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Sunday, May 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Pacific NW

Free trip planner helps pedestrians find accessible routes

Anat Caspi, director of the University of Washington's Computer Science and Engineering's Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, right, and graduate student Nick Bolten stand Feb. 10 in front of an example of how the program they developed can help people with a handicap navigate around Seattle showing the best routes to a destination. (Mike Siegel / Associated Press)
Anat Caspi, director of the University of Washington's Computer Science and Engineering's Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, right, and graduate student Nick Bolten stand Feb. 10 in front of an example of how the program they developed can help people with a handicap navigate around Seattle showing the best routes to a destination. (Mike Siegel / Associated Press)
By David Gutman Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It’s nine blocks from Anat Caspi’s northeast Seattle home to the post office, a walk the University of Washington computer scientist frequently makes with her 5-year-old daughter.

But because Caspi’s daughter uses a wheelchair, that nine-block route, even though it’s the shortest, isn’t the best. It’s got a pretty steep hill – an 8.3 percent grade – and several of the intersections don’t have curb cuts – the small ramps that allow people in wheelchairs a smooth transition from sidewalk to street.

So Caspi, the director of the UW’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, takes a slightly longer route. It’s 13 blocks, but all the curbs have ramps and none of the hills are steeper than a 4 percent grade, reported the Seattle Times.

Caspi found the route with the help of Access Map, a project she has led at the UW for the past two years that lets pedestrians map their way while considering things like hills, curb cuts and whether construction may be blocking a sidewalk.

A new trip planner, giving directions from starting point to destination while avoiding hills of a specific grade, launched earlier in February.

“The linchpin of all of this is that the shortest path is not necessarily my optimal path,” Caspi said. “To be able to optimize people’s preferences is a huge boon.”

Others who might find the free map useful: People with strollers, grocery carts or rolling luggage, people looking for a sidewalk route for kids on bikes or anybody who wants to avoid Seattle’s steepest inclines.

For instance: It is a scant 2 1/2 blocks from The Seattle Times newsroom to the Whole Foods on Westlake Avenue. But one of those blocks, on Denny Way, features an 11 percent grade. Another block borders a construction zone that could (but now doesn’t) close down the sidewalk. Two of the intersections don’t have curb ramps.

Access Map, available at www.accessmap.io, gives someone in a wheelchair a more circuitous four-block route, but it avoids steep hills and construction zones. If curb ramps are also required, the map spits out a more zigzagging seven- or eight-block route.

All of the information that Access Map uses is already available; it was just in a variety of data sets that had to be merged into one, usable format. The ubiquitous Google Maps has a pedestrian function but includes none of the pedestrian-relevant information that Access Map has. It will, for instance, only offer the direct, two-block route to Westlake Whole Foods, regardless of a pedestrian’s ability to handle the steep hill.

“We haven’t truly done pedestrian-centered mapping,” Caspi said. “Everyone wants to go green and make cities walkable, but we experience these information gaps when we go out and use our phones to navigate by foot.”

To that end, Access Map is an ongoing project, in which Caspi and her team, led by Nick Bolten, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, intend to keep updating it with pedestrian information.

In a city as hilly as Seattle, public elevators can be an important way to make streets accessible for the disabled. Taking the elevator in the Seattle Central Library, for instance, allows someone in a wheelchair to get from Fourth Avenue to Fifth Avenue, while skipping a hill of more than 10 percent.

Caspi’s team is working on adding a registry of public elevators to the map.

Another example: People who are visually impaired use the sound of cars to help determine when it is safe to cross a four-way intersection. But at intersections with five or more corners, the assault of noises from all sides can make such judgments difficult. So the team is working on software that would allow visually impaired people to plan routes that avoid five-way intersections.

A grant from the Washington State Department of Transportation will allow them to expand the map to Bellingham, hopefully within the year, Bolten said.

And they’re looking to add data to the map, on things like sidewalk quality and condition, and to merge their data with OpenStreetMap, a sort of Wikipedia for maps with contributors worldwide. They hope to serve as a model to help other cities with lots of available data put it into a usable map.

“There’s a ton of information that’s relevant to accessibility,” Bolten said. “It’s just often in a format that’s missing or not somewhere people can use.”

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