An Evaluation of the Safety Perceptions of Transportation Network Companies as a Mobility Option for the Visually Impaired Community

By Chris Simek, Ipek Nese Sener, and Maarit Moran

Chris Simek is and associate research scientist in TTI’s Planning and Engagement Program. He has 20 years of project management and travel behavior survey research experience, including 12 years in private sector consulting, and 8 years in university research. Throughout his career, his work and experience has been focused in the areas of travel surveys to support urban transportation models and urban planning policy. Since 2000, Mr. Simek has been involved in the management, design, and/or analysis of dozens of travel behavior surveys across the United States and Canada. Mr. Simek's professional interests include project management, public opinion research, travel behavior, survey and sample design, statistical analysis, and transportation public policy.

Dr. Ipek Sener is an associate research scientist in TTI’s Travel Forecasting Program, with a main research focus on advancing the state of the art and state of the practice in the area of travel demand modeling and activity-travel behavior analysis. She has extensive expertise in transportation-based health research, promoting sustainable and equitable environments, and studying the health outcomes of transportation systems, the built and travel environment, and individuals’ activity-travel behavior. She is also particularly interested in alternative and emerging modes of transportation and exploring the effect of information and communication tools on travel behavior and demand, and how to better integrate technology-enabled mobility options.

Maarit Moran is a former assistant research scientist in TTI’s Planning and Engagement Program that focused on transportation public policy with an emphasis on transportation network companies.

Abstract

For blind individuals, access to safe and reliable transportation can be a challenge. Limited mobility options can culminate in a reduced quality of life and difficulty accessing housing and employment. Transportation network companies (TNCs) have emerged as a new mode of travel that has the potential to increase access to transportation for this segment of the population. The opportunities and challenges for TNC use by this population have not been widely studied. Through qualitative and quantitative methods, this study focused on gaining a better understanding of blind individuals’ safety perceptions of TNCs relative to other travel modes. The findings suggest that a significant proportion of blind individuals may use TNCs, and direct TNC experience strongly influences their safety perceptions of this travel mode. While TNCs present an opportunity for blind riders to become more engaged in myriad activities, these companies can still make improvements in many areas.

Keywords

Visual impairment, blind, safety, TNC, mobility

Introduction

Estimates from the 2016 American Community Survey (ACS) suggest that more than 7.5 million non-institutionalized individuals age 16–75 have a visual disability (National Federation of the Blind, 2019). Many of these individuals cannot drive and face challenges trying to access safe and reliable transportation. These challenges can lead to additional consequences for mobility, quality of life, and access to housing and employment.

Transportation network companies (TNCs) are organizations that enable a passenger to digitally prearrange a ride with a driver through the entity’s digital network. TNCs have emerged as a new mode of travel that has the potential to increase access to transportation for blind individuals. In 2014, the American Council of the Blind (ACB) produced a white paper on TNCs to investigate “how the new products work and the extent to which they meet the needs of ACB’s members” (Brooks, 2015, para. 4). Bloggers who focus on the mobility challenges for the blind have lauded the services offered by TNCs, referring to them as “an excellent alternative to public transportation, cabs, hiring personal drivers, and asking for rides from friends” (Thomas, 2016, para. 1). However, the opportunities and challenges for TNC use by blind individuals have not been widely studied.

This research used qualitative and quantitative methods to identify how the blind perceive the safety of TNCs relative to other travel modes, and how they use TNCs for safe travel. In this paper, the term blind describes an individual who “must devise alternative techniques to do efficiently those things which he [or she] would do if he [or she] had normal vision” (Jernigan, 2005, para. 9).

Travel Modes Available to the Blind

Blind individuals experience numerous barriers to moving safely, independently, and efficiently across the landscape (Zimmerman-Janschitz et al., 2017). This section summarizes key findings from previous research that identifies positive and negative aspects for the following travel modes that are available to the blind: using public transportation and paratransit, riding in a personal vehicle as a passenger, and walking.

