Making public transport more accessible for visually impaired passengers

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‘Making information more accessible during the bus ride is all well and good, but what happens before boarding or after alighting the bus?’

Paul Everson, Product Manager at Trapeze Group, outlines ways local authorities and operators can aid their visually impaired passengers through the use of technology

Public transport departments across the country clearly understand the need to increase modal shift by convincing car owners to ride the bus, but is enough being done to cater for those with disabilities? Blind and partially-sighted passengers in particular face challenges in navigating bus networks, reinforcing the need for a more inclusive approach to public transport systems within the UK.

This issue has been a topic of much debate recently, particularly in association with the journey towards the Bus Services Act 2017, which officially came into existence in April of this year. When first introduced as the Bus Services Bill 2016-17 in May 2016, the proposed legislation intended to give councils new powers to deliver better journeys for passengers. One area of consideration within the bill was the ongoing challenge posed in relation to accessibility for passengers with specific requirements. While the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 2000 (PSVAR) had previously set down accessibility requirements such as low-floor board devices and provision for passengers using wheelchairs, at the time of initial publication there was no provision made for Audio-Visual (AV) equipment on buses which could help to empower visually impaired passengers.[wlm_nonmember][…]

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In the wake of a steady campaign led by Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Government brought forward an amendment in autumn 2016 to enable the Secretary of State to impose regulations requiring local service operators to provide accessible information on-board their services. As stated within the House of Commons report, “the guidance makes clear that AV provision of information will be required in relation to route and direction, upcoming stopping place and diversions from the scheduled stopping place.”

This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction to ensure that bus services are accessible for visually impaired passengers; but is the provision of on-board AV technology enough? Arguably, blind and partially-sighted passengers should be presented with a more holistic solution, one that takes into account the environment at either side of the actual bus journey.

A driver for change
The Bus Services Act 2017 presents a clear catalyst for change, but for some local authorities and bus operators within the UK, the adoption of audio technology to assist partially sighted passengers has been a focus for some time. A common approach has been to install audio equipment at bus stops which reads out announcements when triggered by passengers’ key fobs.

However, this is far from an ideal solution. Research shows there have been cases of specification changes which render key fobs inactive, requiring replacement of all fobs in circulation. Then there’s the cost factor for both the fobs themselves and the audio equipment at the stops. As the majority of local authorities are contending with budget restraints, all too often fob-based solutions are limited to a selection of bus stops, rather than being implemented county-wide.

Clearly then there are limitations to the transport aids commonly in play. It can be argued that AV provision of information on-board represents a more advanced solution, indeed, it has been welcomed in areas such as London and Nottingham where ‘talking buses’ are in operation – but even then the practicality (and benefits) for passengers seem somewhat restricted. Making information more accessible during the bus ride is all well and good, but what happens before boarding or after alighting the bus?

Letting technology do the talking

For local authorities looking to improve bus service accessibility for their visually impaired citizens, the focus has to be on implementing a solution without high costs or risk; one that can be affordably delivered across all stops in their counties, and crucially, one which takes into account the whole customer journey.

One possible approach, which is now gaining traction, is the use of so-called ‘speaking apps’. These benefit passengers in three key ways: firstly, by using audio commands to guide them to their nearest stop; secondly, by telling them when their chosen bus is due to depart; and thirdly, by warning when they need to alight the bus. Many of the features will have value for all users, but the convenient and user-friendly functionality we see in such apps – favourite locations, regular journeys and so on – is absolutely essential for those with disabilities.

Gloucestershire County Council has been one of the first local authorities to have truly embraced this type of technology. Its talking app, GlosTalk, was designed with input from local disability group Gloucestershire Voices. In addition to the elements described above, the solution – which has been shortlisted in the 2017 National Transport Awards – incorporates a ‘handholding’ feature which has proven particularly beneficial for users. By counting down to each stop, handholding enables passengers to understand where they are within their route; an element which provides much assurance and confidence.

Potential for growth
This type of technology has the potential to offer essential budget savings for Local Authorities by helping to transition passengers from demand-responsive to mainstream services, without extensive travel training schemes. For example, user-led self-advocacy organisations for adults with disabilities (such as Gloucestershire Voices) often run buddy schemes to help people get used to bus travel. Such is the intuitiveness of talking apps, there’s a real potential to reduce the number of buddy journeys needed before somebody can travel alone.

Travel information can be confusing for anyone, whether partially sighted or not. By embracing talking app technology, public transport departments and Local Authorities can make life easier for everyone; encouraging them to use the bus by making sure they can get from A to B with minimum fuss. If more organisations incorporate the solution into their planning strategies, we’ll be a step closer to a more accessible and inclusive public transport system for all.[/wlm_ismember]