USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Site Notification

Site Notification

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation
September/October 2012
Issue No:
Vol. 76 No. 2
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

The New Frontier in Accessible Transportation

by Mohammed Yousuf and Mark Fitzgerald

From DSRC to robotics, innovations that help travelers with disabilities also can enhance the road experience for seniors, bicyclists, delivery workers, and moms and dads.


After this blind pedestrian's request to cross the street is communicated to the traffic controller using dedicated short-range communications, information about the pedestrian's location can be broadcast to all the other travelers on the network, including approaching vehicles.


Last year Mark Riccobono made history at the Daytona International Speedway, driving a sport utility vehicle -- without the use of his eyes. Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute of the National Federation of the Blind, is legally blind. But watching him drive solo around the track -- as he did in front of thousands of people on January 29, 2011 -- spectators might never have guessed had it not been announced over the loudspeaker.

The demonstration, one of the activities before the scheduled race, marked the first time a blind person drove a street vehicle in public without the assistance of a sighted person. With the help of nonvisual technology, Riccobono successfully navigated the 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of the road course that branches off the multilane, oval racetrack. The road course veers off into the center of the oval and winds around as a curvy two-lane road before rejoining the main track. Riccobono managed the turns, avoided moving and stationary obstacles, and passed a van without collision.

Range-finding laser censors affixed to the vehicle sent information to an onboard computer that created and updated a three-dimensional map of the road environment. Cued by electronic signals triggered by the computer, vibrating gloves and a vibrating strip on the car seat sent directional signals to Riccobono. The signals informed him which way to steer and when to speed up or slow down and brake.

"It was thrilling for me to be behind the wheel, but even more thrilling to hear the cheers from my blind brothers and sisters in the grandstands," Riccobono said in a news announcement released by the National Federation of the Blind shortly after the event. "It ... [shows] that blind people can do anything that our sighted friends and colleagues can do as long as we have access to information through nonvisual means."

Riccobono's accomplishment is just one example of how technological innovation can benefit people with disabilities. At the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC), researchers are working on a suite of new technologies that have the potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities, senior citizens, and other members of the traveling public.

For example, intelligent transportation systems (ITS), accessible data, wireless communications, mobile computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and object detection navigation offer many possibilities for increasing mobility and independence. Designing wayfinding, orientation, and guidance technologies into personal vehicles, public transport systems, ticketing and travel information mechanisms, terminals, intersections, and pedestrian infrastructure can enhance the experience of traveling for everyone -- including those with special needs.


This pedestrian signal at a crosswalk shows the current technology that requires people with vision impairments to push a button that sends a request for the traffic light to change so they can cross the intersection. New technologies, such as new smartphone apps, do not require pedestrians to push a button.


New Momentum

Research in accessible transportation has gained momentum in recent years as result of Federal initiatives. In July 2010, in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the White House partnered with the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce to facilitate a discussion among technologists and disability advocates about innovative uses of the Internet to improve accessibility. The discussion led to the following challenge: How can transportation data and other geo-data be used to increase accessible travel for people with disabilities?

Over the next 3 months, participants collaborated via conference calls, email, and Web sites and produced a comprehensive report, Data-Enabled Travel: How Geo-Data Can Support Inclusive Transportation, Tourism, and Navigation through Communities. The report calls for a number of policy and research interventions and highlights transportation needs of deaf people and those with developmental disabilities, mass transit needs for the nondriving disabled, and prejourney travel information requirements for the elderly and disabled. The report also offers information about universal design (solutions that are effective for everyone, not just people with disabilities) and expanding transit systems, as well as emerging technologies that could pose barriers to people with disabilities if not accessible to them.

On February 23, 2011, FHWA conducted a workshop to examine technological innovations in accessible transportation and better understand the requirements of pedestrians and travelers with visual impairment or other disabilities. The workshop identified several areas of focus -- including ITS, wireless communications, and robotics -- where research could lead to new approaches in personal mobility and assess tech-nological viability and capabilities. (For Technological Innovations in Transportation for People With Disabilities Workshop Summary Report, see

Costs and Benefits

More than one billion people worldwide live with a disability, according to the World Report on Disability, published in 2011 by the World Health Organization and World Bank. A study conducted by Cornell University and a subsequent report, 2009 Disability Status Report United States, found that only 36 percent of noninstitutionalized disabled individuals between the ages of 21 and 64 years were employed in 2009. How much of this has to do with transportation challenges? What impact does limited and nonaccessible transportation have on the U.S. economy, especially for seniors and individuals with disabilities?


