Locating and reaching an unfamiliar bus stop may not be a great source of anxiety for most transit riders, especially when making use of a visual navigation tool with GPS. However, for people with visual impairments, orientation and mobility can be a challenge, particularly when navigating unfamiliar areas. Technologies such as Blinput and multi-sensors for the white cane aim to reduce certain challenges involved with navigation for the blind, yet they are often standalone tools developed particularly for the blind and low-vision community.

So how can popular navigation apps such as Google Maps or OneBusAway achieve equal access for this population? Can they also improve orientation and mobility for blind and low-vision transit riders? These are questions that my research group at the University of Washington seeks to answer as we continue to improve the reliability and usability of the Seattle-born transit app OneBusAway. Recently, we launched a new feature called StopInfo in the iPhone version of the app that provides information about the location and physical landmarks of bus stops in Puget Sound, largely motivated by helping visually-impaired transit riders locate stops.

A screenshot of StopInfo in the OneBusAway iPhone appStopInfo (left) is accessible through Apple’s native screen reader, VoiceOver, and provides information such as stop position from an intersection, whether there is a bus shelter, what type of sign is present and how far from the curb, as well as what other physical objects (such as trash cans and benches) are around. For visually-impaired pedestrians using a white cane, advance knowledge of what landmarks are present at a certain bus stop can help them know what to feel for, while positional information can let them know approximately how far they should expect to travel from the intersection. But this information is not only useful to the visually-impaired. Information such as how well-lit the stop is might help people travel more safely and confidently at night. Displaying whether a stop is temporarily or permanently closed can also be useful for all people using the app.

One of of the more novel features of StopInfo is how the information itself is collected. While the starting information comes from King County Metro’s database, anyone using OneBusAway on an iPhone can add data that Metro doesn’t track. In particular, we hope that Seattle Transit Blog readers will help out – when you are looking at the arrival information for a stop on the OneBusAway iPhone app, tap the information symbol and you’ll land on the StopInfo page. There you can view, add ,or verify information. Logging in via a Google, Facebook, or Twitter account is only required to add free-form comments, but is helpful for the research group to see who is participating.

We hope to soon expand to other platforms for which OneBusAway is available, including Android and Windows Phone. We are currently in the preliminary stage of our study, and are working with visually-impaired participants to evaluate usefulness and design. If results look promising, we are looking to make this a permanent addition to the app, and make it available for other regions covered by OneBusAway.

For more information on the research study and how you can become involved, check out the announcement on OneBusAway’s blog, read about it on the StopInfo page itself, or contact us by e-mail.

29 Replies to “OneBusAway for the Visually Impaired”

  1. Nice! Glad to see there are smart people working on making transit more accessible for more users.

  2. Thank you! Caitlin, and the rest of the team. As you know, this sort of app will be useful for all transit-riding app users, not just visually-impaired ones.

    Of course, not all of us use pricey phones and apps. Will this technology work with a touch-tone phone?

    1. There’s a way to get arrival information via SMS, so it should be straightforward for them to add stop info to that service. That needs a phone that can do txting though, so it doesn’t help those with just landlines.

      There’s another broader question of “how do you get that sort of information to people without a phone at all?”. The new pillars on 3rd ave are nice, but too expensive to put at every stop. Some members of Transit Riders Union have been talking with One Bus Away about this problem, but I don’t know if they’ve made any progress yet.

      1. Not all 10-key touchtone phones are landlines. My cell phone is 10-key. The standard model of phones given out by DSHS to make their clients employable is 10-key. I have no idea how much variety of phone platforms there is among the population that self-identifies or is considered by the state to be visually impaired.

        I take it some of the team members working on this app are visually impaired to various degrees.

    2. Brent, great question! We are hoping to be able to eventually extend it to all of the platforms we current have OneBusAway running on, including the SMS and web service (as Tim points out, it *can* currently be used on the web, but the search functionality is limited– you have to manually enter the stop number in the URL). Right now we only have it on iPhone since its VoiceOver capabilities make it a preferable device for many blind smartphone users, who are our participants, but we hope after our initial study we can launch it on a broader scale.

      We have indeed been talking with some cool folks in the Transit Riders Union to see how we can extend OneBusAway access to those without regular phone or web access. It’s a tough (but interesting) problem, and we hope to make some progress on this front in the next year as well.

      Thanks all for the comments! These are all valuable insights.

  3. This is great. I will certainly click that StopInfo button and make sure the information is correct whenever I’m waiting at an unfamiliar stop. Wayfinding for bus transfers is hard enough even for people without visual impairments, and anything we can do to make it easier is a positive step.

  4. This is great. After a while, if it seems like the crowdsourcing is missing some spots in the system, please don’t hesitate to direct people to stops that need attention, whether via a banner in the app or an STB update.

