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Making mass transit user-friendly for blind commuters.

While vital to the quality of life in a large urban environment, mass transit takes on particular importance to blind people leading active, productive lives. Using practical, straight-forward techniques, blind persons travel safely, confidently, and competently on any mode. Blind transit riders can use sounds, feel, and other physical characteristics as excellent landmarks, especially on rail transit. However, some modifications are needed for mass transit to function optimally for people who are visually impaired. This article discusses a number of the problems.

Ongoing implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has raised issues related to verbal and written communication--Braille and raised print or audio/video signs and publications in "alternative formats"--with blind transit riders. ADA also has raised controversy among blind people about modifying the built environment, particularly regarding raised, truncated dome detectable warnings, ostensibly to alert blind persons approaching or walking along platform edges.

Technological advances in the transit industry, such as automatic fare collection and passenger-activated doors, highlight the need to work with blind people and resolve information access and travel issues. With imagination and a positive attitude about blindness, the industry can continue making mass transit the blind person's car.


Increasing awareness of and emphasis on disability issues quite logically leads to questions about the population percentage or number of people who might use related services, programs, and facilities. The blind community makes up a very small portion of the population at large, as well as a small portion of the estimated population of over 40 million people with disabilities. Federal population statistics roughly estimate the number of blind people at two per thousand, or about 500,000 nationwide. This number, however, gives no indication of what percentage of blind people ride transit.

At best, the transit industry has very sketchy, incomplete data regarding possible numbers of blind riders. Since 1975, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in New York has issued 13,600 half-fare cards to blind riders, about 80 percent of these in New York City. MTA, however, has no count of blind persons who ride but have not applied for half-fare cards. Baruch College Computer Center for the Visually Impaired, which is producing a limited number of subway maps for MTA, estimates that about 5,000 blind people use the subway daily.

ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) do not have a quantitative threshold, either in terms of population percentages or actual numbers, at which they become effective. This discussion, therefore, will address transit issues pertinent to blind passengers from a qualitative rather than quantitative perspective. Most notably, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has developed a decades-long history of advocacy, at the national, state, and local levels, for more and better transit service and continues to advocate vigorously for rehabilitation services based on the positive philosophy that, given proper training and opportunity, blind people can attain self-confidence and competence necessary to lead active, productive lives.

Methods and Techniques

Environmental Cues as Landmarks. Whether traveling with canes or dog guides, blind people use many practical, straightforward techniques and methods to ride rail transit safely and effectively. By listening, they ascertain the direction from which the train approaches, determine whether they board toward the front or rear, and locate the opening doors. Not seeing directional and informational signage, they maintain orientation by paying attention to compass directions, especially while walking through stations and riding trains as they round curves or switch tracks. The physical characteristics of the railway, sounds and feel, make excellent landmarks (e.g., the echo and louder sound of subway tunnels; the vibration and slight rocking when riding through track switches; the crossing over from one track to another, as track switches guide the train along its route at terminal stations or junctions; the "clickety clack" of "jointed rail"; the resonance of elevated structures and bridges; the smooth, quiet ride of welded rail, usually in sections of several hundred feet; the quiet ride of "ballasted track," with rails mounted on wooden or concrete ties set in crushed ballast rock). Blind transit riders can note these landmarks along the way, just as sighted drivers would note buildings or street names. Continuing this analogy, riding on the right-hand track of a two-track railroad compares with driving in the right lane of a two-lane road. On a center platform station with two tracks, the passenger would face the desired direction and take the train on the right. Likewise, riding on the right outside or inside track of a four-track operation corresponds to driving in the right outside or inside lane of a four-lane road.


Blind people who use canes extend them to find the platform edge, walk straight, and keep a safe distance from it. Thus, they avoid the many fixtures and facilities typically installed toward the center of platforms: windbreaks on outdoor platforms, stairs, escalators, elevators, supervisor booths, trash cans, newspaper stands, advertising or informational signage, or kiosks and benches. Alternatively, some older subway stations have support pillars every few feet near platform edges. Blind people can locate these pillars with canes and walk a straight line just inside them. Canes also enable blind people to distinguish open doorways from the spaces between cars, as well as to negotiate the gap between platform edge and cars. This method works, regardless of whether trains have between-car barriers, such as gates or springs. Cane tips, especially metal ones, make an excellent, sharp, tapping sound on hard surfaces, the echo from which provides excellent auditory cues to blind people walking through stations. These auditory cues become particularly useful on island platforms where other passengers insist on lining up and waiting along the edges, keeping blind persons from using them as a guide.