Public Transit and Paratransit

One positive aspect of public transportation identified in the literature is the ability for users to develop a trusting relationship with a vehicle driver. French researchers found that some blind respondents preferred using the bus over the train, mostly because they could interact with the bus driver (Marin-Lamellet et al., 2001). Crudden et al. (2016) found that 85% of their blind survey population had high confidence interacting with a driver to get to their destination and/or to obtain directions to their final destination upon arrival at the last transit stop. Blind riders also rely on fellow passengers for assistance. Researchers from India found that blind bus riders have a heavy reliance on sighted riders (Taneja et al., 2012).

Public transportation use is challenging for blind users due to an increased dependence on others and limited access to trip information. Drivers failing to audibly announce transit stops are a significant barrier to public transportation use because blind riders may lack the ability to visually confirm their location (Crudden et al., 2016). Researchers in India found that interactions between sighted and blind patrons often resulted in abuse and misguidance of blind individuals (Taneja et al., 2012). The findings of Marin-Lamellet, et al. (2001) revealed that two-thirds of surveyed blind public transportation riders were not able to easily access trip information because it was presented in a visual way (transit network maps, trip tables, etc.).

Another significant barrier to blind access to public transportation is the lack of adequate transit services. Ademokoya (2007) posited that a lack of public transport greatly discourages persons with disabilities from traveling. Dr. Anne Corn, an educator, researcher, and advocate in the field of visual disabilities, theorized that decreasing operational budgets among public transportation providers prevent them from meeting the demand for mobility services for blind individuals (personal communication, July 10, 2017).

Paratransit services—a federally mandated service that must operate in conventional public transit service areas—do offer blind individuals another mobility option. However, some see the use of technology as a means to potentially increase the quality of paratransit services and decrease the current burden associated with paratransit scheduling mechanisms (Van, 2015). To this end, some paratransit agencies are working toward development of intelligent transportation systems and mobile apps that help lessen the trip-scheduling burden for blind users (Dacuan, 2015).

Personal Vehicle

Some low-vision individuals may be able to drive in a limited capacity with the assistance of bioptic lenses (lenses that magnify between two and six times and are used to improve distance vision for the visually impaired). Many individuals who are visually impaired cannot drive. Pavey et al. (2009) suggested that the inability to drive, despite a strong desire to do so, can be devastating to blind individuals. Dr. Robert Wall Emerson, a professor in the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies at Western Michigan University, posited that “many people who are blind do not want to drive so much as want to be able to be involved in the driver culture. They want to know about cars…and be knowledgeable about this important aspect of life” (personal communication, August 10, 2017).

The dominance of personal vehicle transportation results in reliance on social networks to facilitate personal travel for blind individuals, which may lead to feelings of guilt and/or being a burden. Some individuals may be able to hire personal drivers, but this option requires a high level of personal involvement and significant costs (e.g., car insurance, gas, and maintenance). These costs may be prohibitive, especially for those who are unemployed and/or on a fixed or limited income (Demmitt, 2017).

Walking

Walking as a means of transportation also presents challenges. Respondents interviewed by Pavey et al. (2009) mentioned low levels of confidence with pedestrian travel due to obstacles in their path (cars parked on sidewalks and trash bins misplaced on sidewalks), the urban environment (uneven or broken sidewalks), and traffic. Challenges to personal mobility can manifest in feelings of frustration brought about by a lack of independence and freedom. Golledge et al. (1997) suggested that dependence on sighted individuals for travel assistance is a leading cause of frustration for the visually impaired.  In turn, these feelings can lead to reduced participation in activities such as socializing, entertainment, grocery shopping, religious services, volunteering, and employment (Corn & Rosenblum, 2002).

Transportation Network Companies

TNCs have introduced a new mobility option for people across the globe. Aspects of TNC services that may benefit the blind include the low cost of service relative to taxis (Brooks, 2015), driver arrival notifications (Kendrick, 2016), driver attention being focused on a single passenger (Dr. Anne Corn, personal communication, July 10, 2017), door-to-door service (Dr. Anne Corn, personal communication, July 10, 2017), cashless payment transactions (Brooks, 2015; Uber, 2017), compatibility with voice-to-text tools (Kendrick, 2016), a driver rating system (Brooks, 2015), and the ability to share trip details with family and friends (Uber, 2017).

