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    New App for Navigating Subway Stations

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    Older subway stations that were never designed with accessibility in mind can be dangerous for people with visual impairment as they try to traverse winding corridors, a myriad of gates and turnstiles, and overcrowd­ed platforms. A new mobile phone app, Commute Booster, may help fill some accessibility gaps, making city subway stations safer and easier to use, according to researchers at New York University (NYU) Tandon School of En­gineering and NYU Grossman School of Medicine.1

    Photograph of a New York subway sign.

    ACCESSIBLE TRAVEL. A new mobile app aims to make navigating labyrinthine subway platforms easier and safer for people with low vision.

    Integrated technologies. The app took about two years for the team to develop, and it works by reading signage that a traveler may encounter in transit stations. It integrates two types of technology—general transit feed specification (GTFS) and optical character recognition (OCR). The GTFS dataset generates a comprehen­sive list of wayfinding signage within subway stations, and the OCR technology helps users understand relevant navigation signage in their immediate surroundings. A person can use their smartphone camera to snap a photo of signs in stations. Then, in real time, the app weeds out information that is irrelevant—for example, culling out signage telling people to go to a comedy show—and provides only official transit markers, said study author John-Ross Rizzo, MD.

    The researchers tested Commute Booster in three New York City subway stations—Jay Street-MetroTech, DeKalb Avenue, and Canal Street. New York City’s subway system has more than 472 stations—it is a confusing “interconnected web of edges and nodes,” said Dr. Rizzo, so it’s an ideal place for testing the application. The app was 97% accurate in identifying signs needed to reach a traveler’s intended destination.

    Independent navigation. When asked whether this kind of tech would be helpful, Janet S. Sunness, MD, of the Hoover Low Vision Rehabilitation Services at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, responded that it “would make access much easier.” Dr. Sunness, who is not affiliated with Dr. Rizzo’s research, added that the use of GTFS offers an easy way to leverage data that transportation systems make available to third parties and that an app like this could be readily adopted because it “does not require costly modifications to the subway station itself.”

    Without the app, Dr. Sunness said, “Even if patients find the subway station using GPS or by other means, there is nothing to help them within the subway station itself. Low vision and blind patients are only able to use the subway system independently if they are already familiar with the configuration of a particular station.”

    Travel equity. For Dr. Rizzo, the issue is personal. He lives with choroideremia, a rare condition that causes progressive vision loss. He hopes that the app will eventually be usable around the world, in any city that uses GTSF, to support more travel equity. “I think it’s unfortunate, but the reality is transportation is really difficult [for those with visual impairment]. It’s largely inaccessible.”

    Dr. Rizzo said his team is planning to launch clinical trials—pending institutional review board approval—with test participants in New York City. The Lighthouse Guild, a nonprofit vision and health care organization, plans to collaborate on the trial, as well. He said he and his team are also actively working on adapting the app, currently available only in English, to other languages.

    Unless transportation barriers are addressed, there will be a perpetual cycle of disparities, Dr. Rizzo said. “As a blind guy, my hope is [that the app] helps keep people safe and allows for more efficient travel.”

    —Brian Mastroianni


    1 Feng J et al. IEEE J Transl Eng Health Med. Published online July 7, 2023.


    Relevant financial disclosures: Dr. Rizzo—None. Dr. Sunness—None.

    For full disclosures and the disclosure key, see below.

    Full Financial Disclosures

    Dr. Kokame Adverum: S; Bausch + Lomb: C; Carl Zeiss Meditec: C; Genen­tech: S; Hoffman LaRoche: C; Iveric Bio: S; Novartis: S; Regeneron: S; Regenx­Bio: S; Salutaris: S.

    Dr. Tan None.

    Dr. Yohannan AbbVie: C; ARVO: S; Brightfocus Foundation: S; Genentech: S; Ivantis: C; NIH: S; Research to Prevent Blindness: S; Topcon: C.

    Dr. Rizzo NYU: P.

    Dr. Sunness Acuta: C; Apellis: US; Bluebird Bio: C; Consultantsis: C; Discern Health: C; GLG: C; Guidepoint Global: C; Lineage: C; LSC: C; ReVision Thera­peutics: C.

    Dr. Liu None.

    Disclosure Category



    Consultant/Advisor C Consultant fee, paid advisory boards, or fees for attending a meeting.
    Employee E Hired to work for compensation or received a W2 from a company.
    Employee, executive role EE Hired to work in an executive role for compensation or received a W2 from a company.
    Owner of company EO Ownership or controlling interest in a company, other than stock.
    Independent contractor I Contracted work, including contracted research.
    Lecture fees/Speakers bureau L Lecture fees or honoraria, travel fees or reimbursements when speaking at the invitation of a commercial company.
    Patents/Royalty P Beneficiary of patents and/or royalties for intellectual property.
    Equity/Stock/Stock options holder, private corporation PS Equity ownership, stock and/or stock options in privately owned firms, excluding mutual funds.
    Grant support S Grant support or other financial support from all sources, including research support from government agencies (e.g., NIH), foundations, device manufacturers, and\or pharmaceutical companies. Research funding should be disclosed by the principal or named investigator even if your institution receives the grant and manages the funds.
    Stock options, public or private corporation SO Stock options in a public or private company.
    Equity/Stock holder, public corporation US Equity ownership or stock in publicly traded firms, excluding mutual funds (listed on the stock exchange).


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