OC Transpo buses to use external speakers to help visually impaired riders

OC Transpo will soon announce bus direction and route number outside the vehicle to reduce a barrier for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Current buses, already equipped with speakers, should start making the announcements in the spring

OC Transpo buses will soon feature an external recording announcing their route number and direction as they pull up to a stop. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

People who are blind or visually impaired will soon be able to hear the number and direction of an OC Transpo bus from the outside of the transit vehicle.

Ottawa city council approved an amendment to the noise bylaw at its Feb. 22 meeting to allow the information to be announced on exterior speakers.

The announcement will be made in both French and English, last between nine and 13 seconds, and be broadcast five to nine decibels louder than the ambient noise at a stop, and at an even quieter level after 9 p.m..

The city has been trying to make its services more accessible, said Coun. Stephen Blais, who chairs the transit commission.

OC Transpo already has the speakers installed and the software updated so, after an actor voices them, the outside announcements should begin this spring, said Blais.

Frustrations catching a bus

The change comes as great news to Richard Marsolais, a specialist in independent living skills for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, who attended the council meeting.
Richard Marsolais, who is blind, and Bronwyn Funiciello, who has a visual impairment, say it can be very frustrating to catch a bus at a busy stop, and rely on strangers to tell them which route number is pulling up to the curb.

"I'm totally blind and I avoid a lot of places like the Rideau Centre, Bank and Slater, any of the transit stations, because it's quite frightening and it makes me very anxious," he said.

Marsolais said he constantly has to ask strangers for a bus number, which he said is difficult with so many people wearing earphones these days. Using bus hailing kits aren't ideal in winter, he added, and some drivers don't even notice them.

"It's not always feasible or practical to have to rely on the kindness of strangers at the bus stop to ask them what the bus is," agreed Bronwyn Funiciello, a community advocate who is visually impaired. 

It's not always feasible or practical to have to rely on the kindness of strangers at the bus stop.- Bronwyn Funiciello

It can take her 45 minutes to an hour to finally find a bus that runs past every seven minutes, she said.

Marsolais even related how one client has been too shy to ask a bus route number and has ended up lost on the wrong route.

The new announcement system will give people with visual impairments more independence, he said, but it will also help others who simply can't decipher a bus route number when several buses are pulled up at a stop too closely together.