People with disabilities find using automatic ticket machines, like this one at Washington, DC’s Reagan National Airport, to be convenient and time saving.


"The economic and social costs of disability are significant, but difficult to quantify," the World Health Organization report acknowledges. "They include direct and indirect costs, some borne by people with disabilities and their families and friends and employers, and some by society. Many of these costs arise because of inaccessible environments and could be reduced in a more inclusive setting."

When the transportation system is flexible and adaptable to universal design solutions that bolster accessibility, often the solutions evolve to benefit everyone. For example, Kalamazoo, MI, initially installed curb cuts, or sidewalk ramps, in the 1940s to make it easier for disabled World War II veterans to move around the city and reach places of employment. Eventually, cities and towns throughout the country introduced curb cuts, which have proven beneficial to bicyclists, delivery workers, people pushing strollers, and elderly populations.

David Lewis, senior vice president of the architecture and engineering firm HDR, maintains that all of the benefits of research and development into accessibility for transportation need to be quantified. For the accessibility of automatic ticket machines at airports, for example, Lewis estimates that the benefits for people with disabilities are about $330 in time savings per 100 uses versus going to a ticket agent.

"But if you include," he adds, "alongside the value of time saved, the added comfort and avoided stigmatic harm of not having to go up to a counter for assistance, the value goes up to over $700 per 100 uses. The cost-benefit analysis from [the] market point of view cannot be justified unless you take all of these other benefits into account. But when you do, you realize there's a sustainable market for accessibility out there. Ensuring sufficient investment calls for a strong research nudge, and that's what the Turner-Fairbank initiatives are all about."

Innovations in Mobile Technology and ITS

Obtaining social computing systems by crowd-sourcing from a large group of people, especially online, can benefit public transit riders, including senior citizens and those with disabilities. Researchers with Carnegie Mellon's Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Accessible Public Transportation have developed an iPhone® application, called Tiramisu (Italian for "pick me up"), that can predict when a bus or train operated by the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, PA, will arrive. Tiramisu also makes it possible for bus and light rail riders to use their smartphones to signal in real time the vehicle's location and occupancy level.


Research on V2V and V2I interaction, conducted at the TFHRC intelligent intersection shown here, could benefit travelers with disabilities.


By processing signals from onboard riders, the application can communicate to anyone whose phone has the same specialized program and who is waiting at a bus or transit stop. The signals from onboard enable prospective riders, including seniors and passengers with disabilities, to see which buses or light rail vehicles are due to arrive next and estimate how long they will have to wait. Tiramisu also can inform those in wheelchairs about available space on buses and trains. Through their phones' screen readers, blind riders can use the application as well.

Tiramisu's "universal design approach helps everyone," said Aaron Steinfeld, a senior systems scientist in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, in a 2011 press release. It can even benefit local shops, he added, "because riders will know if they have time to go into a store."

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is funding ITS research that could benefit accessible transportation. Interaction between vehicles (vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V) and between vehicles and the roadway (vehicle-to-infrastructure or V2I) via communications technologies that have positioning and computing capabilities can inform travel choices, save time, and boost riders' confidence by producing a higher level of travel reliability.

FHWA is exploring the benefits of capturing and using new forms of data from automobiles, handheld devices, freight vehicles, and transit. These data will be employed in applications involving rail and roadway surfaces and infrastructure.

"We're looking at the entire transportation system, not just highways," says Joe Peters, director of FHWA's Office of Operations Research and Development. "Pedestrians, bicyclists, and those with disabilities have a particular interest in knowing when a traffic signal is going to change. We're looking at technology that will be able to tell them when the light is going to turn green or yellow or red."

