Transit apps can help people with disabilities navigate public transit, but accessibility is lagging behind

Smartphone apps have become common tools for travel and navigation. As technology becomes more integrated into transportation networks, apps will continue to be indispensable. But many of these apps remain inaccessible to people with various disabilities.

Many people with disabilities rely on public transport as many do not have a driving licence. Planning trips, getting to and from transit stops successfully, and navigating transit systems is important.

My research has shown that smartphone app technology can encourage inclusion by helping people with disabilities better navigate transit systems.

In the United States, 13 percent of the population lives with one or more types of disabilities. The development of apps and other mobility tools can increase their ability to access employment, education, health care and other services.

Apps and accessibility

My research, conducted in the United States, found that one of the ways general public transportation apps aim to meet the travel needs of people with disabilities is by including accessibility features, such as text-to-speech. These features increase ease of use even for non-disabled people.

Despite the availability of technology, many apps remain inaccessible, including due to cost and lack of mandatory requirements and regulations.

a man sitting at a bus stop holding a cane and talking on his cell phone
Text-to-voice technologies can make apps more accessible to everyone.

The cost factor

Transportation smartphone apps, which require the use of real-time location-based information, are complex and require more time and cost to develop. The way app development processes are currently set up, the cost of developing apps with Accessibility Service features is more expensive than those without those features.

The cost of developing an app depends on the quality of the app and the number of features it includes, with additional features incurring higher costs. It could also take a long time depending on the complexity of the app.

While having additional features like accessibility services can give apps an opportunity to reach more users, cost can be a deterrent, especially for entities without association with large companies like Uber and Lyft.

There are various types of disabilities and corresponding needs. Including features that address multiple disabilities in one app could also increase complexity and cost.

Recognizing the challenge of addressing the multiple needs of disabilities in advanced communications equipment and services, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which implements and enforces communications laws and regulations, states that not every feature need and function of each device or service is accessible for all disabilities

Operating system vendors

The developers distribute apps on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS operating systems through their app stores, Google Play and App Store, respectively. Android and iOS provide accessibility guidelines, resources, and code for developers.

Apple and Google also provide built-in accessibility features such as text-to-speech options, an app that offers a voice option for real-time transit information is accessible to a visually impaired person.

While Apple has more accessible services than Google, Google makes it clear that the company’s built-in features don’t meet all disability needs. Google encourages app developers to use available technology to build additional accessibility features for their apps.

However, we found that many of the transportation-related smartphone apps we reviewed in our study lacked accessibility features. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that these guidelines are suggestions, rather than mandatory requirements that developers must comply with.

a young man in a leather jacket looks at his phone while waiting for the bus
Apps can extend transportation opportunities and increase people’s ability to attend work, school, health care, and other services.

Regulating recent progress

When the US Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, it was intended to outlaw discrimination against people with disabilities in various areas, including transportation, utilities, and telecommunications. As it stands, the ADA doesn’t specifically apply to recent technological advances such as smartphone apps.

There is no specific regulation that also concerns the content of the website other than an application of the general provisions of non-discrimination and effective communication.

The US Department of Justice encourages the use of technical standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to make websites accessible. WCAG also doesn’t have specific standards for smartphone apps, but it does provide comprehensive guidance that doesn’t set requirements on how to apply existing website standards to smartphone apps.

The WCAG makes three things clear: (1) Not all guidelines apply to smartphones; (2) Information guidance does not address all disability needs; and (3) mobile devices have different accessibility issues than other devices.

When it comes to information and communication technology, the FCC has a mandate to develop and implement regulations. Under its guidance for consumers, it outlines general accessibility requirements. One requirement states that, if feasible, manufacturers must make their hardware and software, including apps, accessible to people with disabilities.

While the FCC guidance mentions apps, the conditional nature of the guidance and lack of specificity about what’s achievable weakens the requirement.

The future of accessibility

Due to the high cost, lack of mandatory operating system requirements, government regulations or specific technical standards, the current conditions present a challenge for the accessibility of apps.

As a result, the ability of people with disabilities to use apps for transportation is negatively impacted. It is inevitable that regulations related to disability will reach app technology and the world of apps will move towards more specific accessibility requirements.

In the meantime, developers would benefit from using the available resources provided by Apple and Google and using WCAG guidance to make apps accessible. It could also give them the opportunity to help create a more inclusive digital environment.

This can help developers avoid potential ADA-related lawsuits, fines, and costly accessibility retrofits, which could end up being more expensive than the initial cost of adding accessibility features.

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