Public transportation is a vital service. High-quality public transit can revolutionize a community by providing efficient access to all that the city has to offer. It can provide independence, community participation, and productivity for those who could not otherwise safely operate a vehicle, including people who are sight and hearing impaired.
Most mass transit systems are primarily visually oriented—signs are posted, bus numbers are listed, and safety information is written throughout terminals. Similarly, safety and route announcements are often conveyed via intercoms. Although blind, visually impaired, and hearing-impaired individuals are still able to use public transit, a lack of access to potentially important and useful information can become a barrier to utilizing mass transit. Fortunately, innovative new technologies, such as an Internet for public transit vehicles, are working to eliminate such barriers.
Innovative technology has greatly improved public transit for the blind and visually impaired. Interactive web-based software allows people to plan their routes via smart phones and other devices. GPS, accessed via Internet WiFi for traveling trains and buses, enables riders to monitor progress via their cell phones. GPS can also audibly announce stops and announce vehicle information at bus stops. Infrared and radio transmitters can also make it possible for visual messaging to be heard by visually impaired passersby. Information kiosks may also have audible and tactile maps, and ticket machines may have vocal output.
It may not be so far into the future that robots will help the visually impaired in mass transit terminals. Aaron Steinfeld, an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, reports that he and others are working on a project incorporating robots, smartphones, mobile applications and more into a system to help the blind navigate complicated and unfamiliar urban environments. In the meantime, WiFi systems can help support new smart phone technology and remove mass transit access barriers.
Hearing impaired riders often have a different set of public transportation obstacles that can be easily amended through new technology. To understand how their public transit needs could be met, let’s consider how one private company is accommodating hearing-impaired users. Uber is a transport company that connects riders with drivers securely through an app, which allows individuals to find and connect with nearby drivers. There are no cash transactions; everything is done through the convenient app, and riders can rate their drivers.
There is one catch, however. Hearing-impaired individuals have had specific frustrations with the app, as it is not very compatible with their needs. Newly added Uber features include a flashing screen for trip requests, the option for deaf drivers or riders to have a text only option, and notifications for riders when their driver is deaf or hard of hearing. These updates allow hearing-impaired individuals to access Uber as drivers and passengers, fluidly. Similar technology can be added to web-based transit software to accommodate hearing-impaired riders.
New technology and the investment in innovation are widening the opportunity for diverse range of humans to participate in navigating the vast world of mass transit!