Next Bus Stop Announcement app
CPT, First and Arriva’s newest tech aids visually impaired
Leeds United may have been playing away at Wigan last week, but there was one fixture at Elland Road stadium that could prove a winner for anyone transporting visually impaired passengers. First and Arriva, in partnership with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK (CPT), joined forces and launched a bus stop announcement app for blind and visually impaired passengers at the sports arena. The Next Stop Announcement smartphone app is now on an eight week trial in Leeds and the local area until 1 May.
Branded as part of the ‘Bus for Us’ umbrella (CPT’s journey planning website), the app has been created and developed specifically for blind and visually impaired bus passengers. It provides users with real time audio and visual alert notifications direct to the handset. It is designed to ensure passengers know where they are on a journey and at which stop to get off.
Users plug in earphones and like other smartphone apps for visually impaired, they can cast their finger over the touch screen and ‘hear’ the buttons, double tapping on the screen to press individual buttons. It provides the user with information on the progress of the service, where the next stop will be, making use of the voice over and GPS functions of smartphones. Having taken six months to develop, it also offers simple and easy to search and navigate route maps together with next service information and a facility to save favourite and frequently used stops and bus routes.
The app runs on service and route data that already exists within the industry, with the trial version featuring all of First’s and Arriva’s service details in the Leeds area. First operates routes in the city itself, with Arriva running buses into the city from outlying towns and villages. Head of Commercial Development at First, Mark Smith, said the city was used for the trial because of the good quality of timetable information available. One interesting feature is if there is a diversion to a service that has not been programmed into the system, it will pick up again once it has come back onto the scheduled route.
It is currently available as a beta version, which means it is not freely available to anyone on Apple’s app store or other app providers during the trial. Those wishing to receive it must be provided a website link to it to download. In the future, there is the possibility for it to do things other than just track bus stops, adding functionality. As well as First and Arriva, there is a possibility for it to be rolled out to other operators’ services. However, the pilot is only being carried out on the two mentioned companies’ buses. The pilot is free to download, but a decision on whether the final version of it will be is yet to be made.
Speaking at the launch, CPT Chairman, Ian Morgan, said, ‘On behalf of the bus industry I welcome the introduction of the Next Stop Announcement app. Having worked closely with blind and visually impaired bus passengers during its creation and development, I am confident that the pilot will clearly demonstrate that app technology has a key role to play in making bus journeys easier and more accessible for all.’
He thanked the DfT, who helped develop the app and Claire Randall, who is visually impaired and actually trialled it in London prior to its launch in Leeds. He explained that CPT is committed to making buses as accessible as it can and raised the point that buses are ‘unrecognisable’ in terms of accessibility from only ten to 15 years ago. He said there are some fleets with audio-visual announcements to assist the blind, but not as many as hoped. He said operators need to fund this equipment, so admitted that it will be many years before this happens. In the meantime, a simple solution was needed, hence the launch of the app.
He described it as ‘simple, cost effective and achieves nationwide coverage much quicker. The app is an audio visual device in the palm of your hand.’
– Ian Morgan, CPT Chairman
Next to speak was Claire Randall, who said she was very fortunate living in London in terms of the next bus announcements on board all TfL services. However, she travels around the country a lot and often finds the experience very ‘disconcerting’ due to lack of information onboard.
Claire said, ‘I have worked closely with the app project development team over the last six months and, having been able to share first hand some of the difficulties that I and other blind and visually impaired bus users face on a daily basis, I believe it will provide passengers with a greater sense of independence and freedom when taking the bus. I hope it will lead to more blind and visually impaired people having the confidence to make bus trips, and stories of passengers missing or getting off at the wrong stop will become a thing of the past.’
MD of First in Yorkshire, Paul Matthews, said the app was the next step in raising the game in terms of improving accessibility. More people are travelling by bus in his area this year than the last, which has been encouraged by such projects as combined ticketing. He said he wants ‘real positive discussions’ during this trial. He said, ‘Is it of value to people? How can it be enhanced and developed? We want people to say whether it works or could be improved.’
The app is something encouraged by First as a whole, not just in West Yorkshire. MD of FirstBus, Giles Fearnley, said, ‘We are committed to making our services accessible to all of our passengers across the country. We are therefore very excited about the trial of this app, which we think has the potential to revolutionise bus travel for the blind and visually impaired community. First is delighted to be a partner in this project and we have high hopes that it will be very successful. We’ll be continuing to work closely with partners and user groups during the pilot.’
Wakefield based Arriva Yorkshire MD, Nigel Featham, attended the launch. One of the app’s advantages, he claims, is that it provides a much more immediately available solution, being much less time consuming and significantly less expensive than fitting audio visual (AV) announcement equipment onboard buses. He said, ‘People prefer a more personal solution too. It provides a good alternative.’
Commercial Director of Arriva, Mark Yexley, said, ‘Over the course of the eight week pilot we hope to gain a firm understanding about the real benefits of this technology and how it can enhance the journey experience for bus passengers, especially those with visual impairments.’
As well as the operators behind the app, it was also developed by web application designers, Rise DM. The company is no stranger to the bus industry, having developed the original Bus for Us website. Scott James from the company said, ‘Building an accessibility focused mobile application has been a fascinating experience for our team and one which we feel well placed to support moving forwards, with participation from key partners within the industry. We hope that the pilot will lead the way for a wider range of products using mobile technology to help make travel independence a reality for various passenger groups for whom navigating the public transport networks has until now been difficult.’
Providing AV next stop information to assist blind and other disabled people is, without a doubt, something the industry is keen to roll out. However, in times when funding for such costly onboard equipment is not readily available, the Next Stop Announcement smartphone app provides a good alternative. It is important to remember the app is not just of benefit to the blind, as anyone unfamiliar with the area or who have simply not used that service before may well find it useful, especially if no onboard AV equipment is available. However, one stumbling block could be the fact not everyone has a smartphone. Unless 100% of visually impaired passengers start using these mobile devices, then there will always need to be onboard AV equipment to ensure they are all served equally.
Scott James gave some interesting insight in terms of the app’s use alongside onboard equipment, saying, ‘I envision it could be a hybrid, using both together. Some areas could use a monitor and announcement system, whereas in some parts, urban areas where people use phones more and the data is good, then the app could be used too. It is not a case of one or the other, we see them working in tandem.’