The Power of Inclusion
Interagency Federal research is giving a voice to all travelers, including those with disabilities, through accessible transportation technologies.
Transportation is crucial in today’s fast-moving society, and access to it helps define the overall livability of a community. For example, a community’s transportation network enables commuters to reach jobs and medical and health care appointments, facilitates shopping for groceries and other necessities, and provides ways to attend social events. However, for people with visual, hearing, cognitive, and mobility disabilities, including wounded warriors and older adults, inadequate access to transportation options can have an adverse effect on their quality of life. Considering that 19 percent of the U.S. population has some form of disability, approximately 57million people will most likely encounter transportation challenges.
Although transportation is advancing quickly, technology developers often do not fully understand the nuanced needs of travelers with disabilities. New mobility solutions in microtransit, a form of modality that allows for on-demand service, and shared-use mobility, among others, do provide increased options to travelers. But these benefits do not always extend equally to people with disabilities, older adults, or those needing additional assistance. For example, individuals in wheelchairs or with low or no vision might be unable to take full advantage of driverless cars unless the technology considers their specific mobility challenges and provides the necessary command interfaces to accommodate them.
What if we could solve some of these problems by thoughtfully bringing together individuals with disabilities, their families, research centers, government agencies, and private industry to establish a better understanding of the challenges these populations face? The results could help millions of people lead fuller lives with safer, more reliable travel options and increased access to employment opportunities.
Moreover, people with disabilities make up a significant portion of consumers, representing more than $200 billion in discretionary spending. Their spending capacity could spur technological innovation and entrepreneurship. This economic activity could also provide value to communities across the country in the form of increased tax revenue and less reliance on government aid.
In 2013, the Federal Highway Administration launched the Accessible Transportation Technologies Research Initiative (ATTRI). The initiative leads efforts to research, develop, and implement transformative solutions, applications, and systems to help all people, particularly those with disabilities, with their travel. The initiative’s purpose is to address individual mobility needs in order to enhance the capability of travelers to plan and complete their trips safely, reliably, and independently.
“ATTRI brings together numerous, diverse stakeholders who have a tremendous need for this research and technology,” says Michael Trentacoste, director of FHWA’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. “It also brings together various Federal agencies and organizations who are working on individual pieces of this challenging puzzle.”
Structure of ATTRI
The initiative is co-led by FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), with support from the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Joint Program Office; the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research; and other Federal agencies. ATTRI focuses on research to improve the mobility of travelers with disabilities through the use of:
- Available data
- ITS and other advanced technologies (including mobile computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, object detection, and navigation in new vehicle options)
- Infrastructure-based technologies
- Pedestrian-based technologies
Wireless communications enable these technologies that connect travelers with their mobile devices, vehicles, and roadside infrastructure.
ATTRI’s holistic approach focuses a great deal of effort on understanding user needs and articulating foundational considerations. After developing its strategic plan and roadmap in 2014, the research team conducted a stakeholder engagement and user needs assessment, performed an innovation scan of current research and existing technologies, identified promising accessible transportation technologies used around the world, and established communication with respective project leads to explore collaboration and opportunities for joint research. The team also assessed existing institutional and policy guidelines concerning advanced technologies in support of accessible transportation, identified gaps, and explored new collaborative opportunities with national and international partners to prototype, test, and demonstrate technology solutions.
As the program continues, researchers will conduct demonstrations, develop deployment guidance, and evaluate the impact of the program.
Stakeholders and Their Challenges
Disabilities can occur throughout or at specific times in a person’s life, creating nuances to the mobility challenges that different individuals may experience. For example, someone born blind has a different level of independent mobility than a veteran returning from combat with a visual disability. A person with cognitive challenges will require different support than a person with hearing loss. The U.S. Census Bureau report, Americans with Disabilities: 2010, categorizes the types of disabilities into communicative, physical, and mental domains. It is important to note that people can have multiple disabilities.
ATTRI focuses on three primary stakeholder groups--(1) persons with disabilities, including (2) older adults and (3) veterans with disabilities, such as the wounded warriors who served after September 11, 2001, and incurred a physical or mental injury, illness, or wound. These stakeholders could have multiple combinations of disabilities or different degrees of disability needs.
