Societal interfaces

XIV.5 September + October 2007
Page: 33
Digital Citation

Making public transport information accessible through ICT

Peter Raemy, Robert Ruprecht

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Mass transportation has grown over the past few decades. Commuting by public transport is a phenomenon that seems to be spreading daily. In this context of travel, information has improved a lot. While there are fewer people physically present to produce information for lost travelers, there is much more information provided—even on bus stops and inside cars—than there was only a few years ago.

In train stations, travelers are informed orally and optically; visually disabled people are guided by thick lines to their point of destination, and railings are marked with Braille dots to tell them whether they are on the right platform. Still, this is not enough. People with sight or hearing impairments, who are potentially autonomous travellers, still do not have the same access to travelling information as nondisabled people.

In Switzerland the law on the rights of disabled people states that by 2013 all people should have the same access to travelling information. The European Union also has set up guidelines on equal rights. In Switzerland alone, the group in question numbers at least 130,000 people. This seems a rather small number that makes an industrial approach almost impossible. But the number looks a lot larger when we scale it up on the European level, where it could be no fewer than 44 million individuals/potential users of the information system. This calls for action.

At the Berne University of Applied Sciences, we are targeting a system that covers all sites relevant for travelers: "outside" sites like train stations, city transportation stops, and airports; and "inside" sites like train cars, buses, and airplanes. At all these places information should be accessible to people who can not read timetables (because they are sitting in a wheelchair), understand acoustic information (because their hearing is disabled), or read tall billboards (because their vision is impaired).

Access to the information must be made easy. In Switzerland about 92 percent of the population uses mobile phones; the worldwide user community of mobile phone users is around 2.5 billion. The development of mobile wireless stations and their ubiquitous use, along with the potential modern mobile phones, mandates a standard for information access: Information for disabled people should also be accessible by their mobile phones.

Having made this decision, there are a lot of other questions to be solved:

How should people access the information?

  • Should they use a special code?
  • Should it be accessible by phone numbers, or one phone number that links people to the nearest station?
  • Should the service be free or paid by the users? (In the latter case, it could be made accessible for everybody, especially if flat rates become standard.)
  • How can users quickly access the information that really concerns them?

How should information be transmitted?

  • What protocol will be applied?

How should the system be operated?

  • Who will care for the upkeep and assure that the information always covers the actual situation?
  • Shall it be a one-way information system, or must dialogue be possible?
  • How shall emergencies be handled?

What should be the outreach of the system?

  • Local and individual solutions cannot really be helpful. Access to information should be as easy as possible, solutions for single transport companies, even large ones, do not make sense. Their actual information standards differ considerably and must be unified, at least under the electronic-information concept. Even national solutions are too small as international travelling becomes less and less exceptional. So we must at least aim for a European standard.

What are the technical implications?

  • What installations must information-transport companies provide?
  • What will be the providers' cost for information and operations, and who will pay for it if only a relatively small group of disabled travelers will use it?
  • To what extent can existing installations be used? Railway stations are built for longtime use: How can they be adapted to an information system that is likely to undergo technical changes every few years?

To give a practical example, at the Berne University of Applied Sciences, a project entering its final stage answers some of the technological questions. It aims at helping blind people orient themselves in a city. The solution contains several elements:

  • Mobile phones (Symbian operating system with Bluetooth interface)
  • GPS receiver
  • DRC (electronic magnetic compass with step counter)
  • Server with geographical information
  • Audio output on the mobile phone

Because GPS is disabled or impossible inside buildings, between high-rising buildings, and in subways, an electronic compass and a step counter are necessary. The GPS positioning is used only in open spaces.

A person's actual position and direction are transmitted to a server containing the geographical information via a GSM/GPRS link. The server then sends back the information about the actual environment and indicates the next steps.

The first tests show promising results.

To come back to the original project, we will first conduct a practical feasibility study over the next months to establish a test bed and then carry out field tests at a railway station. In our second stage, standards must be set within the ETSI (European Telecommunication Standard Institute) concept. The group is already a partner of ETSI.

One of the group's main concerns is the human-interface question: The system should be so user-friendly that everybody can operate it with no problem. Given the existing flood of information about systems of limited scope, like traveler-information systems, it is very important to set user profiles: The user of the system must reach the information relevant for him/her in a very short time. So he must have the possibility to pre-set a profile covering his needs:

  • What language does the user speak? (The system must cover a considerable number of current languages and be adaptable to other ones.)
  • Does the user need oral or visual information?
  • Is he/she a tourist interested in tourist information?
  • Is he/she a commuter only interested in information about unexpected changes?
  • Is he/she a business traveller interested in the fastest connections?

Then, there are the questions about the protocol(s) to be applied. We plan to produce a first draft of standards covering these issues within this year.

back to top  References

* Further Reading

What follows is the original title of the Swiss Federal Act on Equal Rights of Disabled People: Bundesgesetz über die Beseitigung von Benachteilungen von Menschen mit Behinderungen, Behindertengleichstellungsgesetz (BehiG) vom 13. Dezember 2002 (SR 151.3) (last accessed July 11, 2007)

ETSI Work item Technical Committee Human Factors: Making Public Transport Information Accessible through ICT

EUROSTAT. Disability and social participation in Europe, 2001 Edition. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2001.

Lynne, Liz. Draft report on the situation of disabled people in the enlarged European Union: the European Action Plan 2006-2007. (last accessed July 11, 2007)

Reamy, Peter (2005): Study written for the Swiss Federal Office of Transport (FOT), Wireless Transmission of Customer Information in Public Transport with Special Consideration of Passengers with Disabilities. (English version in preparation)

Drahtlose Übermittlung von Kundeninformationen im öffentlichen Verkehr unter besonderer Berüksichtigung von sinnesbehinderten Reisenden

back to top  Authors

Peter Raemy
Berne University of Applied Sciences

Robert Ruprecht
Berne University of Applied Sciences

About the authors

Peter Raemy received his bachelor's degree in telecommunication and university diploma in high energy physics. He is a professor for mobile communication, navigation and analog circuit design at BerneUniversity of Applied Sciences, Technics and Informatics in Biel, Switzerland. He is also a member of the scientific committee in the Swiss National Network for Telecommunication ( and manages the group of excellence in mobile communication.

Robert Ruprecht holds a doctorate and is a professor for communication at Berne University of Applied Sciences, Technics and Informatics in Biel, Switzerland. He has been involved in the development of Swiss Universities of Applied Sciences. He is a member of the board of the two European societies for engineering education, SEFI and IGIP. He has published numerous books and articles on engineering education and linguistics over the past twenty years.

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