CMU improves transport for the disabled

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and SUNY Buffalo (UB) are combining information systems technology with design to bring about better public transportation for the disabled. Led by co-directors Aaron Steinfeld, a systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, and his father, Edward Steinfeld, an architecture professor and head of UB’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA), this five-year project will help in identifying transportation problems, creating new solutions, and utilizing the public to raise awareness of any issues regarding the transportation system. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research has granted this project $4.7 million.

Also a major part of the project is the establishment of a new Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Accessible Public Transportation. As stated on, the mission of this center is to “develop ways to empower consumers and transit service providers in the design and evaluation of accessible transportation equipment, information services and physical environments.” This center is the collaborative effort of the IDEA center at UB and Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. As described on its website, the IDEA center focuses on improving the design of products and the environment to make it “more usable, safer and appealing to people,” especially people with disabilities.

Aaron Steinfeld is working on the part of the project that will help the transit industry to identify and deal with accessibility issues. The planned final part of the project will be the launch of a website where riders of buses can report any problems they encounter.
“From the systems level perspective, it is very hard to know where all these problems are and keep track of where they are. We are going to be looking at using information technology to make it easier for people to identify and keep track of all the different problems that may be occurring in a transit environment,” Steinfeld said. “It is really difficult to do an accessibility assessment for an entire transit system and maintain that over time. [We want to] develop this kind of collaborative environment where the riders are identifying problems and the agencies are finding out where the problems are occurring.”
Steinfeld and other teams will be working on trying to make transportation as accessible as possible to the disabled, both in interior design and for boarding and disembarking. “Many of the design requirements for those particular processes are based on either educated guesses or knowledge from the architectural guidelines,” he said.

“They are not really specialized to the question of transit vehicles, so we’re trying to fill that gap and collect real evidence on how to improve the physical accessibility of getting in and out of a vehicle and moving around a vehicle.”
Other associates that are part of this project include the Gilleg Corp., a California-based bus company and the United Spinal Association, an organization dedicated to helping paralyzed Americans and furthering research for spinal problems. The Quality of Life Technologies Engineering Research Center at Carnegie Mellon and Grimshaw Architects are also associated partners and centers.
The research Steinfeld and his teams are doing can improve the lives of people nationwide. “If we’re able to validate this website approach, we do envision [nationwide use of the designs as] something we could then transfer out to actual practice. For the bus modifications, a major focus is to develop new standards and new design tools to make it more likely that new designs could incorporate the findings.”

This new technology will be initially used for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) and the Port Authority of Allegheny County, both of which will work on the project. One important concept they will be working on is improving the ease of access and design of bus entryways. When the designs are ready to be implemented into a prototype, Gillig Corp., a bus manufacturer, will provide the buses to try out the new designs. This prototype will then be used by the NTFA for commercial testing.
“We expect this partnership to make a significant impact on the usability of public transportation for all riders. We will be completing research that is extremely timely and needed by the industry,” said co-director Edward Steinfeld, who is working on improving vehicle interiors, in an official press release from the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute.

“We have business partners, including manufacturers and consumer advocacy organizations, that will help to implement research findings and disseminate information that directly improve transportation services, vehicles, and facilities.”