TNC characteristics that warrant improvement include challenges with technology and lack of adequate nondiscriminatory policies. For example, the quality of voice-to-text tools and other speech products’ compatibility with the TNC apps vary between companies. In some instances, text-based elements in the app such as estimated time of arrival work well, while map functionality may not (Brooks, 2015). Similarly, TNCs update their app software frequently, which can sometimes lead to difficulties with certain smartphone operating systems (Kendrick, 2016). Moreover, the American Council of the Blind has cited the lack of TNC vehicles that meet Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility criteria and surge pricing as significant barriers to TNC use by the blind (Brooks, 2015).

Another important issue is the accommodation of service animals in TNC vehicles. In April 2016, a 2-year court case between Uber and multiple blind plaintiffs was settled. Uber agreed to take steps to prevent discrimination against riders using service dogs through driver education efforts about legal obligations and stricter enforcement of policies for noncompliant drivers (Danielsen, 2016).

Research Questions

While previous research studies have investigated the mobility challenges faced by blind individuals, few, if any, have focused on how TNCs may address these challenges. Furthermore, no research has been conducted to assess the safety perceptions of TNCs relative to other modes of travel used by this population. Therefore, this research sought to fill this gap by addressing the following questions:

  • What factors are used to assess the safety of transportation options by individuals who are blind?
  • Relative to other modes of transportation available to blind individuals, how safe or unsafe are TNCs perceived to be?
  • What TNC characteristics contribute to the perception of safety compared to transit and paratransit services?
  • What technologies mitigate the perceived safety risks for blind users?
  • Do TNCs offer a service that can address some of the identified transportation challenges?

Methodology

The project team used a web survey to collect information from blind individuals. The web survey was informed by an extensive literature review and the input of an expert panel and project consultant. The survey tool was then tested with blind users in a focus group. Post-survey qualitative interviews were conducted with TNC representatives to supplement and enrich the quantitative findings.

Establishment of Strategic Partnerships and a Project Panel

To ensure this research would best serve blind individuals, the team established strategic partnerships with organizations that advocate on behalf of the blind. These partnerships served three purposes: to establish a knowledge base that would help inform panel participant selection, provide access to a pool of eligible survey respondents, and legitimize the project among the target population. Partnerships were established with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired as well as the National Federation of the Blind.

A project panel was also formed to provide a mechanism to ensure that the project team was conducting the research in a manner that is consistent with and respectful of the special needs of populations that are blind. Members of the three-person panel included a professor in the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies at a major university, a clinical instructor in a university visual impairment/orientation and mobility program, and a TNC regional manager. Additionally, the project was further guided by the assistance of a consultant who was a founding member of the International Society for Low Vision Research and Rehabilitation and a member and past division chair of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Survey Development and Testing

A survey instrument was developed to address the research questions. The project panel reviewed and provided comments that were incorporated into a final survey instrument. The survey included the following modules:

  • Introduction.
  • Travel modes used recently.
  • Reasons why modes are used or not used.
  • Factors that influence travel.
  • Realized or perceived safety.
  • Experience with TNCs.
  • Demographics.

The survey was programmed for web administration, with special attention given to survey design best practices identified for accessibility for blind respondents who use screen readers. The survey program was tested internally on several web browsers and devices to ensure that it was usable across various technology platforms. A focus group of blind participants then reviewed and tested the survey program. Findings from the focus group informed a final round of edits to the survey instrument. The final survey contained approximately 80 questions. Additional details about the survey or the survey questionnaire are available in the project report of the research study.

Data Collection and Processing

Respondents were recruited through organizations that advocate on behalf of the blind through direct outreach to support groups. More than 350 organizations received the recruitment email. Information about the survey was posted to seven blind community support groups on Facebook.

Data collection occurred over an 8-week period, from January 18, 2018, to March 12, 2018. The final dataset included 283 total surveys, with 192 completed surveys and 91 partially completed surveys. The median length of time spent completing the survey was 25 minutes.

