[NFBWATLK] Article: Beacons put Metro at forefront of disabled service advances for transit, Houston Chronicle, May 29, 2018
Noel.Nightingale at ed.gov
Wed Jul 11 15:51:44 UTC 2018
Beacons put Metro at forefront of disabled service advances for transit
May 29, 2018
By Dug Begley
Houston, with its narrow sidewalks and wide, car-jammed streets, can be difficult to navigate by bus. Just getting to the right bus stop can be a challenge, as some intersections have stops on every side of the streets and are marked only with a Metropolitan Transit Authority sign and the numbers of approaching routes.
Now close your eyes and try it.
"It'd be impossible," frequent bus rider Sheryl Greene said, standing at a stop along Westheimer near Yupon. "You'd walk right into traffic."
For less than the cost of a single bus, however, Metro might be the first transit agency in the country to take a significant step across an entire bus system that could open riding options to scores of vision-impaired customers with the use of a smartphone.
The secret is a small beacon about the size of a garage door opener, placed atop every one of those bus-stop poles.
"It is amazing when you see a need you can address it with new technologies," said Lex Frieden, a member of the transit agency's board and a nationally acclaimed disability-access advocate.
Users can plot their location using a mapping program, then the beacons are integrated into the directions. Often, the biggest challenge for some users is finding precisely where a bus stop is located at an intersection, or in the middle of a long block.
"It is about getting that information and getting it in your hands," said Randy Frazier, Metro's chief technology officer.
As someone approaches their intended stop, their phone receives signals from the beacon, which can send an alert to their phone. Alerts can be delivered either as audio instructions, such as how a mapping program gives drivers voice instructions to turn left or right, or as tactile directions that use pulsing so someone can understand the instructions via sense of touch. As they draw closer to the stop, the pulses increase until the rider knows they are in the correct spot.
"The beacons make a big difference," said Michael McCulloch, 63, a bus rider who is visually impaired and helping Metro test the system before its release in the Fall.
Frieden said the effort is one of the most beneficial steps he's seen any public agency take to link disabled riders with new options.
"Now they can go to a stop in our system reliably," he said. "It gives people the opportunity to shop at places they haven't, go places they could not otherwise. It really opens doors."
McCulloch agreed, noting that while his daily trips are routine and easily navigable, any diversion is much different.
"Now I can use the app to find a restaurant, or give me the information for a route I might not typically use," he said.
The beacons are a relatively inexpensive leap that could put Metro at the forefront of making transit more accessible for many potential riders. In addition to an aging population of Baby Boomers, many of whom will need transit in the future as they lose the ability to drive, Metro and other transit agencies struggle to lessen para-transit costs.
MetroLift, which offers door-to-door service for elderly and disabled passengers, costs Metro $2.47 per mile, according to 2016 data. Providing a taxi, where applicable, reduces the cost to $1.26 per mile a passenger is carried.
Conventional transit, meanwhile, costs Metro less, about $1.11 per mile for a bus and $1.17 for light rail. When that's considered across nearly 590 million miles of transit travel in the Houston area, shifting some of the riders to buses and trains could save millions of dollars and give elderly and disabled riders more freedom to travel without prearranged plans.
Installing a beacon at all of Metro's roughly 9,000 bus stops is expected to cost $375,000, meaning for less than the cost of a single bus every place that a bus stops will be accessible to the visually impaired and others. The beacons, tucked into stops usually along the poles holding up the signs that list buses served by the stop, cost about $20 each when bought in bulk.
"The fact that it is a low-cost, proven technology is attractive," Frazier said.
What's also critical is the beacons bring the technology to every stop, not just major ones. McCulloch said finding major stops is possible, largely by poking around and finding the shelters.
"Out is some neighborhood where (the stop) is just a pole, it is hard to know," McCulloch said.
Deployment started small, but accelerated quickly. Metro joined with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and won a research grant to install 30 beacons from Google so they could test the tech - including working with visually-impaired passengers to use the beacons and a smartphone app.
A separate app was considered, but Freiden said Metro correctly decided to add the technology to its existing app, meaning disabled riders have the same interface and offerings as others.
Following what officials said was a successful test of the beacons, Metro made plans to add them at every bus stop, train station and bus depot.
The rollout is taking place in two phases, starting with about 2,400 beacons along 11 major routes -such as the 82 Westheimer and 2 Bellaire lines that act as a backbone for a lot of east-west travel in Houston.
The second phase adds a beacon at every stop in Metro's 1,300-square-mile service area, which covers most of Harris County. That complete coverage includes better directions at transit centers, where someone who is visually impaired might face added complications.
"If you are visually impaired and this is the first time you are riding, you can get to the Downtown Transit Center," Frazier said. "But there are eight bays."
Beacons placed at every bay where a bus arrives can direct someone to exactly where they need to be, he said.
The second phase comes with more testing, Frazier said, as Metro refines the system and works out bugs.
Compared to some Metro initiatives, the beacons are less likely to have unforeseen complications. Unlike autonomous shuttles, alternative fuels and speedy platooning of buses down HOV lanes, the technology in the beacons and online maps is well-researched. Bluetooth was developed in 1998 by consortium of wireless phone companies and has in the past 20 years become the de facto way of connecting devices over short distances using radio frequencies.
The beacons, encased in plastic and protected from weather, have a battery life of 10 years or more, according to the manufacturer, Florida-based Bluvision. Frazier said officials would be pleased to get five to seven years of life out of the beacons. As tech improves, he said, replacing devices every few years also assures better quality as systems change.
Though the beacons and mapping system were styled to help elderly and disabled riders, Frieden said the system has appeal to others as well, when matched with other mapping.
"The first automatic transmission was made for a disabled guy in Canada," Frieden said, a development that improved the automobile for non-disabled drivers as well. "All of these things that get made for the disabled have some value for everyone."
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