Dog Guides

Blind people who use dog guides avoid passengers and fixtures because dogs have received training to guide them around obstacles. They also keep a safe distance from the platform edge, because dogs respect the dropoff beyond it. When boarding trains, dogs guide their users away from spaces between cars and toward open doors.

Information Access in Chicago

Publications in Alternative Formats. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) now produces and distributes several publications in such alternative formats as Braille, computer disk, large print, and audio cassette. One publication, CTA's Rail Transit Guide, covers all the rail routes, listing station name, street address coordinates, numbers of connecting CTA and Pace suburban bus routes, as well as information about connecting Metra commuter rail and other transportation services.

Informational Announcements. Blind people have stressed the importance of bus operators calling stops. Years before ADA, CTA's bus operator training and rules promoted the positive notion that announcing stops benefits all riders, while providing more accessible service to blind people and others with disabilities. More than 1,400 buses which CTA received in the nineties have public address systems.

All CTA rail cars have had public address systems since the fifties. All CTA cars in regular service now also have outdoor speakers mounted near passenger doors enabling train personnel to make announcements directly to waiting passengers on the platform and, incidentally, focusing their attention on the location of doors. Conductors or operators advise passengers regarding closing doors, standing clear of doors, priority seating, and no smoking or radio playing. They announce the train's run number, all station stops, transfer points to other rail lines, delays, reroutes, station closings, and major points of interest. In addition, for all rail cars acquired from the sixties to the eighties, CTA is implementing a Communications Enhancement Program in which intercoms will be used for passengers to talk to train operators; automated stop announcements will have a digitally recorded professional announcer's voice for standard announcements; the operator will make special announcements, such as express runs; and cars will have light-emitting diodes (LED's) mounted on the interior of the destination sign boxes to signal express runs, especially for deaf and hearing-impaired riders.

Audio/video station signs automatically will announce direction of train arrival and eventually may give delay information. In the winter and spring of 1995, CTA conducted a demonstration at the Merchandise Mart Station using different male voices for southbound and northbound service. CTA is currently evaluating various systems for station announcements with prerecorded voices and electronic visual display.

Braille and Raised Print Signage. CTA installed Braille and raised print numbers in all buses, on the passenger side of the driver's barrier and on the panel behind the rear door, facing the stairs. These numbers enable blind riders to identify particular buses when reporting incidents. The two new series, delivered in 1995, have number plates, with white digits on a black background, mounted on stainless steel panels. CTA has also put these numbers on older buses, using stainless steel plates with no color contrast.

CTA train cars have their numbers written in raised print and braille, 5 feet from the floor on the panel to the right, as passengers leave the train. Riders may note the car number to report the condition of the car or activity on the train. The newest cars, in use on the Brown, Orange, and Yellow Lines, have intercoms located toward the end of each car near the wheelchair positions and operators' cabs. Passengers may use these intercoms to communicate with train personnel. These intercom positions also have raised print and braille instructions, as well as car numbers.

CTA planning, architectural, and engineering staff have explored messages, materials, and methods of installation of Braille and raised print signs in rapid transit stations. Suggested locations include: entrances; exits; points of level change; decision points, such as diverging paths toward side platforms; and boarding areas. In 1997, CTA purchased over 300 zinc signs with Braille, raised print and color-contrasted letters and a number of smaller signs for customer assistant call buttons in rail stations.

Truncated Dome Detectable Warnings

Current ADA guidelines require installation of raised, truncated dome detectable warnings along the edges of train platforms.

Some systems, including Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH), Dade County Metro in Florida, and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco, have installed hard rubber raised truncated dome tiles along all their station platforms.

Others, such as New Jersey Transit (NJT), MARC/Mass Transit Administration in Maryland, CTA and Metra in the Chicago area, New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), and Long Island Railroad (LIRR), have installed these tiles, made of fiberglass or other materials, at many key stations (i.e., transfer points and terminals). These and other rail systems plan to install raised truncated dome warnings in future new construction and major reconstruction projects.