The survey data were extracted and processed. Data processing primarily involved subjecting the data to a series of logic checks to confirm the program was working as planned and ensure consistency across variables. Researchers also post-coded open-ended variables and created new variables from existing variables for analytical purposes. The final processing step was to run univariate and bivariate frequencies to identify anomalies. Researchers did not weight the dataset to more closely match known sociodemographic characteristics of the population under study because these sociodemographic data were not readily available. Also, since the survey did not collect geographic identifiers, geographic weighting was impossible. For these reasons, and because the survey employed a non-probability opt-in sampling approach, the survey results cannot be generalized to the population of all blind individuals. Rather, the estimates presented in this study are reflective of the opinions and behaviors of survey participants.

Structured Interviews with TNC Representatives

Following a preliminary descriptive data analysis, the research team held structured interviews with representatives of two TNCs: Uber and Lyft. These two companies account for more than 70% of the U.S. ride-hailing industry (Newcomer, 2018). The purpose of the interviews was to gain the perspective of TNCs on the safe use of TNCs by the community of blind users. Where appropriate, the insights gained in the interviews are incorporated into the results and discussion sections to provide deeper understanding of the results from the perspective of both service users and service providers.

Results

A small but diverse sample of blind individuals participated in the survey (N = 192). When compared to estimates derived from 2015 ACS data by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute (EDI) (n.d.), the sample appears to be under-representative of males, non-White minorities, and individuals with less than a bachelor’s degree. However, these comparisons are not exact and should be interpreted with caution. For example, the EDI estimates for gender are based on a sample of individuals age 16 and older that reported a visual impairment in the 2015 ACS. The age range for this survey was 18 and older. Similar differences exist with the comparison of ethnicity, race, and education. The sample is over-representative of individuals who are totally blind and individuals who are employed.

Forty percent of the survey respondents were younger than 45 years old. The average household size was 2.07. More than two-thirds (68%) were employed either full time (47%) or part time (21%). A slight majority were totally blind (52%), with a slightly higher proportion (59%) reporting no other disability. Nearly nine out of 10 (89%) had received orientation and mobility training. A majority of respondents (54%) lived in a zero-vehicle household, and 16% had a child living within a 30-minute drive of home.

Travel Modes Used Recently

The survey began by asking respondents what modes of transportation they had used in the last 60 days. In the event they reported using multiple modes, respondents were asked to identify which mode was used most often. Table 1 shows that a majority of respondents reported using a personal vehicle as a passenger (82%), walking (76%), a TNC (72%), and public transit (66%) to make trips in the last 60 days. Forty-six percent of respondents reported using paratransit in the last 60 days. Table 1 also shows that the four modes most often used by respondents were public transit (26%), personal vehicle as a passenger (25%), TNC (21%), and paratransit (17%).

Approximately one-fifth of respondents (21%) reported using TNCs more often than any other mode in the 60-day period prior to survey participation. None of the sociodemographic variables tested demonstrated a statistically significant influence on respondent propensity to use TNCs more than other modes. Among variables tested, age showed the strongest (non-significant) influence. A Chi-square test of independence was calculated to compare respondents who used TNCs more frequently than any other mode with other respondents across two age groups: respondents younger than 45 years old and respondents 45 years old and older. A near-statistically significant interaction was found (X2 (1, N = 191) = 3.715, p = 0.054). Respondents younger than 45 years old were more likely to report using TNCs more frequently than any other mode (28%), versus those who were 45 years old or older (16%). This finding is in line with some recent findings that state younger (18- to 34-year-old) individuals are currently downloading the Uber and Lyft apps at higher rates than their older cohorts (Molla, 2018).

Reasons Modes Not Used

Respondents were asked to identify the reason they did not use a specific mode to make a trip in the last 60 days. Lack of access or lack of easy access was the most significant reason respondents did not make trips via personal vehicle as a passenger (35%). Cost was the most significant reason respondents did not make trips via for-hire services such as a TNC (41%) or taxi/limo (83%). Not feeling safe was the most significant reason respondents did not make walking trips (41%) or biking trips (55%). Excessive travel time was the most significant reason respondents did not make trips via public transit (46%) or paratransit (53%).