  5. Not to get too far off-topic, but who reading this post has talked with Sound Transit, Metro, and Community Transit about the lack of distinct sounds for tap-on, tap-off, and cancel? Do you feel they are making acceptable progress toward fixing the oversight?

    1. Cool, thanks for the link! I haven’t heard of this app before– although I have seen similar work on intersection navigation. I’ll have to check this out. :-)

      1. It used to be a feature built into the Google Maps app but now it’s this separate app. Thanks for your continued development of OBA!

  6. Among other things, TriMet here in Portland has a push button at the busiest stops that will audio announce the stop information, including the arrival times.

    One of the things they are doing is they have a bunch of information similar to this (stop information, station identity, amenities, etc.) available via Sendero Group’s BrailleNote and VoiceNote GPS devices. These devices are unique in being designed for use by navigation by the visually impaired.

    TriMet has not attempted to do something like this with iOS devices yet, as far as I know.

  7. Bring back the phone number I used to call to get One Bus Away!!! I miss it like crazy.

    1. No kidding. Other than having to look at my contacts list I could operate that with my eyes closed. It got progressively more and more useless and now the number doesn’t exist. What are they doing for the smart phone impaired?

      1. I have text messaging. I haven’t figured out how to disable it. Texting in a standard phone keypad is painful. And with today’s voice recognition; why? Technology in search of a solution??? I haven’t been able to see why texting is so much better than leaving a voice mail; or actually talking to the person! I’m an introvert but holy crap; recent technology is turning society into robots.

      2. Smartphones are getting cheaper all the time, and finally we are also seeing some movement to making data plans (or prepaid data) affordable in the US like they have been for years in the rest of the world. All cellular phones will be smartphones within three or four years, and I think it’s better to focus on making smartphones affordable than on developing non-smartphone solutions.

        I vastly prefer getting texts to voicemail because voicemails take forever to listen to.

      3. I guess, the point being;there was a solution that worked perfectly well for a certain segment. But “we” were deemed too stupid to be part of the new transit paradigm. excuses me for wanting a low bandwidth solution.

      4. I don’t think it had anything to do with anyone thinking anyone was “stupid”. My understanding was that the phone line was too expensive to operate for the relatively small number of users it served (but I don’t have the usage or cost numbers). Someone from OBA or ST could probably comment with data on this.

      5. Bernie – Back when I only had a keypad phone and a voice-only plan, I went to my carrier’s store in person and got them to disable texting. Maybe that’d work for you too?

      6. There was a perfectly good working solution. It degraded to shit. Then it went away entirely. Too expensive? Compared to other Metro expenses I find that hard to believe. All the programming, the expensive part… if you’re not an idiot, was already done.

      7. Neither the phone number to call OBA, nor the stop numbers, were readily obvious. So, unless you knew what you were looking for, that stop number was gobbledygook, and the phone number was not available on the stop signs. I’m not aware of any Braille or other methodology that blind riders could use to figure out the stop number from the standard signage.

        Pierce Transit has their phone number and stop numbers explained better on their signs, and someone who answers, last time I tried it.

      8. The stop number was for the most part useless. Metro, instead of adding a 2 cent label to signs waited until they replaced the sign with identical information but a snazzy new logo to add the stop number. But you could enter your route number and with a little finesse jump forward to your stop and get the info. Then save that stop in your “favorites” list. Problem was deleting stops from that list referenced a randomize loop in the program.

  8. Regarding the phone number to call OBA with the interactive voice response system: when we were operating OBA at the University of Washington we had both the phone number for IVR and SMS, as you know. We didn’t really have any money for operations, though, and Brian Ferris set this up as a free service. The IVR part worked fine, although Brian did say it was the most complex part of the system to get set up. The SMS part was problematic: we would run out of free SMS calls most months, it didn’t work on all carriers, etc. When Sound Transit took over the local instance of OneBusAway last summer, they continued to support SMS, and in fact improved it considerably (by getting a real service that they are now paying for), but dropped IVR. I personally wish they had continued to support IVR, on grounds of equity and making OBA available to as many people as possible. But on the other hand I don’t know all of the issues they faced – and as I mentioned, Brian Ferris did say it was complex (and not too well documented). Usage of IVR declined steadily over the years – I think it was around 2000 users/month near the end of the time we were running it, compared with 100,000 for OBA as a whole.

  9. To those who continue to expand the capabilities of OBA, thank you!!! As a visually impaired rider who has used the app loads of times when I visited Seattle, I found it extremely useful. Now that I can receive information about a given bus stop prior to visiting the stop itself, the app becomes more and more useful to me. Looking forward to my next trip to Seattle so that I can use the app and this new feature. It’s my hope that the developer in Portland who created the BDX Bus iPhone app follows suit and add information about a given bus stop in his app as well. For app developers in the east coast, OBA is quite the example of ways to make an app universally accessible for all.

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