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Research Report: Studying the Accessibility of the Bangalore Bus System for the Blind

I recently prepared a research report on our progress on the BMTC project so far. Sharing here.

Project Objective
To understand the accessibility issues faced by the blind while using the city bus system in Bangalore.

Research Overview 
As part of our research, we interviewed 4 blind people. We shadowed 5 blind people on different occasions. We have also interacted with the National Association for the Blind, Bangalore Office who facilitated some of these interviews. We also accompanied a group of blind people on a visit which was a part of their mobility training workshop.

Key Insights 
1.   Olfactory, Kinaesthetic and Audio Landmarks 

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This reliance on other senses for landmarks came up in many interviews and observations and though not directly related to the bus system, this has been the single biggest revelation to us from this project. When we started this project we could not imagine that the blind had a concept of landmarks.

 2. Biggest Problem: Busses do not stop exactly at the bus stop 
The two most difficult parts of the bus journey, as we understand today, are getting on to the right bus and getting off from the bus. These are particularly tough because busses do not stop exactly at the bus stop.

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On busy routes, there are multiple busses pulling up at the bus stop at any given time. While one bus pulls up right next to the bus stop, the others often stop short of, ahead of or away from the bus stop. For the blind this is probably the biggest pain point.
Getting On: The way blind people get onto the right bus here in Bangalore, is by waiting to hear a bus to pull up at the bus stop and then asking someone on the bus or someone at the bus stop if it will take them to their destination. When the bus pulls up ahead of or before the bus stop, the blind person, even if he/she realizes that the bus has reached, does not have enough time to reach it before it moves away. A bigger challenge is when the bus is away from the bus stop, it is not safe for them to try and reach the bus because there is often traffic in between the bus stop and the bus.
Getting off: As soon as a blind person gets off the bus, he needs to orient himself by finding a landmark whose location he is familiar with before he makes his way to the destination. If the bus does not stop at the bus stop, the blind person has a lot of trouble getting oriented to understand where he/ she is before they can move towards their destination. “Sometimes I end up spending 10-15 minutes just trying to find my orientation”. A particularly dangerous situation is when the person gets off from the bus when it has stopped away from the bus stop. An interviewee, when asked about a bad experience with the bus system, described a situation in which he unknowingly got off between two busses and they both started moving simultaneously.

 3.  Other Observations
a.  Social Reliance: There is a lot of reliance on people around them for getting around in an unfamiliar area, finding out which bus to take, on co-passengers to let them know when they have reached their destination etc.
b.  Braille signs do not work: Some cities have experimented with Braille timetables at bus stops. We found out that the blind are unwilling to touch any Braille signs at public places because they might be covered with spit stains from people who chew betel-nuts. 
c.  Low hanging branches and eye- level billboards: Since the blind use their stick to find their way around, they are unable to detect things which are at a certain height above the ground. I once saw a blind person bang his head into a low hanging tree branch at the Bangalore bus stand. 

Current Status and Future Direction
The project is still in the research phase. Based on what we know at this stage we are thinking of creating videos to sensitize bus drivers and conductors to the needs of the blind. We are also thinking about how we can use auditory, olfactory and kinaesthetic landmarks to give directions to the blind.I am using my blog to put all of the findings from our study in the open domain. (http://lukwhostalking.com/tag/blind)

[Credits: Arun Martin, Anupriya Gupta and Ishan Bhalla]

 

BMTC Bus Usage by the Blind: Mapping the User Journey

So there’s been quite a bit of development on the BMTC (Bangalore’s Intracity Bus System) project we’re doing for the improving accessibility for the visually challenged. First up we have been joined by a colleague and a friend, Anupriya. Another colleague has shown interest in the work and might start working with us soon. We spent some time observing, interviewing and interacting with people at the National Association for the Blind at Bangalore. We had a few discussions about the project at the (famous CDG) coffee table and came up with some very interesting ideas. I’ll share all of these in due course of time.

Today we had a meta level discussion about where this project was headed and decided on a way to prioritize our learnings and ideas. We started with discussing what our aim was with this project.

Aim:

To improve the accessibility of the BMTC system for the visually challenged.
Next we mapped the user journey in using a BMTC bus and the various problems that might come up at each stage.

User Journey

1.      Reaching the Bus Stop

a.       If he knows where the bus stop is, how does he find his way to the place?

b.       If he doesn’t, ie if he is travelling from an unfamiliar location in the city, how does he find out where the appropriate bus stop is?

