NFTA Transporter

Monday, December 2, 2013

Bus Simulator Helps Improve Rider Accessibility


Metro has rolled out a new "moving billboard" bus advertisement depicting several people enjoying a ride inside a Metro bus. You might be surprised to learn that the bus used in the ad is not really a bus at all. It’s actually a unique bus simulation device, and it is used for more than just photo shoots.

The bus simulator (see image) is a full-scale re-creation of a standard 40-foot transit bus built and housed at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA) at the University at Buffalo.  It was constructed after the IDEA Center received a $4.7 million grant in 2008 to study ways to improve public transportation for people with disabilities.

“The simulator is used to study the specific human factor on public buses,” said Jordana Maisel, the Director of Outreach and Policy Studies at the IDEA Center.  “It helps to demonstrate the unique challenges that individuals with disabilities encounter when utilizing public transportation.”

For its research, the IDEA Center invited volunteers with various disabilities, including those with wheelchairs and visual impairments, to take part in exercises simulating regular activities on a bus, such as boarding, disembarking, paying fares and getting into and out of seats.

“We attempted to re-create -- as closely as possible -- the actual experience of riding a transit bus,” Maisel said.  “Mannequins, for example, were used to simulate the experience of navigating around other passengers.” Seats, aisles, and boarding ramps were all built to the same specifications as buses currently on the road.

Researchers used motion sensors and video recording equipment to help study areas where the volunteers experienced difficulties.

The initial study showed numerous ways in which current bus designs could be improved.  Maisel said the results were distributed to transportation agencies including the NFTA (which, as a “collaborating transportation provider,” assisted the IDEA Center in securing parts for the simulator from various bus manufacturers). 

The NFTA, in turn, has begun incorporating some of the study’s recommendations into its latest bus designs.

“The interior of a bus is rife with unintended consequences of design elements,” said Jeffrey Sweet, Equipment Engineer at the NFTA’s Cold Spring Station.  “This study helped to show areas where current designs could be improved to assist our riders with disabilities.”

Sweet says the Authority’s latest 1300 Series buses already have two changes recommended by the study: 1) an extended, continuous stainless steel trim toward the front of the driver’s platform (which prevents riders with mobility devices from getting caught as they navigate down the aisle), and 2) a curbside wheel-well bumper to help keep mobility devices squarely on the lift ramp while disembarking.

Sweet says designers are hoping to implement further recommendations, including improvements to seats and fare collection boxes, in future NFTA buses. 

“This research has shown us some tangible ways in which we can improve the safety and riding experience for those with disabilities,” Sweet said.  “The project has been a home run overall.”

Although the initial study is complete, Maisel said the bus simulator will remain on-site at the IDEA Center for the time being and will hopefully be a part of expanded research in the future.

For more information on accessible public transportation research at the IDEA Center, visit www.rercapt.org.