NFB has long held that public entities, such as transit systems, would benefit blind persons more by allocating limited resources for general improvements than by wasting such dollars for unnecessary, expensive modifications of the built environment. NFB further asserts that such expensive modifications perpetuate negative myths about blindness, among blind and sighted persons alike. The following citations of NFB resolutions, published in The Braille Monitor, include month, year, and page number; resolution number; and a brief synopsis:

1. August-September 1995, p. 496, 95-11. Calls upon agencies having responsibility for guidelines, regulations, or enforcement of ADA to eliminate requirements for detectable warnings.

2. August-September 1994, p. 532, 94-12. Condemns Department of Transportation insistence to install truncated domes on subway platforms; commends WMATA's resistance to do so.

3. September-October 1993, p. 987-988, 93:02. Commends government agencies for abandoning support for detectable tactile warnings in traffic and architecture in favor of further study and expresses view of NFB that such warnings are not helpful to blind and may be harmful to everyone; it does not object to textured surfaces in general but objects specifically to raised truncated dome tiles.

4. September-October 1993, p. 997, 93-17. Urges Clinton Administration and Congress to provide findings and personnel to implement ADA.

5. September-October 1993, p. 997, 93-20. Commends American National Standards Institute for reflecting true needs of blind Americans by excluding any reference to detectable warnings in its published standards

6. September-October 1993, p. 488-489, 92-06. Updates NFB's position on audible traffic signals.

7. September-October 1993, p. 489, 92-07. Opposes research on detectable warnings for the blind in architecture, on sidewalks, and so forth.

Recognizing this perspective and experience, skepticism and opposition to raised truncated domes has increased among government standard-setting bodies, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which removed the detectable warning requirement from its list of accessibility standards in 1992.

Virginia Railway Express (VRE) runs rush hour commuter train service on two main lines connecting many communities in Northern Virginia with Washington D.C. Regular riders report that during winter months snow and ice accumulate between the raised, truncated domes along platform edges. Conductors point to this hazardous condition with the caution: "Watch your step; that first step is slippery!"

In 1992, CTA convened a task group to seek comment and suggestions from the blind community. Significantly, most task group members, blind and sighted alike, complained strongly that truncated domes endanger passengers by catching their cane tips and heels of shoes when they walk along platform edges or board trains. Reflecting these concerns, CTA initially installed raised truncated dome borders along the entire length of platform edges at only three completely rebuilt stations, conducted demonstration projects, and accomplished only partial installations of raised truncated domes at two other stations as of spring 1995. Materials included metal, fiberglass, and concrete, but not rubber. In May 1996, CTA reopened its Green Line, which it had closed in January 1994 for complete reconstruction. All newly rebuilt stations have raised truncated domes. Several downtown subway stations, renovated in 1995 and 1996, as well as two new elevated stations on the Loop "L," now have raised truncated domes. Other stations, new construction and reconstruction projects designed and funded before the effective dates of the ADAAG, were built without such materials, even though the work took place during the nineties. CTA is now installing raised truncated domes at these as well as at ADA "key stations."

In 1994, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) received an extension on the installation of truncated domes at key stations. Since then, WMATA actively has analyzed this issue and has sought public participation. It installed two demonstration sites, one underground and the other outside, containing several detectable warning designs and materials, including truncated domes. The Battelle Memorial Institute conducted a Platform Edge Study of a variety of 24 inch wide detectable warning textures and materials. Entitled, The Impact of Transit Station Platform Edge Warning Surfaces on Persons with Visual Impairments and Persons with Mobility Impairments, it concluded, in part: "In terms of stopping distances for blind participants, no statistically reliable differences between warning surfaces were noted." Battelle's second study, entitled, Detectability of 18-in and 24-in Flame Finish Granite Warning Surfaces for Use in Transit Stations, concluded, in part: "In terms of mean stopping distances from the platform edge, for participants who are blind or have low vision, no practical difference between 18-inch and 24-inch Flame Finish warning surfaces was noted."

