Imagine downloading an app and having it not work. You read the flowery app store copy, you watch the glossy video, but when the app is finally installed, you can’t even use it. There’s nothing technically wrong with it of course — except that the developers didn’t consider your use case.
Maybe your vision isn’t perfect. Or you have a mobility issue the app doesn’t support. Perhaps, when you’re creating a user profile, your preferred gender/orientation options don’t show up. The app might even be nominally usable, but the obstacles you encounter prevent you from having an enjoyable experience.
Making sure your products are usable by different cross-sections of people should be an obvious priority when building your app.
At Transit, we have to consider all sorts of use cases. Especially ones that determine whether or not someone can access public transit in the first place.
This spring, we added wheelchair accessibility information for more than 90 Transit-supported agency feeds. In the settings, you can toggle wheelchair info for your stop and your vehicle.
Here’s how we did it, and what we’re doing next to make Transit even better for people using wheelchairs.
Step 1: Getting Out of Our Bubble
When you have a small team, you can’t always rely on “first-hand experience” to make improvements. Developers at Transit are responsible for millions of users — so user emails are an important source of feedback. Since the early days of Transit, we’ve been in regular contact with our visually-impaired riders. They’ve helped us spot bugs and improve the experience on Talkback (for Android devices) and VoiceOver (iOS). Fun fact: more than 2% of users have Talkback or VoiceOver enabled! They’re a big part of the Transit family.
Sadly, it’s been much easier to make Transit accessible for people with vision issues than mobility ones. The Talkback and VoiceOver platforms make it easy for developers to translate “button and text” interfaces into something that can be navigated via speech. But how do you add information for wheelchair accessibility when those platforms don’t exist — or when the data set is extremely limited?
Step 2: Finding a Partner
The data format that powers the Transit platform (GTFS) actually does have space to include wheelchair accessibility details. However, only a fraction of agencies bother to populate that field with accessibility info. In our biggest market, New York City, the MTA was one of those holdout agencies — leaving Transit users in the dark about which subway stations have elevators and which do not.
So we reached out to our friends at TransitCenter, an organization that advocates for transit reform across the United States. Beyond just advocating, TransitCenter does a lot of actual doing too. For one: they created a draft of NYC subway wheelchair accessibility data for GTFS, as part of a broader initiative called Access Denied.
We took TransitCenter’s data, refined it, shared it back with them, and added it to Transit. Now Transit is one of the first apps with wheelchair info for the MTA. We’ve been quietly adding wheelchair accessibility options in cities where the data is available, but now with New York—we have wheelchair data for our biggest.
Step 3: Inclusive Design
After our developers added wheelchair data to Transit’s backend, it was time for our design team to put it front and centre. The first step was choosing an icon to represent our new wheelchair accessibility info: instead of using the antiquated “passive” wheelchair user, we use the new international standard, with the wheelchair icon in a more active position.
Then, using the data we have on hand (from the agency GTFS, TransitCenter, or our own efforts) we add the wheelchair icon to represent three different data states:
Accessible: This means the vehicle and/or stop is accessible. Any time you check an upcoming departure on our home screen, we’ll tell you if your stop (i.e. Bowling Green) is accessible, and whether the particular trip (4:54 PM departure) is accessible. Same goes for departures in our schedule view, and for stops in our route map. A solid wheelchair symbol means all systems go: you’ll be able to board with a wheelchair.
No data: There are certain circumstances where we still won’t have data. Until our wheelchair data covers 100% of trips and stations, we’ll append a “question mark” to the wheelchair icon. These departures and stations may or may not be accessible. Which, as a wheelchair user, is super annoying, but will let you plan around uncertainty.
Inaccessible: The disappointing scenario. If a departure or station isn’t accessible, we’ll put a strikethru in the wheelchair icon so you don’t waste your time with it.
Step 4: Planning for the Future
For now, GTFS only has static wheelchair data. But what if an elevator at a station breaks, or if a wheelchair ramp goes out of service?
There’s lots more in store for our accessibility-minded riders. In the future, we want to update the data as soon as a trip or station becomes inaccessible, so you won’t be duped into showing up for a trip you can’t take.
We’re now part of a team that’s working to add real-time wheelchair info to GTFS-RT — the most widely-used real-time data format. That way, if a bus wheelchair ramp breaks down, wheelchair users will know about it in advance. We’re also working with a group on another project, pathways.txt, to help you find step-free routes to get around within a station.
We’re thrilled that TransitCenter has helped us add wheelchair data for NYC subways — the cherry on top of our other 90+ wheelchair-friendly feeds. But this is just the start for our accessibility initiatives. We’ll soon be adding wheelchair info to our trip planner, to help route you around inaccessible trips and stations.
We’re also stepping up our accessibility outreach, and have started promoting a new support email (email@example.com) to help solicit feedback on Transit’s accessibility.
We’re also seeking out accessibility-minded teammates (we’re hiring!) and forging deeper partnerships with advocacy organizations. We’re confident that our community of riders will help us build the world’s easiest tool for getting around — regardless of city, or mobility status.