Factors That Influence Travel

Survey respondents were asked to rank 14 factors they may or may not consider when making decisions to use various modes of transportation. The data suggest that a majority of respondents felt that 12 of the 14 factors were important considerations in their decision to use a specific mode. The only two factors that were not deemed important by a majority were party composition (with whom they were traveling; 46%) and day of the week (42%). The two factors evaluated as important by the largest proportion of respondents were reliability (98%) and availability (97%). Cost (evaluated as important by 91% of respondents), ease of use (evaluated as important by 90% of respondents), and safety (evaluated as important by 89% of respondents) were also important factors.

Realized or Perceived Safety

Respondents were asked to evaluate each mode they had used in the last 60 days with regard to personal safety. These evaluations were based on the personal experience gained from using these modes. Respondents were also asked to evaluate each mode they had not used in the last 60 days with regard to personal safety. These evaluations were based on personal experience using these modes, as well as what they had heard or read about these modes. It was assumed that respondents who had used a particular mode within the last 60 days would be more frequent users of that mode than someone who had not. It was also assumed that more frequent users would be more familiar and/or comfortable using a specific mode. Comments revealed that some respondents who had not used a specific mode in the last 60 days did have some level of personal experience with that mode. Therefore, respondents who had not used a mode in the last 60 days could not be viewed strictly as non-users.

As presented in Table 2, a majority of respondents who had used the mode in the last 60 days evaluated eight out of nine modes as safe. The only mode not evaluated as safe by a majority of respondents was as a driver of a personal vehicle. The highest safety evaluations were attributed to personal vehicle as the passenger (mean score of 4.69) and paratransit (mean score of 4.56). The lowest safety evaluations were attributed to personal vehicle as the driver (mean score of 2.92) and boat or ferry (mean score of 3.33). The results also suggest that when evaluated by respondents who had not used the mode in the last 60 days, four of the nine modes (44%) were identified as safe by a majority of these respondents. The highest safety evaluations from this group were attributed to personal vehicle as the passenger (mean score of 4.15) and paratransit (mean score of 3.85). The lowest safety evaluations were attributed to personal vehicle as the driver (mean score of 2.11) and boat or ferry (mean score of 1.70). These results were similar to the findings from the respondents who had used the mode in the last 60 days.

The overall safety mean score estimated for each mode was higher among respondents who had used a mode than those who had not. Furthermore, the overall mean safety score (estimated by taking the average of the mean safety scores for each mode) was a full point higher for the users (4.1 for those who had used each mode in the last 60 days versus 3.1 for those who had not).

Respondents who evaluated public transit, TNCs, or paratransit as being unsafe were asked to explain what made them feel that way. Respondents could provide any level of detail because the answers were collected via open text entry boxes and later coded by the project team into logical categories.

Table 3 and Table 4 present the most often-mentioned reasons why respondents believed they would feel unsafe and safe, respectively, when using public transit, TNCs, or paratransit. These responses are grouped by those who had used a specific mode in the last 60 days and those who had not.

Public Transit.

Feeling uneasy around other passengers was the most often-mentioned reason that respondents considered public transit unsafe. This was true regardless of how recently the mode was used. Similarly, a lack of safety at transit stops was another often-mentioned reason across respondent types. Respondents who had used public transit in the last 60 days also mentioned that the trip to or from the transit stop made them feel unsafe. Respondents who had not used public transit in the last 60 days believed that their disability (or disabilities) made them feel more vulnerable on public transit.

Among respondents who had used public transit in the last 60 days, well-trained drivers were the most often-mentioned reason they felt safe. This was followed by being familiar with the system and the presence of other passengers, leading to an overall feeling of safety. Conversely, respondents who had not used public transit in the last 60 days reported that the size of the public transit vehicle (i.e., larger than other passenger vehicles and better at withstanding collisions) led to an overall feeling of safety.

Paratransit.

Among respondents who had used paratransit in the last 60 days and those who had not, the most often-mentioned reason for considering it unsafe was paratransit drivers. Respondents who had used paratransit in the last 60 days felt that the drivers were not well trained, whereas respondents who had not used paratransit in the last 60 days lacked trust in the drivers’ ability to operate the vehicle in a safe manner or be respectful of passengers with disabilities. Respondents who had not used paratransit in the last 60 days also felt that the service was not reliable or were concerned about the well-being of their service animal.

