Metro Helping Blind People Better Navigate D.C. Transit

Transit agencies have an opportunity to follow the cutting-edge initiatives for the blind that have already been introduced in places like retail outlets Macy’s and American Eagle, and most Major League Baseball ballparks.

With a grant from ClickandGo Wayfinding, Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind and the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) are harnessing the ubiquity of smartphones to make using public transportation for those with limited or no vision much easier and safer.

The concept is fairly simple: CLB will install iBeacons to collect detailed information on key locations in Metro stations like escalators and train platforms. Then that information will be available using interactive voice recognition or through Braille phones. The program will also provide directions to places of interest near Metro stations.

The simplicity in mapping, however, is deceptive, said Brandon Cox, senior director of Rehabilitation and Education Services for CLB. Because the disabled depend on the accuracy of the information for their safety, they can’t depend on crowdsourced data or even on public maps like Google.

The directions are also unique in that they note the number of steps a person would likely have to take to reach an escalator, a turnstyle, or the platform edge.

The iBeacon is something that is currently in use on the London Tube and in the San Francisco International Airport, pinging nearby smartphones with helpful information about arrival times or points of interest. However, this is the first time the iBeacon will be used on any U.S. subway system in an integrated way.

Right now, CLB is focusing on Gallery Place Metro in downtown Washington. Cox said this is one of the most challenging stations for the disabled because it is often crowded, has multiple street exits and has multiple Metro lines.

Cox said the CLB hopes this initial pilot is successful enough that WMATA will extend these services to all 91 stations. “The transit system is the primary way disabled people get around,” he added.

WMATA provides transit services for the disabled via MetroAccess but often wait times for vans can be upwards of an hour, eliminating the ability to use that service for spontaneous trips.

This wayfinding technology, if widely adopted, would also be a boon to WMATA’s MetroAccess budget. As of Metro’s latest numbers, in 2010, providing MetroAccess costs the rider $3 per trip but actual costs to Metro are about $38 per trip.

In the future, this technology could be used to provide information not only to the disabled but to international tourists visiting the D.C. area.

Photo by Jonathan Nalder

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