Saturday, January 26, 2008

New technology for the visually impaired will make bus rides easier for them

A year ago, Rob Sleath was riding a bus heading down Granville Street. The visually impaired man asked the driver to call out his stop, Granville Street and Fifth Avenue.

"By the time the driver realized he had forgotten, we had passed Granville Station [in downtown Vancouver]," Sleath says.

Sleath stayed on the bus until it completed its entire route, just to get to his stop. He says this is something that he -- and other visually impaired transit users -- experience on a regular basis.

However, an end to this headache is in the works. "The annunciator," an automated female voice announcing coming stops, is being tested on select buses until the end of January as part of a TransLink pilot project.

"I'm thrilled. This has been a long time coming," said Sleath, past president of the Committee to Promote Accessible Conventional Transit, which advises TransLink on accessibility issues.

"[It's] very necessary, particularly for people living with vision loss," Sleath said. "But I see it as an enhancement for all transit users -- for seniors, for people who maybe don't use the transit system on a regular basis."

The project, which includes a voice announcement and a computerized readout of the next stop, is being tested on 23 buses throughout Metro Vancouver while the transit authority gets customer feedback and works out the bugs. TransLink spokesman Drew Snider said the goal is to eventually put the annunciator on all buses as part of TransLink's commitment to make the bus fleet completely accessible.

"Accessibly means a lot of things to people and this is one of them: Making sure that people do not get lost, don't feel like they can't take public transit or have to rely on something more expensive," Snider explained.

Robert Ponto, a visually impaired volunteer with the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities, has already heard the annunciator a few times.

"It's good," Ponto said. "I hope for one thing that they continue it. I don't want it to be just another project."

Ponto rides the bus to work in the morning, and often all day long, since he works as a courier with the advocacy group. He said he usually just relies on his knowledge of the routes to figure out where to get off the bus, but added that sometimes he gets distracted and misses a stop.
The annunciator is one of several improvements to TransLink's communication system announced Friday.

Also to be tested on some buses is a global positioning system -- or GPS -- that will more accurately determine the location of buses in an emergency, Snider said.
GPS will also improve the "next bus" service, which allows transit users to send a text message to "33333" along with the bus stop number to determine the next six buses to arrive. Now, instead of finding out the schedule, riders will know when those buses are expected to arrive based on their locations.

Snider said the costs of the new features are likely to be on top of the $40 million TransLink has committed to its communications improvements.


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