Paul Schroeder (pictured using his cane and smartphone camera for navigation) is VP of Public Policy and Strategic Initiatives at Aira, developer of a specialized app that uses artificial intelligence to provide people who are blind or have low vision with visual information. Aira
I remember my first computer; it was during my freshman year of college (circa 1985) and had 128 KB of memory, a built-in keyboard and a micro-cassette drive for storage. I also had a dot-matrix IBM printer that could print one page per minute. I felt fortunate to have this system because it made me "cool," and it made me more productive than I ever could have been with my mom’s old Smith Corona typewriter and my old American Printing House for the Blind cassette recorder.
Since then, I’ve gone through a number of computers. Today, I have a 1-TB laptop computer no bigger than a file folder and a phone that has almost exactly one billion times the memory of my first computer. And, with Wi-Fi, I can use my laptop or phone to remotely print several pages a minute from anywhere in the backyard or house.
The process of getting around has also levelled up. In high school, I learned how to use a cane to navigate my environment. Then, I got my first guide dog and learned how to take the bus and later the BART and San Francisco MUNI trains to get anywhere I needed to go. I learned how to read braille maps (which have always been difficult to come by), how to ask for directions, how to interpret directions which were almost always incomplete or inaccurate, and I learned how to use my memory, sound cues, traffic noises and even my sense of smell to navigate to my destination — and, all too often, to figure out where my journey went wrong and how to get back on track.
Then came paratransit. And now we’re beginning to see transit agencies experimenting with and expanding the use of more flexible service models, including mobility on demand, microtransit and other services designed to connect people with their communities. New technologies are also coming into the transit marketplace that have the potential of improving both access and accessibility for many — and not just people with disabilities. And there’s the currently unknown potential that autonomous vehicles offer for those of us who do not drive. Nevertheless, people with disabilities continue to list transportation as either the number one or number two barrier to employment and full social participation, so we have work to do.
One of the key questions is which new service models and emerging technologies offer the best opportunities for people with disabilities to gain access to work, school, essential services, friends, family, civic participation and everything else that our society holds dear? It’s a big question with many answers, and a host of federal agencies, transit authorities, municipalities, companies, universities and individuals are working hard to find those answers. Here are just a few of the services and technologies that seem promising to me from an accessibility standpoint.
Geofencing and Beacons for Wayfinding
In 1994, BART and San Francisco MUNI partnered on a pilot project to test the effectiveness of a technology called Talking Signs™. Talking Signs included two components. There were small transmitters that transmitted pre-recorded messages labeling items to which the transmitters could be mounted, including station entrances, escalators, stairwells, elevators, restrooms, ticket machines and gates, and blind people could carry radio receivers that were programmed to receive and play the pre-recorded messages being transmitted by Talking Signs transmitters. The technology worked well, but its success was ultimately limited by the fact that infrared technology does not work well in places with lots of ambient light and by the challenges of distributing receivers to the customers who needed them. But that was 1994!
Today, electronic beacons can transmit pre-recorded messages, and a smartphone user with Bluetooth capabilities and a mobile app created to intercept and play these messages can use the information to navigate to and from transit systems as well as within the transit system itself. Electronic beacons are inexpensive to purchase and maintain and can be used on stationary or moving objects. Beacons can also store multiple messages, including messages in multiple languages, making it possible for one beacon to serve the mobility needs of many different groups of customers.
Follow Wakana as she uses Google Maps' detailed voice-guidance feature to navigate the streets of Tokyo. Google Maps
Geofencing simply means drawing a shape around a point on a digital map. Once the geofence is drawn, a pre-recorded message can be created and associated with the geofence, and a smartphone user who has Bluetooth and the mobile app designed to play that message will hear it as soon as they enter the geofence. Geofencing does not require any hardware investment, but it cannot be used indoors unless the indoor environment is mapped, and it cannot be used to label moving objects. Since electronic beacons and geofencing offer many of the same opportunities, some developers are incorporating them into mobile apps that can use either technology to deliver information that can assist people with disabilities, people with limited English proficiency and others to navigate to, from and within transit systems.
There are many versions of these technologies and various vendors in this space. Within the past year, at least one transit agency, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority), has issued an RFP for wayfinding technologies, and many other agencies are thinking about the challenge. Given that accessing an otherwise accessible transit system is one of the largest eligibility triggers for paratransit, these technologies offer more than accessibility improvements for people with disabilities — they offer potential financial savings to transit agencies as well.
Using Remote Assistance to Solve Wayfinding and Informational Challenges
For people who are blind, the challenges of using transit are not limited to wayfinding; access to information can also be a barrier. But there are several technologies that use varying combinations of artificial intelligence and human assistance to address both issues.
