on a device to help disabled riders navigate public transportation and gain more independence.

“We talked to Mark and several other travel trainers to get an idea of what the Travel Assistance Device (TAD) software would end up being,” said Barbeau.

The device consists of software that is installed on a cell phone. “The user doesn’t need any equipment other than their cell phone,” Barbeau said. The CUTR team designed the system intentionally to be very low-cost, utilizing devices that the riders already have. “The only thing that the user needs is the software, and our goal is to be able to provide that to the rider for free,” he said.

The transit rider or travel trainer can go to a section on the TAD Website that has a Google Map-style interface. From there, they select their route, location, stop and travel times. Once the trip is planned, it is automatically downloaded to the cell phone. The software application running on the phone will give the transit rider two alerts when the transit rider is traveling on the bus.

The first alert, a verbal announcement saying, “get ready,” occurs a few stops before the rider’s destination. The phone then vibrates and displays a text message on the screen, to accommodate both the seeing and hearing impaired.

When it’s time for the rider to request the stop by pulling the “stop request” cord, they receive the second alert. The cell phone prompts the rider to, “Pull the cord now.”

The CUTR team conducted tests with six developmentally disabled 18 to 22 year-old special education transitional students, between April and May, 2008. The tests consisted of an assortment of short bus trips using various routes. Then, Sheppard tested the TAD with disabled riders.

Having previously travel-trained all but one of the test students, Sheppard chose two test routes that he knew the students had not utilized before. To ensure the testing was performed in a “real world” atmosphere, he allowed students to read a book or listen to music using earphones during the test trips.

All 12 test trips included two different bus routes for each student. They disembarked at the planned destination successfully each time. The TAD’s vibrating feature proved beneficial in redirecting the students back to the TAD commands.

“All six students were 100 percent successful in being able to follow the TAD’s simple verbal commands, preparing themselves with the ‘Get Ready’ command, and pulling the stop request cord at the appropriate time when they heard the ‘Pull the Cord Now’ command,” Sheppard said.

Some CUTR team members also rode the bus on the HART transit system in Tampa, Fla., and checked for situations to ensure the timing of the alerts wasn’t too early or late.

When travel training developmentally disabled individuals, the most difficult, yet crucial, skill they must master is when to pull the “stop request” cord, Sheppard said.

Currently, patrons with developmental disabilities use landmarks as a cue to pull the stop request cord, but sometimes a substantial landmark is not available between the patron’s prior bus stop and their planned stop.

“The TAD has the potential to greatly reduce the number of repetitive trips a trainee must make to master this single skill,” said Sheppard. A travel trainer can assess whether or not an individual is a candidate for the TAD, he added.

“Having a travel trainer accompany them on the buses creates its own sense of security and comfort for the developmentally disabled patron. Carrying a TAD in their pocket is the next best thing to having the travel trainer sitting beside them,” said Sheppard.

As the CUTR team moves into the next steps of the TAD process, they plan to roll it out to additional transit agencies within the next year.

For transit agencies interested in more information on the Travel Assistance Device, contact Sean Barbeau at barbeau@cutr.usf.edu


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