WMATA held public hearings in March 1995 regarding its proposal to request equivalent facilitation for the current granite platform edge. Most testimony strongly supported this position. WMATA's news release, issued the following month, entitled Metro to Keep Existing Platform Edge, Federal Transit Administration Decides in Favor of WMATA Request, begins: "The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced yesterday that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) would not be required to make any structural changes to the platform edges in its metrorail system."

In May 1995, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB) considered NFB's petition to rescind the "raised, truncated dome" specification. CTA, WMATA, and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), all of which operate extensive rail systems, submitted supporting petitions, calling for the retention of existing platform edges instead.

James Gashel, NFB's Director of Governmental Affairs, reports that, in response to these petitions, ATBCB initiated a review process to consider whether to remove or modify this provision. It passed a resolution directing its Communications Subcommittee to develop a "performance standard" reflecting the ultimate goal, instead of the current "descriptive standard" requirement.

In 1997, Battelle conducted additional studies for WMATA. Following is an excerpt from its Executive Summary:

"The objective of this work was to determine whether a warning surface for visually impaired persons, proposed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for use at their key and new rail transit stations, satisfies the equivalent facilitation provision allowed by the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) specification for detectable warnings." A public hearing to receive and consider comments on WMATA's proposed warning surface was held in October 1997.

Fare Automation

The transit industry increasingly has turned toward automatic fare collection. New rapid transit systems of the late sixties and seventies have brought automatic fare card vending machines and ticket activated fare gates into common use. Some older rail systems also have followed this trend. In 1968, automatic fare collection came to the Chicago area for the first time when the Illinois Central instituted an automatic fare card system on its commuter rail service (Metra Electric).

CTA implemented its Transit Card, an automatic fare card system for its busses and rail systems, in spring and summer 1997. Passengers can either buy cards with predetermined value at various food stores and other retail outlets. They also can buy Transit Cards or add value to existing ones at Transit Card vending machines at rail stations. Monthly passes--at a reduced rate for people with disabilities--allow unlimited riding. CTA is proceeding with a pilot program for a smart card which uses radio frequencies and activates fare equipment when the passenger brings it close to the "target" (or antenna) on the turnstile or bus fare card machine. Initially, CTA has begun marketing this card as a monthly pass for riders with disabilities, especially those with manual dexterity problems preventing them from inserting cards in slots. CTA is now developing a stored-value or debit card version of the smart card.

NYCTA is also implementing Metro Card, a debit card system which enables passengers to transfer between bus and subway for a single fare.

New light rail systems of the eighties and nineties commonly feature European style barrier-free stations with inspectors riding trains and checking tickets. All these rail systems now have or will have automatic fare card vending machines.

How has the transit industry addressed information access for the blind passenger who previously asked a readily available fare collecting employee the essential question, "What's the fare?" On a bus or streetcar with a fare-box up front, the blind passenger, upon boarding, may ask questions of the operator about fares or transfers. On commuter trains with conductors who sell and collect tickets or handle cash fares, or at stations where agents handle currency and fare media, the blind person also may ask questions of personnel. Some rapid transit and commuter rail systems have station attendants, while others have telephones at ticket or fare card vending machines. Either way, personnel can assist passengers, blind and sighted alike, on operating these machines and using the fare media.

A blind person, purchasing a ticket at an unattended light rail station, with no Braille or speech on the vending machine and no telephone to call for assistance, can look for a passerby or fellow passenger to help, or otherwise board the train without a ticket and try to convince the fare inspector or police officer of the circumstance. Moreover, a blind person, riding a light rail train for the first time, might not know about ticket vending machines and thus would anticipate buying a ticket from a conductor on board, as on a commuter train.

The transit industry cannot consider assistance from the sighted public the primary method of information access to blind passengers using automatic fare collection equipment. In the interest of common sense, as well as ADA compliance, transit systems must give blind passengers a way to pay fares independently. Some light rail and rapid transit systems have placed detailed Braille fare instructions on ticket or fare card vending machines. Writing these instructions on a panel of the machine poses the potential problem of giving outdated information unless the transit property updates the machines' hardware by physically changing the Braille information when fares change.

