Metro Transit riders with visual impairments now have free access to "remote eyes" to help them find their way under a new six-month pilot in which a live agent can guide them through their trip.
Call it a video travel buddy for people who are blind, said Ken Rodgers, who has used the Aira app while shopping at Target, patronizing Starbucks and traveling through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
"There are times in our travels that you get disoriented or don't know which direction is left, right, up or down," he said. "Sometimes you need a quick pair of eyes to give a frame of reference."
Aira is a subscription service for which "explorers," as customers are called, pay a fee to access a live operator who watches a video stream from the user's cellphone camera. Through a video chat, the agent can help them read schedules and bus destination signs, direct them to the proper bus stop or complete a transfer, and route them around construction while providing a description of what's in the camera's field of vision.
Through Dec. 7, Metro Transit is paying a $25,000 fee to the company to allow train and bus riders to use the service at no cost.
"Wayfinding is a known customer complaint for those who are blind or have low vision," said Bre Grand, a Metro Transit project manager. Offering the service for free "is part of the commitment we have to improve accessibility for customers."
About 10% of Metro Transit riders have a disability, but it is not known how many have visual impairments, she said.
Transit operators can provide verbal assistance over the phone, but can't video chat. "They are not able to know what the live conditions on-street are," Grand said.
Rodgers, who serves on Metro Transit's Transportation Accessibility Advisory Committee, said Aira has been a game changer. After losing his sight as an adult, he had to relearn how to get around. Sometimes he had to have a person who could see escort him to his destination. Other times, he missed his bus simply because he didn't know it was there. With Aira, it's like he can see again, he said.
"Every bus in the world stops on Nicollet Mall and figuring out which bus to get on is impossible," said Rodgers, who commutes from his home in northeast Minneapolis to his job with the state in St. Paul. "I would put out my cane and get as close to the bus and wait for them to call out the bus number, but you'd still miss it and would not know it. That is a common occurrence for blind people."
With Aira, a voice can direct him to the proper bus. It has restored his confidence to travel and remain safe, he said.
"We have somebody guiding us but not physically standing next to us," Rodgers said. "That opens up travel for a whole bunch of people who may not feel comfortable in doing that."
Metro Transit riders will have unlimited use during the pilot. To access the app and avoid fees, riders can click on the "Product" section of the app and select Metro Transit from the list. That will allow them to connect with an agent.
The service is available 24 hours a day, "not just when at a bus stop or on a bus," Grand said. "It's from front door to final destination."
Grand said Metro Transit will gather data on usage, seek feedback from focus groups and conduct a broad electronic survey to gauge whether to continue the free service when the contract expires.
Rodgers said he hopes it remains permanent.
"This is a valuable and much needed service," he said.
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768