Creating accessible transit websites

This article was featured in the Winter 2007 newsletter of the California Association for Coordinated Transportation and in More Riders Magazine.

When I was hired to launch new websites for three transit services in Northern California recently, one of the requirements for the new sites was that they should be usable for riders who are blind or low-vision. After the launch, I received an email from a local blind man. The new websites offered him superior access and usability, he said. He invited me to attend a Humboldt Council of the Blind meeting to learn and discuss more about transit, the web, and accessibility.

Attending the Humboldt Council of the Blind meeting and talking with blind transit users caused me to have a small revelation. Until then, my focus on accessibility had been on technical standards to meet my client agency’s requirements, but at the meeting I gained a deeper appreciation for web-accessibility and transit. Most of the Council of the Blind members are dependent on transit to get around, many of them riding ten times per week or more. The new websites for Humboldt County, they said, were far more usable than the ones they replaced. Unfortunately, I learned, many other transit websites are still difficult or impossible for transit riders who are low-vision or blind to use.

There are many reasons to make accessibility a priority for transit websites. The first, and best, reason is that it is simply the right thing to do. Out of all the groups that look for transit information online, don’t the most transit-dependent groups deserve to have their needs well-served?

The second reason is to take an important legal precaution. In 2003, California Senate Bill 302 declared that California state agencies must comply with section 508 of the United States Rehabilitation Act “in developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic or information technology.” Previously, Section 508 standards, including those for web-accessibility, had only applied to federal agencies, but SB302 applied these standards not only to California state agencies, but any recipient of state funding.

Even non-state organizations who fail to offer disabled-accessible online information are opening themselves to legal risk. Recently, a federal district court judge issued a landmark decision in a nationwide class-action lawsuit against Target Corporation for failing to make its website accessible to the blind, violating the Americans With Disabilities Act and two California civil rights statutes: the California UNRUH Civil Rights Act and the California Disabled Persons Act.

The third reason to prioritize accessibility is that well-designed, accessible websites serve all users better. As a rule, these websites are standards-compliant, meta-information rich, and contain real data rather than image-only representations. What this means is that these websites are listed higher in search engine results pages, and show up in response to more queries. The websites also load faster and are more broadly compatible with older and newer versions of web-browsers. In short, they provide more robust usability for everyone.

To gain a prerequisite understanding for web-accessibility design, it is necessary to understand how blind people browse the web. Most often, they use special software called a “screen reader” that literally reads the contents of a page aloud using text-to-speech technology. Blind users generally navigate the web using their keyboard, rather than a mouse, to select links and content items. Certain webpages work well with screen-readers, while others do not.

What makes an accessible website? Explaining this will require some technical descriptions. If you don’t understand any of the technical parts, just pass over them, as they are not necessary to understanding many of the more important non-technical parts. The best way to begin explaining web-accessibility is to describe what an accessible website is not.

Accessible websites do not include images, especially images for navigation, without including hidden descriptive text. Consider an image icon on a website that a user clicks to navigate to another page. Since it is not text, text-to-speech synthesizer software cannot read what this image represents. Unless the web-designer includes an invisible alternative text description of the image for sight-impaired users, they will have no idea what it is. Alternate text is also helpful for search engine indexing and users with slow connections.

An especially poor practice I’ve seen on transit websites is offering transit timetables as images instead of raw text. While the timetable may appear as text to a sighted user, it is actually transmitted and displayed in the web-browser as an image file. You can tell this because individual bits of text cannot be selected and cut-and-pasted into a word processor, and the text-size does not change when with the browser’s text-size adjustment features. These transit time-table images are essentially inaccessible to sight-impaired users, as it is not feasible to provide useful alternative text for such lengthy and highly-structured information

Providing only PDF files of schedule files can be fraught with some of the same problems. PDF files, while generally more screen-reader friendly than images, do not provide the same quality of access as a well-designed webpage if they are not “tagged” with special invisible cues, and most are not.

On accessible transit websites, timetables are formatted as HTML tables. Note that tables on webpages are more than just visual elements, but are a way of logically arranging data into columns, rows, and cells with headers. This logical organization facilitates easy screen-reader access.

I’ve seen some timetables presented online with a fixed-width font using spaces to create the visual appearance of a table without actually defining real columns, rows, cells and headers that a screen-reader could use. Here’s an example: Let’s say we have a timetable with stops listed across the top in bold. Each individual trip is represented by a new line of text. Stop times are listed underneath the corresponding stop location from the top row.

Under the former example, screen-reader software would read line-by-line, starting with the stop locations and then reading the stop times from left-to-right. It would be difficult-to-impossible to keep track of which stop times correspond with which stop locations, and it would be tedious to go through all the stop times to get the sought-after information.

Compare the experience with a screen-reader on a page designed like the former example to one where data is in a well-structured table. Column headers are marked as such for screen-readers. Screen-reader users can use the column headers to find the stop they want to leave from and quickly move down through that column. The screen-reader announces each stop time in the column until they find the one they need. If a user becomes disoriented in a table, the software reads the column and row headers associated with a given cell.

On the web, data can be described in ways which are invisible to most sighted users. These tags define document structure with headers of varying levels, show where paragraphs begin and end, and indicate other kinds of important information. Formatting pages in this way is crucially important for sight-impaired users, but also produces more search-engine friendly websites that work better with older browsers.

Does your transit agency offer braille schedules for blind riders? Few do, because they are potentially difficult and time-consuming to produce. One alternative is to offer downloadable text files that blind users can load into a braille notetaker. These are portable devices for taking, storing, carrying, and retrieving notes on-the-go (like a PDA for people who are blind). Information is outputed on a one or two-line refreshable braille display consisting of tiny pins made of metal and plastic.

Blind users can download the same transit schedule files sighted people use for their iPods, PDAs, and mobile phones. One of the innovations Transit Information Solutions offers is software that makes it easy to publish schedule information in a variety of formats — on the web, as text files, and on Google Transit — without having to manage redundant sets of data for each.

There are several ways to determine if a website is accessible. The first is to give it a quick once-over to see if it shows any of the red flag for accessibility described here — excessive images for content and navigation, PDF-only content, etc. However, because much of accessible web-design isn’t immediately apparent to a sighted user in their web-browser, it is better to take an “under-the-hood” look at a a website’s HTML code.

You can use free online code validation and accessibility checking tools to test any website, just by entering a URL. One excellent service is the Web Accessibility Versatile Evaluator (WAVE). Information about other tools is available from the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative. HiSoftware’s free Cynthia Says service helps evaluate websites according to the Section 508 standards. Also, one of the best first steps for ensuring accessibility is to make sure pages are web-standards compliant. The W3C’s Markup Validation Service is a terrific help for this.

These online tools are extremely useful but they can’t check for everything and may flag issues that are not genuine problems. In the end, the best approach is to seek the feedback of sight-impaired users themselves or a professional who works with blind users and understands accessibility on the web.

There is no reason not to offer an accessible website. It will serve all users better and can result in better search engine rankings. Transit Information Solutions specializes in ensuring online accessibility, going beyond requirements to ensure usability by working with leading experts and sight-impaired end-users. If you would like to learn more about Transit Information Solutions services, including accessible transit website design and re-tooling, as well as our service to help agencies take advantage of Google Transit, please contact me. Transit Information Solutions will be happy to provide a free accessibility assessment consultation on your existing transit website.

Aaron Antrim is the Principal of Transit Information Solutions and the Outreach Director for Green Wheels NEC.

See also: “Public Transit Made Easy,” Official Google blog on Google Transit’s features for low-vision accessibility