For years, VIA Metropolitan Transit has been considering ways to share information such as scheduled bus stops and detours with blind and visually impaired riders.  

Five years ago, the agency contemplated attaching messaging in Braille on each bus stop sign. But VIA officials quickly realized physical Braille restricted the messaging to static information and riders could not receive real-time updates on when the next bus would arrive. Three years ago, VIA considered “beacon” technology that would rely on location to discover nearby phones and broadcast information that way. Now, the transit agency has identified a new program that it hopes will transform the way visually impaired people ride the bus.

VIA will embark on a six-month pilot program using an app from Spain-based company NaviLens, which uses QR code-style technology to help visually impaired people navigate cities and transit systems. But unlike the traditional QR codes that require users to focus their phone cameras squarely on the code, something that would be nearly impossible for visually impaired people, NaviLens allows the codes to be read at various angles and distances, even if the image is unfocused.

The signs are colorful squares that can be “read” by phone cameras through the NaviLens app. The signs can be deciphered by the app from long distances and at angles up to 160 degrees, meaning the camera does not have to be pointed straight at each sign for users to get the encoded information. Martha Flores, accessibility and ADA manager at VIA, demonstrated the app at a committee meeting on March 11.

“Here we have a sign that was posted inside a bus in Berlin, Germany,” she said. “The message, as you can see, is not in English.”

After aiming her phone camera at the NaviLens code, the app began reading the German words in English: “Four feet away. Help stop the spread of the coronavirus. One. Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds.”

A slide from VIA’s presentation includes an example of a NaviLens code that aids the visually impaired receive real time transportation and route information. Credit: Courtesy / VIA

Not only would the app allow VIA to share updated bus route information with visually impaired riders, but the agency could add more information within the NaviLens code such as public health messaging and detour updates, Flores said. App users can also be told how far away a sign is from them.

VIA board Trustee Athalie Malone, who is blind, said she was thrilled with the pilot program. The NaviLens technology gave VIA riders like her much more flexibility in their transportation choices, she said. Though VIA riders with disabilities qualify for the agency’s VIATrans service, that service requires users to schedule pick-up and drop-off times in advance.

“Without something like this, you have to plan your trip,” she said. “So I can go from here to downtown, and then if something comes up, like somebody calls me, ‘Hey we’re at this place, and this is going on’ and I want to go, I have to try and figure out a way to get there because I don’t have anything. NaviLens now will [tell me] what bus I need to take to get out there … so it gives me more freedom.”

Out of the 16,396 registered VIATrans riders in 2020, 2,769 reported visual impairment, according to VIA. The number of visually impaired riders could be larger, because some choose not to use VIATrans. But because the NaviLens technology has the capability of reading encoded information in 33 different languages, that gives NaviLens a broader user base, Malone pointed out.

“NaviLens will probably end up being the main thing once it takes off from the looks of it, for everyone … whatever language your phone uses, that’s what it will give you,” she said. “Tourists, anybody can use it and it will be much easier for them to get around. Instead of having to ask somebody, you now have an app that speaks your language.”

The pilot program will cost VIA $8,950 to post and use NaviLens signs at 100 bus stops, VIA Metropolitan Transit CEO and President Jeff Arndt said. To start, VIA will partner with Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit that provides rehabilitation and employment opportunities for visually impaired workers. People from Lighthouse will test the system for six months. VIA will then gather data from the test run and interview Lighthouse employees about their experience before deciding how to proceed. 

The ultimate goal is to post NaviLens signs at all 7,000-plus VIA bus stops around Bexar County, Arndt said.

NaviLens has been rolled out in London and Barcelona, Spain. The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority also installed NaviLens signs in one of its subway stations as part of an accessibility pilot program that ended in January.

VIA must still finalize partnership details with Lighthouse for the Blind, Arndt said. He said the pilot program is scheduled to begin sometime in spring 2021.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.