James R. Marston
UCSB Geography Department

For over 200 years, the Declaration of Independence has reminded us that governments are instituted to secure certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has mandated equal access to transit and public buildings for all populations. Social equity and freedom to travel and use transit and public facilities is an ongoing concern for planners and public agencies. Much improvement has been made in removing structural barriers encountered by those in wheelchairs. Curb cuts, ramps, and lifts or elevators are now common as mitigation measures to increase access. However, little progress has been made in bringing equal access to urban opportunities to those who have vision impairments as they face the functional barriers to equal access.

If a blind person cannot find a bus stop, locate and board the proper bus, navigate through a complex transfer station, or find boarding areas, fare machines, amenities, and doorways, they face functional barriers, every bit as daunting as structural barriers, to equal access to transit and buildings. Legally blind people, by law, cannot drive vehicles and must rely on public transportation in order to travel independently. Their travel time or effort is often no more than for the general public. The major problem is in accessing these forms of transportation. Whether we consider how people access transit information without sight, how they can get to the proper area and identify the proper mode, or how they can disembark and find the next destination or amenity, blind travelers find that these situations are where they face the biggest challenge to independent travel.

The research reported here examines these and many other situations that limit access to urban opportunities and transit. We collected data about problems of travel from 30 legally blind subjects, documenting the wide range of tasks that they must undertake and how difficult they were to perform. We also collected many data about trip making activities. We then conducted empirical field tests at the San Francisco CalTrain station and its surrounding area, where Remote Infrared Audible Signage (RIAS) had been installed.

Vision is by far the supreme sensory modality that benefits wayfinding and navigation. In its absence, auditory cues can be used to inform those without vision about the environment. The RIAS simply gives the user two important cues to the environment, a label or identity of the signed location and a directional beam to that object. In the empirical tests, we collected data from our subjects when making transfers and other transit tasks, both using their regular method and using the RIAS. After the field tasks, we asked many of the same questions as in the preliminary interviews to compare changes in users' ratings and their attitudes. The results are summarized below.

Many transit tasks are rated as difficult or very difficult by blind travelers. After using the RIAS, these same tasks were rated close to or at the rating of not at all difficult.

Blind users said that the use of RIAS would increase their use of transit and allow them to make more trips. Questions about benefits of the system revealed that the subjects would be willing to pay more money than previously believed. They said the increased mobility and independence would be worth paying full fare or more in order to achieve this level of access. Many people with vision impairments thought that the use of RIAS would help them find jobs or increase their income, and almost all said they could save money that they now spend on getting travel assistance. Subjects strongly agreed that RIAS should be installed at many transit locations, including in terminals, on buses and rail cars, at bus and transit stops, and at street corners.

One can easily see that the addition of a few pieces of auditory information makes a great difference in efficient performance, safety, and attitudes about independent travel. With specific identity labels and directional cues, legally blind subjects can greatly increase their ability to travel without assistance and to have access to more urban opportunities, including better access to job search and employment possibilities.


Further Reading & Resources

  1. The results of this study were presented at the CSUN conference in March 2000.
  2. coming soon: James Marston's white paper: The Accessible City
  3. Email the author, James Marston: <marstonj@geog.ucsb.edu>

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