COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Charlie McDonald’s Central Ohio Transit Authority bus pulled up to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, his phone buzzed and a text flashed across the screen reminding him that his stop was approaching and it was time to exit.

McDonald, 27, is part of a pilot program using a smartphone app called WayFinder to help people with cognitive disabilities use the COTA bus system to travel the city more freely. The program is run by Smart Columbus and Ohio State University.

The app allows caregivers to find a bus route and add in instructions and notifications specific to the needs of the rider. They can add photos of drop-off locations, audio and text reminders that are triggered when the destination is close and walking routes to and from the bus stops.

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“The primary goal of the project was to try to allow those with cognitive disabilities to gain that mobility independence and confidence through the application to use public transit,” said Andy Wolpert, Smart Columbus deputy program manager.

COTA, which provides public transit service in the Columbus area, has a paratransit program to assist riders with disabilities, but it often requires scheduling a trip two days in advance, Wolpert said.

“It’s more of a challenge to have mobility independence when you need to schedule a ride in advance. With this allowing you to use the fixed-route bus system, you have more flexibility,” he said.

Wolpert said the process began in 2017 by evaluating the marketplace for the app best suited to address the specific needs of the disability community in Columbus. They eventually decided on WayFinder, developed by Dan Davies of AbleLink Technologies, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Davies said WayFinder was originally developed in a joint research project between the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health around 2009. It launched around 2012 and has been adopted by several private service providers. Columbus is the first government entity to test the app, he said.

“For a city to incorporate something like this technology really provides a lot more opportunity than an agency might,” Davies said.

Researchers at Ohio State looked at changes to the app to improve functionality, including adding the ability for the caregiver to track the bus rider in real time.

“Having that tracking capability provides peace of mind for caregivers and family as their loved ones travel,” Davies said. “This is a significant advancement.”

Josh Cook, McDonald’s caregiver, said that so far he has always accompanied the people in his care while they use the app. However, he believes some people with cognitive disabilities who he works with could eventually travel on their own. For others, like McDonald, who needs to be accompanied on trips, the app is still beneficial.

McDonald had often felt disoriented while traveling, Cook said.

“For Charlie, independence is knowing exactly where he is in the city, being able to understand what’s around him, knowing where he’s going next,” Cook said.

McDonald said the app is easy, and he’s used it on many bus rides to Buckeye Donuts in the University District for lamb gyros, to marvel at the trophies in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and to reach his favorite destination: Los Guachos restaurant.

Wolpert said the app could also benefit the elderly.

Thirty participants were recruited for the year-long pilot program, which began in late April. Ohio State researchers will collect data throughout to measure how well the program enhances independence.

If the program is successful, Smart Columbus will seek funding to continue it beyond the pilot. Smart Columbus estimates that the program costs nearly $56 million, with potential funding from the city of Columbus, Franklin County and the Ohio Department of Transportation.

“As we deploy projects, we will evaluate the successes and failures and formalize how to sustain them,” said Andrea Lewis, a spokeswoman for Smart Columbus.

© 2019 The Columbus Dispatch
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