- Seeing AI is an app by Microsoft that uses the camera of a mobile phone to capture an image which the app’s artificial intelligence then attempts to identify and, (in the case of text), to read out loud. Seeing AI is designed to read short blocks of text, to scan and read larger documents with more text, to identify colors, the availability of ambient light, denominations of an entire range of currency, and even faces. It is a better solution for the information challenge but to the extent that it can recognize and read conventional signs, it can assist with wayfinding as well. Seeing AI is currently available for Apple devices but not for Android users. Hopefully, this will change in the near future.
- BeMyEyes is a mobile app that connects blind people with volunteers who can simultaneously see what a blind person’s mobile phone camera sees and then provide that information to the blind person. BeMyEyes can assist with navigation, with the identification of objects, with the reading of signs, placards and other printed information, and with the operation of ticket-vending machines and other transit technologies.
- Aira stands for “Artificial Intelligence + Remote Assistance,” is a mobile app through which a subscriber can use a smartphone or customized Google glasses to show the environment around them to a trained employee who can provide navigational assistance, describe visual images, read visible text, etc. Aira also includes a dashboard and other tools that agents can use to navigate a subscriber’s computer, store images of people and items that the subscriber may need to locate in the future, and API integrations with several third-party apps (most notably the rideshare services Uber and Lyft), thereby enabling a subscriber to have Aira contact a rideshare service, book the trip, monitor the trip and direct the subscriber to the vehicle once it arrives. To date, three agencies, the MBTA in Boston, the New York MTA, and most recently, the Milwaukee County Transit System have launched Aira pilots to determine the extent to which Aira is able to influence transit use by people (and especially paratransit riders) who are blind or visually impaired. The results will prove interesting as agencies seek to encourage fixed-route use by people with disabilities.
Greg Stilson experiences the 2018 Superbowl game of the Patriots vs Eagles using Aira. (Special thanks to Blind Abilities for the interview with Stilson.)
Other Accessibility-Related Technologies
Efforts to improve accessibility are not limited to technologies and businesses serving blind and visually impaired customers. There have been other efforts to use smartphone apps to provide assistance to passengers with intellectual disabilities to ease conventional public transit by providing step-by-step directions for completing a trip and audio and visual prompts when the customer (either on foot or on transit) reaches the next step of their journey.
There are other efforts to use crowdsourcing and social media to identify accessible paths of travel for people using mobility devices, and there are ongoing efforts to improve the accessibility of ridesharing services for use by people who need wheelchair-accessible vehicles. All of these efforts, along with those described above, offer tremendous potential for people with disabilities to utilize public transit services more easily and with greater personal independence and dignity.
But What About Paratransit?
Paratransit is also part of the ongoing effort to improve transit accessibility and the overall mobility of people with disabilities. Paratransit providers are implementing new technology, including online customer portals, and smartphone apps for booking, cancelling and monitoring service. In addition, agencies are beginning to explore ways of incorporating rideshare services as “opt-in” components of an ADA-paratransit system and/or as part of non-mandated demand-response systems that can operate with greater flexibility and cost-effectiveness than traditional shared-ride paratransit.
- Examples include a pilot project by the MBTA to offer rideshare services on-demand.
- Meanwhile, a Mobility-on-Demand service being operated by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is providing opt-in paratransit, delivering first/last-mile transportation to a number of transit centers around the region and getting late-night commuters to and from work.
- Valley Metro RideChoice is an on-demand paratransit program using a managed approach to deliver approximately 700 demand-response trips per day (80% on Uber) to seniors and people with disabilities residing in twelve communities throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area.
These programs are demonstrating the opportunities and the challenges of a more flexible, market-driven approach to paratransit, and they are demonstrating to agencies and customers that there are approaches to demand-response paratransit that do not require booking ahead and sharing the ride. Over the longer term, services with a high degree of flexibility may have an easier time integrating with high-capacity transit, thereby opening up other transit opportunities to more and more people with disabilities and seniors.
Autonomous Vehicles: The Next Frontier
A number of transit agencies and private providers are working with autonomous vehicle manufacturers, consultants and regulators to figure out how this exciting new technology can fit into the transit ecosystem. There has already been some limited success, including pilot programs in Florida and Nevada, and a Valley Metro/Waymo pilot program to transport people with disabilities under the auspices of the aforementioned RideChoice program. These efforts are in their formative stages, and the jury is still out on the extent to which autonomous vehicles will reinvent transportation for people with disabilities. Personally, I am optimistic. But that’s a story for another day and a future post.