Using Tech To Make Transit Accessible For Those Without Smartphones

In the Twin Cities, Boston, New York City and beyond, transit agencies are experimenting with solar-powered e-paper signs and onboard transit signs to provide real-time updates.

A solar-powered e-ink sign providing real-time transit information on Boston's Green Line train. (Photo courtesy MBTA)

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When Paul Mielke gets to the Metro Transit bus stop at the northwest corner of Franklin and Nicollet, a busy intersection surrounded by brick apartment buildings new and old, about half a mile south of downtown Minneapolis, the first thing he looks at is a big yellow sign.

The sign, which is essentially a dual-screen Amazon Kindle mounted on a street pole, is powered by solar energy and feeds real-time schedule information pulled through a cellular modem. It’s one of several initiatives that transit agencies across the nation are working on to help people navigate transit without a smartphone.

“I don’t have to grab my smartphone and look stuff up,” said Mielke. “I wish there were more of them.”

Smartphones have revolutionized how we communicate and plan our trips, and how much transit agencies have to invest in providing transit information. But according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study, about 15% of Americans don’t have one. The study also found that Americans who are making less than $30,000 a year, are 65 and older, or have an education level of high school or less are much less likely to have one.

And for those who do have smartphones, it might not necessarily be able to stay on all day without a recharge.

Making real-time transit information accessible in more places, however, is an expensive and sometimes intrusive endeavor that often requires coordination with other agencies to access existing buried utilities. So agencies in the Twin Cities, Boston, New York City and beyond are experimenting with technology such as e-paper as a way to get around it.

The e-paper signs, which Metro Transit first deployed in 2021 are different — and cheaper to procure — than the full-color displays that they have installed at their rapid bus stops, as well as on stops on Nicollet Mall. The full-color displays, which cost just under $10,000 for the computer and monitor alone, rely on fiber and hardwired electrical connections, as well as an onboard computer and air conditioning, to work.

Riders say the e-paper signs, which cost between $3,500 to $5,000 each, are easier to read because they are high-contrast and don’t produce glare. The solar-powered signs also cycle through maps of different routes that serve the stop every 30 seconds, something the full-colored signs don’t do.

With federal funding, they were able to purchase five of them, along with solar panels to power them. They allocated the signs based on how busy the stops were and whether those stops will be upgraded for the region’s growing rapid bus network in the next two years.

“We obviously want to put these things where people are going to see them and use them,” says Metro Transit Manager of Transit Information Jacob Brown.

Four are installed in Minneapolis, two near the University of Minnesota’s eastern part of campus, and two along Franklin Avenue just south of Downtown Minneapolis. A fifth sign is installed at a rapid bus stop in St. Paul to replace a real-time information pylon that was destroyed in a car crash so the agency can evaluate whether or not they could serve as interim replacements should it happen again.

They also factored in how much sun a potential site gets in installing the signs, as each sign needs to be charged by direct sunlight two hours a day to work. Brown adds it’s unlikely these signs will work in downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul, because the tall buildings block out the sun.

The busiest stop that has an e-paper sign, Nicollet and Franklin, with 600 average weekday boardings as of last fall, is also the most challenging site because the existing pole is enveloped by building shadow on Winter Solstice. Nonetheless, Brown says the sign still worked.

Access to sunlight is something heavily preached by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, who also deployed a pilot at certain bus and Green Line light rail stops. They began experimenting with the signs in 2017, expanding its installation to select bus stops throughout greater Boston in 2019. The MBTA plans to deploy the signs on surface-level B, C and E branches of the Green Line over the next two years at a cost of $3.4 million.

Although the MBTA found the signs’ performance were not significantly affected by the cold, Metro Transit did, because they operate in an environment colder than the MBTA and the manufacturer’s testing lab. “When it gets below … five degrees above [zero] Fahrenheit, we start to see that the devices are a little sluggish in their refresh,” says Brown, who adds the screens started to ghost as the displays struggled to render information in different shades of gray. “We’ve learned that we need to update some of the route maps that are attached on the dual displays to be truly monochromatic, so that way when the temperatures get cold, you don’t experience the ghosting that we did.”

At 10 degrees below zero, however, the signs were unable to display anything, even though they are able to pull the information they need. The agency is waiting to hear from the vendor it is working with to see if the signs can instead display some form of static transit information so riders can continue to stay informed, which the signs already do when they are low on power and cannot yet be recharged.

In addition to e-paper signs, in 2018 Metro Transit installed screens on 11 of their buses that mostly operate on the A Line rapid bus route in St. Paul. The screens show the next several stops coming up, along with real-time arrival predictions for connecting routes, so riders can spend more time anticipating the best transfer rather than worrying about missing their stop.

“One thing that wasn’t really provided in the past is if you’re on the bus, and you don’t have [a] cell phone, you’ll have that [information] with you,” says Metro Transit Manager of Technology Systems Gary Nyberg.

It’s also useful for riders who are hard-of-hearing, like frequent A Line rider Nickolas Hentges, who runs a card trading business in St. Paul. “It does show a very good comprehensive map,” says Hentges. “Without those signs, I have to intently listen to the person’s voice over the intercom to tell me where we’re at.”

But these signs, which cost $10,000 to $15,000 per bus to purchase and install, do not work reliably because they have trouble keeping up with changes in the agency’s scheduling, GPS and dispatching systems. Some signs installed on its buses also are powered off, which the agency says is because of a hardware problem which they are working with the vendor to fix.

And digital information screen onboard an MTA bus in New York City. (Photo courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

Metro Transit is among a handful of transit agencies experimenting with such signs. After a successful pilot in 2016, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority deployed over 10,000 similar signs produced by two different manufacturers on 3,000 buses serving all five boroughs. Their installation in 2018, which cost $8,100 per bus, marks the first time the agency has ever disseminated stop information digitally.

Like Metro Transit’s signs, the system provides information on available transfers and the next several upcoming stops. Signage onboard New York’s buses can also display alerts on service disruptions based on where the bus is at.

New York also has its own sets of challenges with deploying the signs. One in particular is where on the bus to install them so everyone could see it. They also needed to balance access for different systems that have access to the public address system.

Metro Transit someday wants to get more e-paper and onboard transit information signs. The problem is they don’t have a dedicated funding source, something the divided Minnesota Legislature has struggled to achieve for years.

But they may have an opportunity to do so on their existing rapid bus lines. The displays at the stations, which are as much as six years old, need to be replaced. They plan to issue a request for proposals that would allow them to experiment with different technologies for a year before they commit to one.

As for the onboard transit information signs, they may buy them from different manufacturers once they have funding and install them on buses dedicated to their rapid bus routes. They hope evolving technology will make it easier for them to integrate the signs into their scheduling, GPS and dispatch systems.

“The [rapid bus routes are] being implemented with new technologies,” says Nyberg. “There’s more of a willingness and openness and maybe expectation that there could be something different about that service. And so providing something like this on those routes seems like it was a good fit.”

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H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/佢/他) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat.

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Tags: new york citytransit agenciesbostonminneapolistwin cities

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