UW News

January 27, 2021

$11.45 million federal grant will develop transit, mobility tech for underserved groups

pink sign with person in wheelchair and words 'Step free Route'

As part of the Transportation Data Equity Initiative, the UW is developing technology that will allow underserved groups to use mobility applications to get from place to place.

For many, moving around is easier thanks to technology. Tools like Google Directions and OneBusAway give up-to-date travel and transit information, making unplanned, serendipitous travel seamless and convenient.

But not everybody has benefitted. Mobility applications focus on efficiency and finding the shortest paths, leaving out information critical to people with disabilities, older adults and anybody needing more support.

Now, the University of Washington is leading a team working toward a solution. Two UW centers, together with Microsoft, Google, Washington Department of Transportation and other public and private partners, are collaborating on the Transportation Data Equity Initiative.

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the project $11.45 million in January as part of a program focused on promoting independent mobility for all.

“Transportation and mobility play key roles in the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunity. Affordable and reliable transportation allows people access to important opportunities in education, employment, health care, housing and community life,” said project lead Anat Caspi, director of the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, part of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the UW.

“Our goal is to translate the UW’s accessible technology research and data science products into real-world use, building technology foundations for good and avoiding repetition of exclusion patterns of the past or creation of new travel barriers to individuals.”

Three demonstration applications will be built as part of the UW-led initiative, addressing the challenges of underserved populations and showing how the data can be used. The Taskar Center’s Multimodal AccessMap app will facilitate A-to-B trip planning for people with mobility limitations. The Soundscape app, developed by Microsoft, will enable spontaneous travel for people who are blind and visually impaired. 3-D Digital Twin, developed by San Francisco video game company Unity Technologies, will be a 3-D virtual reality simulation tool that will allow older adults and multilingual travelers to explore, assess and visualize a trip. The applications will be deployed in 2022 in six counties in Washington, Maryland and Oregon.

Initiative co-leader Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the UW, got excited four years ago when he first learned about the Taskar Center’s OpenSidewalks project — a core component for the initiative — which creates a data standard and data pipeline to describe the pedestrian environment. This fills an information gap for individuals, cities and transit agencies.

“We don’t know how many people walk, or where they walk, or what paths work for them. We don’t know how far they have to walk to get places,” Hallenbeck said. “If you can’t measure any of that, how can you make those conditions better?”

Inadequate information makes it harder for those underserved by current mobility applications to fully participate in life. They might need to know if sidewalks are available, if traffic-lights have auditory cues or how steep a hill is. They might need more information about transit stations, including the layout, or the status of specific infrastructure features, like elevators. On-demand transit services, like paratransit or community shuttles, do not currently publish routes and schedules in data streams for mobility apps, although these services are critical to how some people with disabilities, veterans, rural and Native American populations, and others get from place to place.

The Taskar Center conducted a pilot study with participants who have mobility limitations. It asked them to plan a two-block trip in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Using Google Directions and Google StreetView, participants reported that it took between 90 seconds and nine minutes to plan their trips. They spent up to four hours planning a single trip with other tools, such as Google Earth.

To address the information needs, the team will develop consistent data standards related to the pedestrian environment, transportation stations and hubs, and on-demand transit services, such as paratransit and rural community shuttles. The team will then publish and maintain APIs and data tools that will support apps consuming the data.

Community input and participatory design is central. The team invites travelers with accessibility concerns and professionals working in transportation departments, land-use planning and human service departments to take part.

The team hopes these data pipelines will have uses beyond the development of these apps, including addressing needs for pedestrians of all abilities, data-driven city and transportation planning, and future innovations, like robot delivery.

“Developing and deploying these tools, and their use of accurate, detailed information about pedestrian spaces, travel environments and travel services, is a critical challenge if we are to steward healthy, inclusive, and resilient cities around the globe,” Caspi said.

For more information, including how to get involved, go to https://transitequity.cs.washington.edu/. You can contact Caspi at caspian@cs.washington.edu and Hallenbeck at tracmark@uw.edu.