Bus tracking system will aid disabled passengers

Through the Successful Transition After Graduation for Exceptional Students (STAGES) program’s partnership with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) Travel Training Program, students are learning to use the HARTline bus system on their own.

Erika Zaragoza is a 20-year-old USF student in her final year with the STAGES program, which provides training and support to students with disabilities. With the experience she gained through the program, Zaragoza now helps the managers of the USF women’s basketball team.

“Anytime a developmentally disabled person can master something that puts them on a level equal to their non-disabled peers, that’s a big plus,” said Mark Sheppard, a “travel trainer” at HART. “They truly don’t want to be tagged as different — they want to be just like their peers.”

The Travel Training Program is a free service that allows anyone to ride with a HART team member and receive step-by-step instructions about riding the bus.

After four years of ongoing research, the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) has developed a Travel Assistance Device (TAD) to further aid public transit riders with special needs.

USF’s Transportation Demand Management Program Director Phil Winters said the device is designed to increase cognitively disabled riders’ mobility and independence — and thus their quality of life.

Other programs exist that help disabled riders use bus systems, such as Paratransit, which provides flexible schedules and destinations, and aids such as wheelchair lifts for those in need.

But the Travel Training  Program has several advantages over the Paratransit system, Winters said.

“If the riders can use the traditional bus service instead of the Paratransit system, it will save both the rider and the transit company money,” he said. “Also, Paratransit usually requires the rider to make an advance reservation, but the TAD would not restrict riders in that way.”

This is the first software for GPS-enabled cell phones that will give real-time navigation instructions for the public transit system, said Sean Barbeau, principal investigator and research associate at CUTR.

Riders and their caregivers or travel trainers will be able to access the TAD’s password-protected Web site to pre-program and download bus routes to the riders’ cell phones.

The TAD system can be installed on off-the-shelf, GPS-enabled cell phones, though for now the TAD system will be available only to Sprint/Nextel users.

When using the TAD system, riders’ phones will vibrate as they approach their stop and a pre-recorded message will alert them to “Get ready!” Once riders have passed the stop before their destination, another audio message will tell them to “Pull the cord now!” After they have pulled the cord, they must confirm the action on their cell phone.

“It was quick and automatic. I thought it was very easy to use,” Zaragoza said.

She and five other STAGES students participated in an experiment with the TAD last year.

The students were each given a cell phone with the TAD software and sent on an unfamiliar bus route. Sheppard said the experiment was a complete success.

Sheppard and Gigi Gonzalez, transition facilitator for STAGES, observed the students from the back of the transit bus during the experiment. Gonzalez said they seemed comfortable using the device.

“The TAD will build their confidence in using the bus transit system and help to better ensure their safety,” Gonzalez said.

Should the rider deviate from a planned route or get off at the wrong stop, a notification will be sent to his or her caregivers or travel trainers.

Through  feedback from STAGES students, CUTR researchers learned privacy was one of the students’ main concerns. The riders don’t want unnecessary attention drawn to them when audio messages alert them, Barbeau said. To ensure the riders’ privacy, the researchers are looking into developing a 
function for the TAD system to make it compatible with a headset.

“Sometimes it would be difficult to hear the alerts over the other bus noises,” said Jon Stewart, a STAGES student who participated in the TAD experiment. “If I had an earpiece that would alert me, I could relax and possibly read a book instead of having to worry about when to get off the bus.”

While CUTR researchers’ initial goal for the TAD was to help the cognitively disabled, Winters said the device could be used by anyone.

“With gas prices going up and down and the climate changing, people are looking for other (transportation) options,” Winters said. “People who may have never had any exposure to using public transportation before could use TAD and feel reasonably confident in traveling with public transit.”

Researchers hope to have the TAD available to HART riders by the end of the year.