Although ATTRI’s approach primarily focuses on improving travel and mobility for those with disabilities, all travelers can benefit from its advances.
Transportation and Employment
ATTRI’s diverse communities face a wide range of challenges on a daily basis, and transportation can add an extra layer of complication, particularly when it comes to employment. Not only is it difficult to find work, but it is also a challenge to find a reliable and consistent way to commute to and from a job.
“For many Americans, and especially for many Americans with disabilities, the difference between working productively and being unemployed is not a matter of whether they have the skills or training necessary for the job,” says Michael Reardon, supervisory policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. “Instead, it is often a matter of whether they can simply get to the job. All the training in the world doesn’t matter without reliable access to transportation.”
In 2014, only 34 percent of individuals with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 64 were employed full time. By contrast, 75 percent of those without disabilities were employed full time.
“ATTRI provides an opportunity to meet a very important need for providing mobility for all Americans, including those returning veterans who have a need and a desire for employment and to get around,” says FHWA’s Trentacoste.
Understanding Critical Needs
One of ATTRI’s strengths has been bringing the voice of the user to the research, design, and prototyping of transportation applications. The initiative recognizes the importance of understanding user needs across the spectrum of disabilities and actively seeks stakeholder input and perspective in its activities.
Early engagement activities included several public workshops and webinars; an assessment of user needs; a public request for information; technology and innovation scans; and an interagency roundtable on accessible transportation. Feedback from these activities revealed several barriers, user needs, technology issues, and necessary foundational considerations. The most critical user needs reported involved real-time and reliable traveler information. This finding indicates a significant, yet simple, opportunity to provide better and more accessible information about transportation options.
Additional stakeholder outreach included listening sessions at the North American Conference on Elderly Mobility and with the People with Disabilities affinity group at General Motors, as well as online user needs surveys and dialogues. ATTRI’s program team also briefed multiple groups such as the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research; the Interagency Committee on Disability Research; the U.S. Access Board; the Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operations project; and the U.S. Army. Each of these activities enabled ATTRI to learn more about the holistic needs of disabled communities.
The ATTRI team completed a needs assessment of stakeholders and users in early 2015, which revealed the leading transportation barriers, needs, and technology issues for people with disabilities. The barriers included a lack of (or inaccessible) signage, maps, landmark identifiers, and bus stop announcements; navigation difficulties, such as not knowing when to arrive, transfer times, and distances; and inconsistent accessible pathway infrastructure.
The three major user needs identified from the assessment were information on amenities, such as restrooms and shelters; real-time transportation options; and safety, security, and emergency procedures.
Even with the introduction of technological approaches as a potential solution, issues still remain, such as insufficient awareness of or inadequate training on how to use the technology, its affordability, and the quality of the technology’s performance, particularly during long-distance travel and in rural areas.
Foundational Considerations and Priorities
Identifying user needs has helped to pinpoint foundational considerations for all ATTRI application areas moving forward. Applying these considerations to new designs and products will ensure that the technologies developed through ATTRI and similar programs adhere to elements necessary for accessible and inclusive applications for all travelers. The foundational considerations include building on existing technologies, creating a standard platform for accessible data, developing universal design standards and inclusive information and communications technologies, and integrating mobile payment options.
Existing technologies. To maximize the benefits and effectively respond to the needs of all users and stakeholders, ATTRI’s applications should leverage existing technologies to the maximum extent possible. The technologies, which could be in research phases or readily available in the market, include those related to ITS, application program interfaces, software development platforms, software development kits, on-demand technologies, data standards, innovative smartphone and mobile technologies, wearable technology, accessible transportation technologies, and other assistive and enabling technologies, operations, and techniques.
Standard accessible data platform. Data standardization and interoperability is critical in developing applications that enhance the personal mobility of those with needs caused by disabilities. Applications must work across service providers; use available real-time data sources; and communicate in an efficient, succinct, and adaptable manner to meet the needs of users with various degrees of abilities.
Future technology applications will provide almost ubiquitous access to a wealth of real-time, situational data sources, including data specific to transportation systems, municipalities, and points of interest. They also will include crowd-sourced information, such as elevator outages or sidewalk blockages because of construction, in accessible formats using inclusive information and communications technology. Applications need to use standardized data to create user profiles, enabling smoother access and transfer between accessible transportation services. For example, a personal mobility vehicle summoned to pick someone from the curbside would know about the individual’s disability type and tailor services accordingly.