Depending on the variety of transactions that the fare structure offers, a blind person still may need assistance from a sighted person because, to date, these machines have had no synthetic speech. They give audible confirmation only by their mechanical operation, as they accept or reject currency and issue tickets. CTA's Transit Card program includes vending machines with Braille instructions and speech on demand for a particular transaction. This compromise keeps the machine from announcing every fare transaction, a particularly important security consideration for a passenger who may purchase a Transit Card with a large dollar amount in an inner-city station.

Light Rail Operation

Light rail offers an infinite variety of service possibilities between traditional streetcar and rapid transit or commuter rail. Boarding light rail cars in surface transportation resembles boarding buses, while boarding them on private right-of-way resembles boarding trains. In any event, all rail systems have certain common features.

A primary difference between the older style of streetcar service and modern light rail relates to boarding the car. The blind passenger, who usually boards the bus or streetcar, where the operator opens the front doors, as well as the rapid transit or commuter train, on which all doors open, might feel daunted at the prospect of locating buttons on the outside of cars to open doors. The transit system could alleviate this situation by having light rail train cabs equipped with door controls which the operator could use if a passenger, blind or sighted, has difficulty opening the doors from outside the car. When doors do not open, passengers obviously do not step off the car, and the boarding blind passenger does not have these sound cues. In this instance, a subtle auditory cue might assist blind people while benefiting other passengers as well. Perhaps the same circuit that enables passengers to press the button and open doors could activate a soft bell or tone, located at the car door.

Alternatively, outdoor speakers mounted near doors similar to those on several systems' cars might serve a dual purpose. While alerting passengers to the location of doors, outdoor speakers can facilitate announcements of train direction and destination to waiting passengers at platforms where several routes stop or on outlying single track sections on which trains travel in either direction.

Linear Path

In the context of accessible design, transit planners have expressed the concern about incorporating clear, linear paths along platforms and through rail stations. A common sense design and approach benefits all passengers. As such, primary travel paths should have as few turns as possible, allowing passengers to move efficiently and directly between essential elements of stations. Whenever possible, these travel paths should run parallel with or perpendicular to major rights-of-way, streets, or tracks and platforms. For example, passengers can enter and exit stations and maintain their orientation more easily when fare controls--gates and/or turnstiles--face parallel with the direction of rail travel through stations. Clear, direct travel paths facilitate efficient passenger circulation across or perpendicular to the direction of travel in several situations: subway mezzanines, between entrances on or adjacent to sidewalks at street level, platforms beneath the street, concourses serving several platforms at major terminals, and grade crossings at light rail stops or commuter train stations. The most efficient linear Paths along platforms depend upon station characteristics such as platform width and placement of support pillars, fixtures, and facilities of level change.

Transit Information

A telephone call to transit information, while important to anyone needing directions, becomes particularly important to blind passengers. When giving directions, transit information generally would advise a sighted person to observe the signs. A blind person, therefore, may ask for more specific information regarding services and facilities: location of bus stops with relation to intersecting streets, location and layout of light rail stops, and location of entrances and platforms of elevated or subway stations. In many systems, transit information operators have extensive personal experience with their routes and service areas, along with detailed schedules and maps. In some systems, transit information operators may refer blind callers asking detailed questions to staff who can give such information. For example, the Travel Information Center in Chicago sometimes refers blind callers with detailed questions to CTA Customer Assistance. As part of a multifaceted travel training program, WMATA has established Mobility Link, a hotline which blind persons and others with disabilities can use to receive directions more detailed than those available through Transit Information.


Blind people can provide the best solutions for their travel needs. The transit industry should take advantage of this valuable resource. With imagination and a positive attitude about blindness, we can make rail and other modes of transit viable, safe, and effective for blind people. The author's experience is by no means unique. Thousands of blind people throughout the country travel safely and confidently by mass transit every day. They are self-sufficient and independent and lead active, productive lives and consider mass transit the blind person's car. Let's get in and go for a drive!

Mr. Hastalis, who has been blind since birth, is Customer Assistance Representative at the Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago, IL.
COPYRIGHT 1997 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration
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Title Annotation:Orientation and Mobility for Blind People
Author:Hastalis, Steven
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Previous Article:Technology as a support system for orientation and mobility.
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