In 2011, FHWA opened TFHRC's Saxton Transportation Operations Laboratory, a state-of-the-art research facility focusing on transportation-enabling technologies, innovative concepts and analysis, and operations applications. Consisting of three testbeds, the laboratory is highly integrated and offers a wide range of resources to facilitate forward-looking and reliable research. The lab's researchers are developing communi-cations techniques for network modeling and calibration, advanced concepts for freeway merge assistance, and tests to demonstrate cooperative capabilities for adaptive cruise control and traffic signal control.

"There is a strong relationship between congestion and safety," adds Peters. "We envision a future that has connected integrated transportation systems that include bicyclists and pedestrians, which lead to increased safety, improved mobility, better air quality, and an improvement of our national productivity for all transportation system users."


These researchers at FHWA's Office of Operations Research and Development are using computer simulation tools to help them evaluate and develop strategies to improve transportation operations.


Integration of Communications At Intersections

So how can messages between various products of information technology -- namely, wireless communication devices and computers -- be used in new ways to improve management of the transportation system? FHWA researchers are working to determine a use in the 5.9-gigahertz band for dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), which is allocated for transportation safety, but also can be used in mobility applications.

The FHWA Transportation Operations Laboratory's outdoor Cooperative Vehicle-Highway testbed intersection is equipped with systems for comprehensive control of traffic signals, DSRC, advanced detection of vehicles and pedestrians, fiber-optic communications, driver warnings with infrastructure interface, and a separate traffic signal cabinet with computers and communications devices. The DSRC system can transmit information 10 times per second to handheld mobile devices and to vehicles equipped with the dedicated short-range units.

According to Larry Head, who leads the Department of Systems and Industrial Engineering at the University of Arizona, mobile technology and ITS will be key factors in bolstering accessibility in transportation. "I think the vision is to move into a vehicle and traveler environment that is completely connected, leveraging systems that communicate with roadside equipment using many tools, including DSRC communications, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth," he says.

Intersections, despite their complexity, are not environments that typically offer a lot of readily available information, but Head points out that if they are equipped with DSRC and public map data, "that information becomes much richer, and it becomes possible to enhance situational awareness of the position of equipped vehicles and other travelers as they report in to the intersection."

With traveler-to-vehicle and traveler-to-infrastructure communications, pedestrians with disabilities could use smartphones to initiate sequences of exchanges at intersections. "An equipped pedestrian could send a request to cross the street," explains Head. "The DSRC could then communicate this to the traffic controller. Information about the pedestrian's status and location could then be broadcast to all other travelers on the network, including approaching vehicles and emergency and transit vehicles."

Next, the intersection status technology could notify visually impaired individuals when it is safe to cross streets. "The available map information could also be used for wayfinding," adds Head. "It can show exactly where a curb is or where the entrance to a building is located."

Other benefits of connected infrastructure communications include safety and emergency notifications, fare collection, and parking accommodations. "You could even activate the fans on a bus during the summer," says Head.


Shown is the traffic signal control cabinet at the TFHRC testbed intersection, which includes computer and communications equipment.


The onboard computer and communications equipment shown here enables interaction with the TFHRC intelligent intersection.


Artificial Intelligence And Machine Vision

Researchers focusing on robotics and artificial intelligence are making strides in developing products to improve the mobility and navigation of people with special needs. By 2013, the International Federation of Robotics estimates that more than 11 million personal robots will be in use around the world.

Although machine vision technol-ogies could assist those with vision impairment to detect an obstruction or sinkhole on a sidewalk, more research is needed to provide spatial awareness and better wayfinding and guidance, both indoors and outdoors.

For military purposes, micro-inertial navigation technology (MINT) -- miniaturized radar and inertial measurement units embedded in boots to track steps and locate soldiers and personnel in places with limited or no global positioning system capabilities -- has been highly successful. Potentially, MINT could be combined with other technologies to help those with visual impairments navigate inside buildings.

For people with mobility impairments and for elderly individuals who use a wheelchair, cane, or crutches, signal phase and timing applications can help with crossing intersections. Using mobile communications and positioning devices, those with disabilities could broadcast their intent to cross an intersection by sending a message to roadside infrastructure that can communicate with approaching vehicles and traffic signals. As the pedestrians cross, their progress and position are tracked and processed, resulting in a command that is sent to the traffic signal and warnings that are sent to vehicles equipped with onboard communication units. If there are vehicles nearby or approaching that might cause a conflict, the red light interval can be extended to allow enough time for those with special needs to cross safely.

