Metro will give riders with disabilities expedited access to MetroAccess, its door-to-door paratransit service, for the duration of the summer-long shutdown of six stations in Northern Virginia.
The transit agency also will explore ways to offer blind riders free or subsidized access to smartphone-based technology that allows sighted individuals to serve as remote navigators.
The decisions, made at a meeting of the agency’s Accessibility Advisory Committee on Monday night, are meant to help blind riders navigate the 15-week closure of the six stations along the Blue and Yellow lines for a platform reconstruction project.
The committee decided to take action after complaints reported by The Washington Post that blind riders are struggling to adjust to disrupted commutes and the daily uncertainty created by the shuttle buses meant to replace train service between the closed stations.
“A problem has been brought to our attention of the low-vision community having difficulty because buses do not stop in the same place every day,” committee Chair Phil Posner said at the meeting. “I consider these to be the easiest solutions.”
The committee voted to recommend both solutions to Metro. Transit agency staff accepted both suggestions and will begin implementing them as soon as possible, said Christiaan Blake, Metro’s managing director for access services, who attended the meeting.
“The motions last night were an example of the collective wisdom of the Accessibility Advisory Committee,” Blake said in an interview Tuesday. “Metro enjoys our working relationship with the committee and other disability stakeholders precisely because of ideas like the ones that came up.”
Blake said Metro will launch a fast-track process for MetroAccess, its paratransit service for the elderly and people with disabilities, by July 8. The service, which is free to join, allows approved users to order a van to pick them up when and where they want, although they must make a reservation a day in advance.
Earning approval for MetroAccess typically takes 21 days: Applicants must obtain proof from a physician that they are disabled and travel to Metro headquarters in downtown Washington for an interview and assessment of their travel skills.
Under the new model, things will get a lot simpler — and a lot faster. Metro will forgo the doctor’s certification and the interview process, instead sending staffers to areas affected by the shutdown. Once there, staffers will conduct quick “visual assessments” of commuters and decide on the spot whether someone qualifies for the service, Blake said. From there, all Metro has to do is print out a card for the applicant.
The fast-tracking means most applicants should be approved in three to four days, Blake said, though access granted through the process will be temporary, expiring at the end of the shutdown. Metro will publicize the speeded-up process on its website.
“I think it’s really exciting that [Metro] is willing to shorten the time frame significantly,” said Claire Stanley of the American Council of the Blind. “If people had to wait the full three weeks, they’re not going to get the services in time for the shutdown.”
Mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act, MetroAccess had 43,000 registered customers in 2017. There were about 60,000 blind individuals of working age in the Washington region that year, according to census estimates provided by the American Council of the Blind.
As the fast-tracking proceeds, Metro will also ponder high-tech solutions for its blind and visually-impaired customers.
At the meeting Monday, attendees spent several minutes discussing Aira, a company that connects visually-impaired individuals with sighted, trained employees who can navigate on their behalf.
It works like this: Blind customers either download the Aira app or buy a pair of smart glasses. Aira employees can then see what the blind person is seeing — either by accessing their smartphone camera or a camera installed on the glasses — and can speak instructions into the blind person’s ears though headphones.
“It would allow me to get off a bus, and the individual who is able to see through my glasses or my iPhone camera can speak to me and tell me ‘left’ or ‘right’ according to what’s in front of me,” said Patrick Sheehan, a member of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, who is blind. “You’d have a pair of eyes at the ready any time you need it.”
Aira has various pricing packages for its services, each with a different set of features; the most popular costs $99 per month for 120 minutes with a trained agent. The app is free, though.
Aira sometimes offers promotions during which anyone can access its full suite of services simply by downloading the app — gaining the ability to call Aira agents anytime, anywhere, without paying and with no time limits.
Under the proposal discussed Monday, Metro would work with Aira to offer one of these promotions to blind commuters in the Washington region for the duration of the shutdown.
Blake said this is unlikely to happen in the near future. For one thing, rules dictate that Metro would need to hold a competitive bidding process to select a company to provide remote navigation services.
But Metro is very interested in the idea, Blake said, and began researching technologies like Aira’s several months ago. The transit agency hopes eventually to offer blind riders something like Aira all the time, not just during shutdowns, Blake said.
“This type of solution would be good in that not only is it for Yellow and Blue riders right now, but it could be for next year and next year and whatever other emergencies crop up,” Sheehan said.
While supportive of both motions passed Monday, Blake said at the meeting that he thinks the best solution is to double down on “travel training,” a complementary service Metro provides in which staffers or contracted employees teach blind commuters their routes to work. Travel training is available all the time, not just during shutdowns, Blake said.
Blake said Metro did not conduct “special outreach” to ensure that blind travelers affected by the shutdown were aware the agency offers such training.
“I think one of the things we’ve learned from this is that we should do more marketing ahead,” Blake said. “In the future, I know additional marketing of a step-by-step travel training will occur.”
Still, when it comes to this shutdown, Posner said Monday that it may be too late for travel training.
“Travel training would be great if it had started a year ago, or six months ago,” he said at the meeting. “But now, how many hundreds of people need the travel training during this four-month period? I just don’t think it’s possible.”
Blake also promised Monday that Metro would work to ensure all its shutdown shuttles stop at the same locations. Metro replaced service between the closed stations with free buses and hired new drivers or reassigned Metrobus operators to drive them.
Blind riders say the system has led to constantly shifting points for pickups and drop-offs, which they find disorienting. Blake said the shuttles are supposed to park in the same spots, though individual drivers may have stopped complying.
“We need to establish a firm policy that Bus A has to stop at this bay and then let it be known that is the case,” Blake said at the meeting. “And if we’re going to change the bay that it has to stop at, for any reason, we need to have a robust dialogue.”
The shutdown, which affects an estimated 17,000 daily riders, is scheduled to end Sept. 8.