Among both types of respondents, the most often-mentioned reason for feeling safe using paratransit was their belief that the drivers were well trained. Respondents who had used paratransit in the last 60 days also felt safe because of their familiarity with specific drivers and their previous positive experiences with the service. Respondents who had not used paratransit in the last 60 days reported that they would feel safe because they believed that paratransit organizations do their due diligence in screening drivers and have a good reputation in their city.

TNCs.

Among respondents who had used TNCs in the last 60 days, the most often-mentioned reason for TNCs being unsafe was the difficulty experienced by the driver and passenger in recognizing one another. Among respondents who had not used TNCs in the last 60 days, a much different set of responses was gathered. These responses included a lack of familiarity with the drivers, a feeling of vulnerability due to their disability (or disabilities), and their perception that TNCs are not sufficiently regulated.

Well-trained drivers were the most often-mentioned reason for feeling safe by respondents who had used and had not used the service in the last 60 days. Among respondents who had used a TNC in the last 60 days, significant reasons for feeling safe also included the rider’s familiarity with TNC services and the ability to monitor the trip via smartphone. Among respondents who had not used a TNC in the last 60 days, significant reasons for feeling safe included their perception that TNCs do their due diligence in screening drivers and have a good reputation in their city.

Experience with TNCs

The final section of the survey queried respondents who had used a TNC in the last 60 days about their TNC experience. Unless otherwise noted, this section focuses solely on this respondent group.

Respondents were asked to identify the types of activities in which they were more likely to be engaged since their use of TNCs began. A majority of respondents reported increased engagement with six of the 12 activity types. Health care and going out for dinner or drinks were the most often-mentioned activity types (each mentioned by 78% of respondents), followed closely by visiting friends or relatives (73% of respondents) and shopping (72% of respondents).

Twenty-nine percent of respondents reported that they currently had a service animal. Of these individuals, approximately three-quarters (74%) had a negative experience related to their service animal while using a TNC. Ninety-three percent of respondents who had a negative experience described a situation where the driver refused service because of the service animal. Refusal of service was by far the most common issue, but respondents also reported a reduced quality of service (22%) and that a driver mistreated their service animal (4%).

When asked to identify what TNC technologies made them feel safer, the notification of a driver approaching or arriving was the most often-mentioned technology (85%). Avoiding manual payment of the driver was a close second (81%). Nearly three-quarters of respondents (73%) mentioned either the ability to rate the driver or the applications’ compatibility with VoiceOver and other speech products. A majority of respondents identified each of the offered response options as a technology that made them feel safer.

The final survey question asked respondents who had used both TNCs and public transit in the last 60 days to evaluate their sense of safety of one mode relative to the other. Respondents were asked to identify the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: I feel safer making trips with a TNC than I do making trips using public transportation. A plurality (48%) of these respondents agreed (either strongly or somewhat), whereas one-fifth disagreed (either strongly or somewhat). Almost one-third (32%) were neutral (neither agreed nor disagreed).

Discussion

The survey findings suggest that a large proportion of survey respondents used TNCs. Nearly three-fourths of respondents had used TNCs in the 60 days prior to survey participation. Twenty-one percent reported using TNCs more than any other mode during this time period. The survey recruitment message explained the purpose of the study as “identify[ing] how this community utilizes TNCs for safe mobility.” This language may have led some individuals with no previous TNC experience to believe that they were not qualified to participate and resulted in a higher proportion of TNC users in the survey than the true proportion. A probability-based sample design may not only improve the accuracy of future survey estimates but also lead to a larger sample size. This larger sample could facilitate segmentation, thus allowing researchers to analyze how perceptions vary by key factors such as level of confidence in selecting mobility options, orientation and mobility training, and geography.

Respondents identified mode availability, mode reliability, and mode safety as the three most influential factors when selecting a mode of travel. These findings are generally in line with similar research focused on identifying factors affecting mode choice within the elderly population and the general population (Olsson, 2003; Sitlington, 1999; Wong et al., 2016).