2.      Route Number

a.       Now having reached the stop, what if the user doesn’t know the route number of the bus that’ll take him to a particular location, how does he find it out?

b.       What if he knows only one of more than one route numbers that go to his desired destination? How does he find out? (also how can we help him find out)

3.      Bus Arrival

a.       How does he know that the bus he is waiting for has come?

b.       How does he know where the bus is with reference to his present location?

c.       Another point here is that the blind have free travel on all busses except Volvos, so how does he know if the bus that has stopped in front of him is a Volvo or some other bus?

4.      Getting on the Bus

a.       Locating the Door: There are various bus types in Bangalore. All of them don’t have the doors in the same place. How does a visually challenged user find the door?

b.       Locating the rails

c.       Finding a place to stand/sit

5.      Buying a Ticket

a.       Might happen on a Volvo

b.       On other busses it might be showing the conductor a pass or a certificate of some sort.

6.      Getting a Seat

a.       How does he know which seat is free?

b.       What if a seat becomes empty after a while, how does he find out?

7.      Bus Journey

a.       Sudden Braking: My brother and I had this experience recently, that we were stand up front and the guy jammed the break suddenly. We were both hurled forward suddenly but managed to grab onto a support bar and avoid banging straight into the windshield. What happens for a blind person? They probably won’t even be able to make out where the support bars are. This is a problem particularly with the new Volvo and Marcopolo busses because they travel at high speeds and have very powerful brakes.

b.       Closing a window if it starts to rain.

8.      Preparing to get down

a.       How does he know that he is close to his destination?

b.       How does he find the door?

c.       How does he navigate in case the bus is crowded?

9.      Getting Down

a.       How does he know where he has got down with respect to the bus stop? A lot of times the busses stop ahead or short of the bus stop.

b.       What happens when the driver stops in the middle of the road instead of at the edge near the stop? How does he navigate? This was a problem that was pointed out by one of our interview subjects. He spoke of a time when he disembarked and suddenly found that traffic on both sides of him was moving.

c.       What if he gets down at the wrong stop? How does he reach the right place? We imagine this would be especially difficult when he gets off ahead of his destination and then has to catch a bus backward. In this case he would have to cross the road and find a bus stop on the other side.

10. Reaching destination from stop

a.       How does the he get to his destination from the bus stop?

We understand that today a lot of these steps are carried out with the help of the general public. The point of mapping out this user journey is to get a holistic understanding of the users’ present way of navigating and the pain points. We wish to understand the difficulty and criticality of each step so we can focus our ideation effort at the right places.

That’s all for now. I will be posting an update on our research findings soon.

BMTC Usage by the Visually Challenged(Blind)

Further research on the BMTC project led us to observing how visually challenged people navigate in the bus stand and generally use the bus system in Bangalore.

#1. Navigating the Bus Stand

I watched 2 blind people trying to find their way to their busses at the bus stand and started to follow them. Since they were together, one of them was leading the way while the other held onto him and followed. I’ll be calling them leader and follower for the rest of this post. Some of my observations are listed below:

1.       The leader relied on his stick for navigation.

2.       He bumped his head on a tree branch. This was probably because it wasn’t apparent at the level of his stick which was closer to the ground.

3.       For going from one platform to another, they used the over bridge. This was interesting as I never thought people would use the over bridge to do this. The blind obviously do this as it is a better alternative than crossing the road because busses keep coming in at reasonable speeds on the roads inside the bus stand.

4.       The way to the overbridge is sloping. He knew where the overbridge entrance was able detect once he got onto it as he immediately started searching for the railings on the side.

5.       While walking next to the railing, he held onto the railing and kept tapping his stick on the ground once and then to the side on the wall below the railing on his way up.

6.       The sloping walkway turns around on the way up, he was able to detect this with his stick before his hand reached the turn on the railing. This is because his walking stick was quite long. After tapping it on the ground, when he tried tapping it on the left (to the wall below the railing), it didn’t hit anything. This made him slow down a bit; once he turned, he picked up speed again.

7.       While walking on the overbridge, he was walking away from the railing there.

8.       He seemed a lot less confident navigating in the middle of the walkway than he was on the side, near the railing. This seems obvious after I observed it.

9.       He seemed to be walking quite straight, I imagine this is a learned skill cuz if I was to walk blind folded, I’d probably deviate to the left or right.

10.   After walking a certain distance, the leader came closer to the edge on the left side and started his routine of tapping floor-sidewall, floor-sidewall.

11.   This routine helped him detect the exit to the next platform.

12.   He skipped the first exit and kept walking ahead.

13.   As he went further, he bumped into a couple of people standing next to the sidewall who did not see him coming.

14.   Continuing his floor-sidewall routine, he detected the next exit and led the both of them down it.

15.   Again as he walked down, he stayed next to the railing and continued his floor-sidewall routine.

16.   Once they reaced the bottom after navigating another turn in the way down as before, both of them parted ways.

17.   The leader got off the platform right at the begining. He seemed to know that the bus he wanted would come to that platform.

