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Metro to launch new app and website to help riders with disabilities navigate rail and bus

Evelyn Valdez, 37, a blind commuter, rides in from the Pentagon station to her job in downtown D.C. in June. (Hannah Natanson/The Washington Post)

People with disabilities will soon be able to use a smartphone app to navigate Metro’s rail and bus systems, the transit agency said.

A free app and accompanying website being developed by the agency will provide riders with audio-based navigation beginning next fall.

Here’s how it would work. Suppose you find yourself at an unfamiliar bus bay and are unsure where to go. Launch the app and an automated voice — think Siri or Alexa — would respond to questions and provide information, such as step-by-step directions to the next stop, when the next bus is arriving, or where the route will take you.

Initially, the system will cover 10 Metro stations and 2,200 Metrobus stops (about 20 percent of the system’s total), which were selected for their high senior and disabled ridership. If the pilot proves successful, it will be expanded to all stations.

The agency hopes to launch the program, which will be funded from its capital budget, by Oct. 1, 2020.

“This service addresses the challenge that seniors and customers with disabilities . . . have locating a Metrobus stop and knowing when their desired bus will arrive,” said James Hamre, Metro’s director of bus planning. “By addressing this challenge, we empower our customers with disabilities to more fully use Metrobus for their travel needs.”

Christiaan Blake, managing director for access services, said it is unclear how much the project will cost. The price will depend on how much of the system can be developed in-house vs. by a third-party contractor. Metro intends to begin the bid process for the project late this summer or early fall, he said.

The project is being spearheaded by David Shaffer, ombudsman of Metro’s Americans With Disabilities Act office. He said he began researching the issue in early 2018 out of a desire to improve the travel experience for commuters with disabilities.

Shaffer detailed the initiative — called the Beacon Wayfinding Project — at a recent meeting of a subcommittee of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee. In addition to providing directions and transit schedules, the app will also notify travelers when they have reached their destination and relay MetroAlerts, Shaffer said.

Phil Posner, chairman of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, said he is excited about the app — both for himself as an older rider and for all Washington-area residents with disabilities.

“Not only do I think it’s incredible but, looking at the timetable, the speed with which it’s being implemented, for a public organization, is amazing,” Posner said. “This would be a godsend.”

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Shaffer said Metro is still deciding how the app will allow users to locate where they are. It could use WiFi, Bluetooth or a combination of the two, among other options.

A significant portion of it will rely on beacons, small devices that can be placed anywhere and interact with smartphones. When someone using the app approaches a beacon, the beacon will recognize the phone and prompt the app to play a prerecorded track giving information about that person’s location, Shaffer said.

Beacons have already been installed at seven Metro stations: Gallery Place, Metro Center, L’Enfant Plaza, Fort Totten, Silver Spring, Rosslyn and Navy Yard-Ballpark.

Beacons are “very much like a GPS, except for indoors,” explained Laura Brelsford, assistant general manager of systemwide accessibility for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which has used the technology.

The beacons are so accurate they can provide “turn-by-turn directions,” Brelsford said. And they’re inexpensive, costing around $15 each, Shaffer said.

When Shaffer began looking into the technology about a year ago, state-of-the-art programs could pinpoint a user’s location to within five or six yards. Today that’s been reduced to one yard, he said.

“That’s just where the technology is going,” Shaffer said. “I suspect by the time ours is finished it will be even better” — possibly as precise as four centimeters.

Brelsford said technological advances are driving a trend in which transit authorities across the country are using audio guidance to make travel easier for their customers with disabilities. In addition to the MBTA, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin recently launched a beacon-based navigation program.

“You’re going to see a lot more focus on issues like this in the next couple of years because the technology is getting better and better and we’re finally being able to see some creative solutions to a long-standing problem,” she said.

The MBTA installed beacons along two of its bus routes in early 2018 at a cost of less than $10,000, according to spokeswoman Lisa Battiston. Riders access the beacons by downloading a free app produced by the Perkins School for the Blind. The pilot is ongoing, Battiston said, and the MBTA is exploring ways to use more beacons in the Boston area.

“We’ve found it provides an extremely precise location,” Brelsford said, noting the system is accurate to within 30 feet. “Tech-wise, the results are really promising. . . . Just generally, we’re really excited about this moment in time with all of these emerging technologies.”

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Henry Claypool, a technology policy consultant for the American Association of People With Disabilities, said Metro’s app will be “revolutionary” for the region’s commuters with disabilities — particularly those who are blind or vision-impaired.

By supplementing guidance provided by service dogs and canes, the program will “enhance both the ability of people to travel independently and increase their safety,” Claypool said.

There are roughly 60,000 blind people of working age in the D.C. area, according to 2017 Census estimates provided by the American Council of the Blind.

While acknowledging significant benefits for the low-vision community, Shaffer said Metro’s program is meant to help people with disabilities of all kinds. The app will have special settings for individuals who use wheelchairs and will be able to send haptic alerts for deaf customers, he said.

Another proposed feature of the website, “pre-journey planning,” may prove particularly useful for those with cognitive disabilities.

Customers will be able to plot and rehearse their trips via an online planning program. The software will produce images — pictures of nearby landmarks, for example — to help users learn their chosen routes, Shaffer said.

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“If a person has impairments to spatial reasoning or memory . . . rehearsing and simulating the navigation is helpful to get better outcomes [when traveling],” said Abe Rafi, senior director of technology strategy and programs at the Arc, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Shaffer said the app could also be useful to riders without disabilities — for example, a confused tourist in need of directions.

The app will also help “customers who want to walk up to a bus stop and immediately find out when a bus is arriving,” he said. “This is something everybody can use.”

Posner, of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, said one downside of the navigation system is that it will be accessible only to riders who own smartphones. That could bar low-
income individuals from participating, he said.

But that’s a small portion of the population, Posner added.

Claypool pointed to research showing that the vast majority of Americans — 81 percent, according to a June 2019 Pew Research Center survey — own a smartphone.

“Look, you do everything that you can for everybody, but at some point you’ve got to remember my favorite saying, ‘The perfect can’t stand in the way of the good,’ ” Posner said.