Universal design standards and inclusive information and communications technology. Universal design standards maximize the applicability of a technical solution to meet the needs of all user groups. This foundational consideration presumes that all work in developing applications will follow universal design principles, including inclusive information and communications solutions. Applying such principles during development could involve leveraging and enhancing existing solutions to meet the needs of all users. The expectation is that developers will implement user-centered and responsive design approaches and personalization techniques for applications, including employing multiple communication formats (visual, audible, tactile) where possible. Likewise, consideration should be given to incorporating user profiles and documented needs expressed by all stakeholder and ability groups. Further, developers should focus on creating the same user experiences that enable information sharing across smartphones and wearable devices like smart watches and fitness trackers, which travelers are increasingly using in pedestrian environments.
Integrated mobile payment. Integrated payment systems enable travelers to pay transit fees electronically using a smartphone or wearable device. Typically, these systems incorporate media and technologies for electronic fare payment across all modes of transportation, at all times, and perhaps for multiple consumer purposes, such as leisure, recreation, and health care expenses. The vision for a multimodal, integrated, and interoperable payment system is to provide travelers with the ease of use and convenience that comes from one real-time, electronic system for payment that extends across modes and is built on institutional and technical collaborations.
Integrated payment solutions should accommodate all users, including those with mobility, vision, hearing, and cognitive disabilities. Where possible, payment solutions should integrate with any application or device. For example, technology could be embedded on a power wheelchair or on a robotic device.
The acceptance and deployment of advanced transportation technologies is a complex process. However, it can lead to innovative practices for solving accessibility issues. Technology is the great equalizer. It can enable people to do things they were unable to do before. For example, a network of ITS technologies can help to reduce or eliminate the safety risks associated with street crossings by communicating to vehicles the presence and needs of a crossing pedestrian.
Automated vehicles and personal mobility devices can empower travelers of all abilities to navigate safely through a landscape of barriers. The traveler may need only to provide the intended destination; no other input, physical, cognitive, or otherwise, would be necessary. Robotics and artificial intelligence, as assistants to the traveler, can be invaluable resources for wayfinding. But the key to bringing such applications to fruition is identifying and gaining access to datasets that cater to the needs of ATTRI’s stakeholder groups. For example, profile data by disability type can enable different phase times for crossing an intersection.
ATTRI uses the phrase transportation application to describe a new system or device that enables the fusion of sensor technologies using hardware and software; a new robotics software platform that facilitates the integration of new devices and systems; or a modification of an off-the-shelf system, device, or software platform resulting in a new device or system.
ATTRI is focusing on four applications to help travelers:
- Smart wayfinding and navigation systems. These systems include wearable technologies for both indoor and outdoor use, as well as software for navigating specific communities.
- Pre-trip concierge and virtualization. This virtual caregiver provides pre-trip planning and en route support.
- Shared use, automation, and robotics. Assistive and collaborative robotics enhance mobility and provide the ability to both plan and execute trips and associated services.
- Safe intersection crossings. This application enables pedestrians to use their connected mobile devices to interface with vehicles, traffic signals, and other infrastructure to help them cross an intersection safely. Guidance notification and alerts optimize the technology.
“These applications have the potential to bring about many transformational changes that can break down barriers to independent mobility,” says Brian Cronin, director of FHWA’s Office of Operations Research and Development. “The four applications will complement each other to provide an enhanced travel experience within built and pedestrian environments. They offer a holistic approach to solving the challenge of connecting multimodal or specialized travel for individuals with special needs.”
The Power of Partnership
Transportation is much more than just an issue for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Travel challenges can affect education, health and human services, the workforce, veterans’ services, and many other areas of society. That is why ATTRI welcomes a wide range of stakeholders who bring unique perspectives on the issue and its potential solutions, and a willingness to support the process. In addition to USDOT, the partners include other Federal agencies, research institutions, international organizations, disability organizations, and private institutions.