18.   The bus was standing at the time, though how he found that it was there is a mystery, since the engine was off.

19.   Now he navigated to the door, confirmed with some passengers on board if this was the right bus and then got on and found a seat.

20.   The follower though, seemed to be struggling a bit as I found him still trying to get to his bus.

21.   He got off the platform once, detecting the edge of the platform with his stick, checked if the bus standing there was the one he wanted; it wasn’t.

22.   At this point a lady asked him where he wanted to go and guided him to the right bus on the next platform.

This was a very interesting observation session packed with a lot of data. Now that I think about it, I feel like a fool for not video recording this. My assumption is that the leader was very familliar with the bus stand since he knew where the overbridge was and once he was on it found his way to the appropriate exit and the right bus thereon.

#2. Trying to board a bus at a traffic signal in the city.

On my way back from office one day, I got off midway to change a bus. This was at a traffic signal. Here I found a blind person trying to find a bus to take him to Banshankari (a place in Bangalore)

Below are my observations:

1.       He stood by the side of the road and waited for (I assume) the traffic in front of him to stop. Once it did, he seemed to assume that a bus is in front of him.

2.       He moved forward and asked if this bus would go to Banshankari. Not getting a response, he moved backward and continued to wait.

3.       The reason he didn’t get a response was that the vehicle that had stopped was a truck and he was facing the rear tyre of it.

4.       Now again the traffic started to move.

At this point I found a Volvo bus going to my house, and those who know me, know how much I love these busses and how hard they are for me to resist. So I started to run towards the bus. As I ran, I started to feel guilty about leaving the poor guy to fend for himself. So I turned around and went back to help him. Ladies, If you’ve managed to read this far, you realize what a nice guy I am, and yes I am single and looking ;).

5.       Getting back to the point. I reached him and asked him where he wanted to go. Then I told him that the bus stop was a little distance away in the backward direction and he said no this whole area is a bus stop. He probably didn’t realize that it was a traffic signal.

6.       So I led him to the bus stop by making him hold my arm and moving forward. This, I had read in a publication by the National Association for the Blind is the more appropriate way to lead instead of taking them by hand. (I will try and post their list and the reasons soon)

7.       I asked him which bus would take him where he wanted to go and he knew the number.

8.       Luckily, the bus came in a short while and I got him onto the bus.

This ended my observation session. But then I was thinking, how does he or any visually challenged person know when the bus reaches their bus stop? My guess is that they rely on the folks next to them to tell them. The great thing about Bangalore busses now is that they have started to have an automated announcement in the bus about what the next stop is. I hope it spreads to all the busses.

Idea

An idea I had while watching the guy talk to the rear of the truck was that busses could have a beeper near the door of the bus which starts beeping when the door opens at a stop indicating to blind people that “I am a bus and this is my door”

Anyway, signing off now. This is turning out to be quite an interesting project. We plan to contact the National Association for the Blind soon.

Questions of a commuter at a Bus Stand

What are the questions that a commuter has at a intra city bus stand? How can we answer these questions through an information system?

This post documents the results from our brainstorming session on the first question after our research at the BMTC bus stand. We made a list of all the questions we were familiar with in this situation. These are not results from user observation yet.

How do I get to JP Nagar? – The commuter has a destination in mind but doesn’t know the bus number or the platform.

From where can I get bus no 356N? – The commuter has a bus number in mind, and also presumably the destination but doesn’t know the platform number.

Where is platform number 21? – The commuter knows the platform, presumably knows the destination, may or may not know the bus number. He wants to now reach the platform but doesn’t know where it is.

Does this bus go to Forum? – The commuter checks with someone on the bus/bus stop if this bus will take him to where he wants to go. 2 cases that I can think of when this can happen are, one the user is at the platform that’ll take him to his destination but is not sure of the busses that’ll take him there, two, he is trying his luck with a bus in front of him.

Can I get a Volvo for this route? – This is one question I ask a lot. The Volvo busses in Bangalore are brilliant! I try to get one as much as possible.

What is the frequency of bus no 392? This is a question I used to hear a lot back in Bombay, don’t remember hearing it in Bangalore. Any ideas or interesting explanations as to why?

When will the next 392 come? Tough to answer but yeah, I remember asking this at Bombay. Whether a commuter asks this question or not, it will be one he thinks about.

 

Some others not exactly related to the task of taking a bus:

Where can I get a bus pass from?

Where is the toilet? J 

 

What else are we missing? Again, the context here is of a commuter at an intra city (not intercity) bus stand.