New app should help blind VIA bus riders navigate routes

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro pushing for $900K in federal money to help program

VIA is launching a new program that will help make using VIA buses more accessible to the impaired.

SAN ANTONIO – Earlier this summer US. Rep. Joaquin Castro announced $900,000 for VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Wayfinding Technology Project, which will help blind and low-vision riders find bus stops and learn of arrival times.

The funds are part of Congress’s annual appropriations project that happens every year. The budget passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, and is now currently in the Senate. The program is a mobile app called NaviLens.

“Being a viable, functioning human being is the most important thing that anybody has to offer,” Athalie Malone said.

Malone has been blind for 14 years. She is on the VIA board of trustees and has been riding VIA buses for over 40 years.

“It allows everybody to ride the transit system,” Malone said. “Right now a blind person can ride the bus with a GPS system probably from Google. But Google will not tell them where the bus stop is. It can get them into the vicinity and then they would have to get to the bus stop and try to figure out if that is the correct bus by listening for the buses. This will accomplish even more for them.”

The new app uses audible GPS to plot a route of where you need to go, step by step. Once the user gets to the bus stop, there are signs with NaviLens QR codes.

A user can point their phone at the code and it will instruct them to let them know you are at the correct stop. The codes can be registered 12 times the distance than other QR codes and it doesn’t have to be captured straight on. The user can capture it on the side or just part of it and it will be read.

Malone said it is important because if you don’t have your independence, especially when it comes to transportation, you can feel lost and alone.

For most blind or visually impaired people or anyone with a disability, it can be incredibly challenging if you don’t know the bus route system.

“Blind people cannot drive,” Malone said. “So we need the transit system and over the years VIA has become more knowledgeable, more open. And now they are taking another step to make it easier for us to become more independent.”

VIA is launching a pilot study for the program this fall and hopes to have it in place in the future. The $900,000 request will in part help the city put up the needed QR code signage at all 6,851 city bus stops.

The app will not only assist those who are blind, but also provide accessibility for riders with other disabilities, as well the general population, VIA said.

About the Author:

Sarah Acosta is a weekend Good Morning San Antonio anchor and a general assignments reporter at KSAT12. She joined the news team in April 2018 as a morning reporter for GMSA and is a native South Texan.