In addition, Google has developed self-driving cars that use mapping and computing resources to determine where and how fast to go. Employing lasers, radar, and cameras to assess traffic, these cars have traveled nearly 200,000 miles (321,900 kilometers) on roads in California and Nevada, according to a 2011 article in The New York Times written by Sebastian Thrun, a fellow at Google and research professor at Stanford University.

"Self-driving cars will be good news for the millions of Americans who are blind or have a brain injury, Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's disease," said Thrun, who works with a team of Google engineers. "Tens of millions of Americans are denied the privilege of operating motor vehicles today because of issues related to health or age. Some of these changes are far out in the future. But I envision a future in which our technology is available to everyone, in every car. I envision a future without traffic [crashes] or congestion."


This smartphone indicates that the pedestrian using it has 14 seconds remaining to cross an intersection before the pedestrian signal will display the flashing message, "Don't Walk."


Exploratory Advanced Research

In 2009 and 2010, FHWA engaged stakeholders from within and outside the traditional highway research community to identify topics of research that promise transformation and possible breakthroughs in highway technology, processes, and policies. In 2011, FHWA's Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) Program, which focuses on long-term, high-risk research with a high payoff potential, issued a broad agency announcement to solicit research and innovations to solve critical highway challenges. The agency issued the announcement after determining that new technological solutions for wayfinding and navigation guidance for people with disabilities have a strong scientific and technical basis.

The objective of the research is to develop concepts and prototypes that use new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and sensors that could improve event horizons (looking ahead in time and space) related to wayfinding and navigation guidance.

The researchers will assume that broadband wireless technology, ITS, global positioning systems, DSRC, and related technologies are widely available. The concepts will be futuristic and will focus on key areas of event horizons: sensing with lasers, cameras, computer vision, robotics, artificial intelligence, or other technologies; human interfaces that decide how much information should be presented, at what time, and in what form; and algorithms that help plan an event and lay out its scope. These concepts will be flexible and extend this research to find accessible transportation solutions for the elderly and for people with sensory, cognitive, and mobility disabilities.

"Through this research, we will gain insights into providing nonvisual information and extending situational awareness that could lead to advancements in highway transportation safety and mobility for all travelers," says David Kuehn, team director of FHWA's EAR Program. "This research can lead to new sensor integration and communications systems for travelers who are blind or have sight impairments and for sighted travelers who are driving, bicycling, or walking at night or in poor visibility, while minimizing the potential distraction of having to look away from the road and toward a screen on the dashboard or on a mobile device."

So much is possible with ITS and advanced communications technologies. The hope is that the research will eventually generate a new paradigm in transportation -- a system that is well-connected, versatile, and accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities.


This field test is verifying that a signal phase and timing message is being broadcast using dedicated short-range communications, mounted on the white pole with the antennae. Signal phase and timing applications can help people with mobility impairments when they are crossing an intersection.


Mohammed Yousuf is a research engineer in FHWA's Office of Operations Research and Development and, under FHWA's EAR Program, is leading research on new technology solutions for wayfinding and navigation guidance for people with vision impairments and other disabilities. As a member of the GeoAccess Challenge Team, Yousuf worked on the White House report, Data-Enabled Travel: How Geo-Data Can Support Inclusive Transportation, Tourism, and Navigation through Communities. Prior to joining FHWA, he worked at General Motors and Chrysler Group in vehicle product development, telematics and infotainment, and advanced service diagnostics. He has a B.S. in electronics and communication engineering from Osmania University in India and an M.S. in computer engineering from Wayne State University in Michigan.

Mark Fitzgerald is a senior communications writer at Woodward Communications, supporting FHWA's Office of Corporate Research, Technology, and Innovation Management at TFHRC. Before joining Woodward, he served as editor of several trade magazines and worked at the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has a B.A. in English from Franklin & Marshall College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University.

For more information, contact Mohammed Yousuf at 202-493-3199 or Also see