A young man arrives early at the bus stop with plenty of time to ride and still get to his new job on time. When the bus arrives, though, he can't board. He uses a wheelchair and the lift is broken.
What now? A later bus? Another stop? How will he keep this job if he can't get there?
This is the type of scenario that Aaron Steinfeld, systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, is working to eliminate. He and his father, Edward Steinfeld — a Carnegie Mellon alumnus and architecture professor at the University at Buffalo — were recently awarded a $4.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
"The fundamental issue is that people with disabilities really need public transit," Aaron explained. "Public transit gives independence and mobility throughout a community. If public transit is not accessible, it drastically shuts off access to work, to social interaction, and the ability to take care of needed things, like grocery shopping, getting to a doctor — everything."
His father was an early pioneer in the fields of accessibility and universal design, and Aaron absorbed his mind-set early.
"I've always grown up around the notion of finding ways to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities," Aaron said.
The Steinfelds' two areas of specialty meet particularly well in the field of public transportation. As part of this RERC project, researchers at Buffalo will be running studies aimed at improving the bus's interior and entryways. Plans are for Gillig, a major bus manufacturer, to build a demonstration vehicle by the end of the project. Other collaborators include the United Spinal Association, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and Port Authority of Allegheny County.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon will develop a website to improve communication between riders and transit agencies. They will examine concepts utilizing machine learning and machine vision.
"With the complexity, size and geographic breadth of public transit, it's very expensive and difficult for an agency to keep track of all the accessibility problems occurring throughout its system, whether they are physical or informational," Aaron explained.
The website will allow riders to input information enabling agencies to quickly identify and resolve problems. In turn, agencies could provide critical information to riders, such as a timely warning about a lift on a specific bus a young man uses to get to work.
As Aaron noted, "That one piece of information is extremely valuable."