For example, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research is a grantmaking agency of the Federal Government that sponsors grantees to generate new knowledge on disabilities and rehabilitation and share that knowledge for use and adoption. Founded in 1978, the agency has been a strong supporter of ATTRI since the initiative’s inception. The institute’s principal investigators bring a vast knowledge base and expertise to the development of technologies related to disabilities. They participate in stakeholder meetings with people with disabilities and their families to better understand their needs.
John Tschida, the director of the institute, understands that transportation technology is evolving rapidly and that the disability communities need to have a seat at the table. In 2016, the institute partnered with ATTRI to write a $2.5 million competitive grant opportunity. “Inclusion and active social participation across the age and disability continuum are a great part of this initiative,” he says. “Together, we are developing a vision of what the future holds. This long-term investment in technology comes with the potential for huge advances for the disability community.”
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy also has been involved with ATTRI for several years. The office supports the initiative by promoting the adoption and implementation of activities that will positively impact the employment of people with disabilities. The Office of Disability Employment Policy supports ATTRI’s activities through online dialogue, blog postings, Twitter chats, outreach events, and the offering of datasets. In addition, the office is funding an ATTRI data challenge, which will include financial awards plus awareness activities. The data challenge will explore transportation technology that benefits job seekers and employees with disabilities.
“We are trying to look 20 years down the road to take advantage of new transportation technologies, like driverless cars, wearable technology, and wayfinding tools that can support those with disabilities [and] improve their access to work,” says Reardon, with the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
In addition, the Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operations (ARIBO) program, which focuses on bringing autonomous vehicles to Army bases, shares data with ATTRI. The ARIBO program is developing and evaluating autonomous vehicles at military locations in use cases as disparate as personalized point-to-point transportation and mass-transit scenarios.
One of the program’s first projects is out of Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which provides a test bed to examine automated transportation technologies in a partially controlled, campus-type environment. Currently, trained operators drive the vehicles while the sensors and autonomy system run in the background. ARIBO has been recruiting riders and collecting data to improve the vehicle and process associated with scheduling rides. Over the next year, program officials hope to turn control over to the robot, while the operators assume the role of safety operator.
“So far our tests--without riders--have been very good, and we’re optimistic about the robotic technology and the potential for these vehicles,” says Edward Straub, the program manager responsible for the ARIBO program.
Partnering with ATTRI, Straub found more similarities than he expected between the two programs. “Technology for things like wayfinding for visually impaired individuals might translate to soldiers in the field,” he says. “War fighters, like those with disabilities, require highly reliable technology to make their way.”
The two programs also communicate each other’s messages to their diverse stakeholders and leadership, helping to inform agency decisions to the benefit of all.
With the assistance of these partnerships, ATTRI is working to improve the mobility of travelers through its commitment to transformative innovations and advanced technologies. Future prototypes and demonstrations will provide proof of concept for the applications. In addition, joint demonstrations with ATTRI’s partners will test the applications in real-world environments, enabling researchers to evaluate them, make improvements, and also to develop guidance for deployments.
Early indicators from stakeholder engagement point to ATTRI’s potentially profound impact in bringing different transportation solutions to meet the diverse needs of travelers, especially those with disabilities. ATTRI will continue to work collaboratively with Federal agencies and related disability research and development organizations to leverage technologies and innovations.
“When multiple organizations working on various pieces of the transportation puzzle come together to collaborate, the results are transformative,” says FHWA’s Trentacoste. “ATTRI’s futuristic vision of individualized and shared mobility solutions will help millions of travelers safely get to their destinations like never before.”
Mohammed Yousuf is FHWA’s program manager for ATTRI. As a member of the GeoAccess Challenge Team, Yousuf coauthored the report, Data-Enabled Travel: How Geo-Data Can Support Inclusive Transportation, Tourism, and Navigation Through Communities. He is a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s Disability Advisory Committee, Council of State Governments, Interagency Committee on Disability Research, and the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on Accessible Transportation and Mobility. He holds a B.S. in electronics and communication engineering from Osmania University, and an M.S. in computer engineering from Wayne State University.
Kristine Garfield is a strategic communications and marketing outreach specialist with Booz Allen Hamilton and provides support to the ATTRI program. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Towson University and received her advanced practitioner certification in change management from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
For more information, see www.its.dot.gov/attri or contact Mohammed Yousuf at 202–493–3199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.