As transit systems adjust to the rapid growth in mobile technology, many planners have made upgrades, including adding apps and fancy new displays. While these new tools and infrastructure often make bus and train networks easier to navigate, they don’t always offer assistance every passenger—especially those who are blind.
In Austin, a new tech tool wants to help blind and visually impaired riders access the city’s bus system. And, most importantly for cities with limited budgets, it piggybacks on an already existing app, making wider deployment easier and more economical.
The Connecthings system utilizes beacon technology to give visually impaired riders more up-to-date transit information. The current test run consists of 16 beacons—small, palm-sized transmitters that broadcast navigational information via the Bluetooth wireless standard—at bus stations downtown.
Riders taking part in the pilot program will need to download the widely used BlindSquare app, a navigation app that provides audio cues and directions, which will receive and process up-to-date info about Austin bus, routes, and arrival times.
According to Louis-Alban Batard-Dupre, executive vice president of Connecthings, creating a smart city solution that works with an existing app makes financial sense while improving the experience for the end user. Other cities have invested in similar systems, such as London’s development of the Wayfinder app. But creating an app from scratch requires extensive development funding and resources.
“If you create a new app, then the blind and visually impaired need to use one app for the transit system, and one for navigating once they reach their destination,” he says. “Toggling makes the experience so much more complicated.”
The project is the brainchild of the CityUP Consortium, an alliance of local businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits focused on developing and introducing smart city technology to Austin. For this trial, Capital Metro, the city’s transit system, is collaborating with Connecthings, which built the network, as well as BlueCats, a hardware company that builds mobile beacons.
Batard-Dupre believes the BlindSquare-and-beacon system works best because it can constantly broadcast updated station, route, and bus information. For visually impaired riders, accurate information takes on an additional level of importance.
“For blind people, changing the route is like changing the furniture in your apartment and turning off the light,” he says.
The Austin trial is one of many experiments city planners across the globe are engaged in to merge transit and technology to help riders with disabilities. In Boston, the BlindWays app, developed with the Perkins School for the Blind, guides users to bus stops. The city is also planning to install beacon technology at bus stops, utilizing them to broadcast navigational directions to blind and visually impaired users. In LA, Metro plans to install hundreds of beacons in Union Station to provide navigation to riders with disabilities.
Batard-Dupre says that when they reached out to BlindSquare to establish a partnership, the app developers said that adding public transport information was one of the most requested features.
The Connecthings pilot program launched March 12, and ends later this month, but the developers will be applying what they learn to other projects. According to Batard-Dupre, the end goal is making the case that adding additional navigational cues can be more easy, cost effective, and technologically straightforward than many may assume.