How specialty glasses are helping design Austin's light rail system

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Amid plans to build out the first phase of light rail in Austin, project leaders are working to see the user experience through the eyes of current mass transit riders — literally.

The Austin Transit Partnership utilized specialty tech glasses that help track different biometric sensors, including how many steps users take while using mass transit, where their eyes look while accessing bus or rail services as well as their body temperature, heart rate and perspiration. The data is designed to help inform project heads on gaps in the current mass transit user experience and how to tailor the city’s upcoming light rail system to better meet the needs of riders, said Peter Mullan, ATP’s executive vice president of architecture and urban design.

“What are the typical frictions or challenges transit users face on their journeys, so that we can design a system that alleviates those or eliminates those,” he said.

ATP employed the help of 14 volunteers who come from a range of backgrounds and user experiences, including those with mobility limitations or who might travel with children in tow. Mullan said the accessibility of the project comes down to not only its visibility and presence once built out, but how the system can service and support all riders.

“We chose people who represented a variety of different personality profiles,” Mullan said, adding: “So, understanding these variety of different perspectives on the transit journey to give us as broad a view as possible.”

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Those volunteers would wear the specialty glasses along with watches that had GPS locators to track where they were located within the different parts of Austin’s existing transit system.

From there, ATP officials could determine and consider different takeaways from the data: How many steps are users taking to access transit, and are they feeling rushed? If they’re glancing around a lot when approaching transit, are they concerned for their safety or having trouble wayfinding? How are heart rates and skin temperatures affected when transit users pass through the system?

One example ATP referenced was a volunteer who uses a wheelchair to navigate. Throughout her commute, several moments showed her eyes glancing around and searching for wayfinding signs, or repeatedly checking back and forth before crossing the street.

Another moment documented was when the volunteer approached a MetroRail train at the Plaza Saltillo station. The rail doors began to close before she was able to safely get onto the train, signifying that a longer delay in the doors closing would be beneficial for people with mobility issues, Mullan said.

“It’s so important because it really impacts how that user — and particularly, somebody who’s disabled and who needs transit — how that user is really experiencing the transit journey,” Mullan said. “So by giving us that perspective….I think it gives us a much more informed way to approach our design.”

Those findings and others will be on display at several ATP workshops this November through December. In-person user experience workshops will be held on Nov. 16, Dec. 5 and Dec. 6, with a virtual, Zoom-based meeting on Dec. 13. More details on the timing and locations of those meetings are available online.

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