A majority of recent TNC users confirmed that TNCs had increased their engagement in activities, ranging from health care to running errands. This finding is an example of how TNCs are helping blind individuals live more independently. Furthermore, features like cashless payment and real-time driver notifications are ways in which TNCs are using technology to increase the perceptions of safety among blind riders. Because of these and similar technologies, 48% of recent TNCs users reported that they felt safer using TNCs than public transit.

Despite praise from blind riders, issues surrounding service animals persist. Nearly three of every four recent TNC users with a service animal reported a service-animal-related issue. While some respondents had experienced lower levels of service, most had experienced complete denial of service, seemingly because a service animal accompanied them. This phenomenon contradicts the case made by TNCs that TNC transportation is for everyone. During follow-up structured interviews, TNC representatives elaborated on recent policy and technology changes that have been adopted to reduce the frequency of these events and to address this shortcoming.

This research project posed five key questions about the safety and safety perceptions of TNC services for blind individuals. The related findings, discussed briefly below, provide important implications for researchers, practitioners, and families.

Factors Used to Assess the Safety of Various Transportation Options

A qualitative evaluation of the open text comments captured in the survey about the factors that either contribute to or detract from a feeling of safety when using public transit, TNCs, or paratransit identified 10 factors that are important safety considerations for blind individuals. These factors include the presence of other passengers, driver quality and familiarity with the driver, familiarity with a service, technology, activities required for mode access or egress, regulation, accommodation of service animals, vehicle size, reputation of service provider, and feelings of personal vulnerability as a function of being blind. With the exception of two factors (accommodation of service animals and feelings of personal vulnerability as a function of being blind) this list could easily describe factors that contribute to or detract from a feeling of safety for sighted individuals. Further research that includes both sighted and blind participants would be beneficial in assessing how safety perceptions are influenced by these factors. Only then could differences and commonalities between these two groups be ascertained.

Perceived Safety of TNCs and Other Modes of Transportation

Seventy-two percent of respondents reported using TNCs in the 60-day period prior to taking the survey, and 21% indicated TNCs as the mode they used most often. For those recent TNC users, TNCs were rated as the third-safest mode among the nine modes respondents were asked to evaluate. Riding in a personal vehicle as the passenger and paratransit were deemed safer than TNCs, with the difference in safety scores being quite small. Among respondents who had not used TNCs in the last 60 days, TNCs were rated the fourth-safest mode, behind riding in a personal vehicle as the passenger, paratransit, and boat or ferry.

Across all modes, individuals who had recently used a mode assigned a higher mean safety score than those who had not recently used a mode. This finding suggests that one of the biggest opportunities for TNCs as they market their services to the community of blind and visually impaired users is to focus on simply getting riders to initially experiment with the service, in hopes that a safe and positive experience helps ensure long-term use.

TNC Characteristics That Convey Safety, or Lack Thereof

The most significant characteristic associated with a respondent feeling safe in a TNC vehicle was a well-trained driver. This held true for both recent users and those who had not recently used a TNC. Among recent TNC users, an increased perception of safety was associated with familiarity with the service from having used a TNC previously and the ability to monitor the trip with the TNC app. Among respondents who had not used a TNC in the last 60 days, in addition to the drivers being well trained, their perceptions of safety were driven by their belief that TNCs performed due diligence on drivers and had a good reputation in the respondents’ home region.

Just as some respondents felt as if drivers helped establish a feeling of safety when using TNCs, respondents who perceived TNCs as unsafe commented that drivers were a key factor in their sentiment. More specifically, recent TNC users reported difficulty with the driver recognizing the passenger and vice versa. Similarly, respondents who had not used a TNC in the last 60 days reported their lack of familiarity with the TNC driver as a reason that they would feel unsafe. Respondents who had not used a TNC in the last 60 days also mentioned feeling vulnerable using TNCs simply because they were disabled. This sentiment was not unique to TNCs; it was also mentioned as a reason for feeling unsafe on public transit. This sense of vulnerability was not mentioned with paratransit, perhaps because paratransit specifically focuses on serving the mobility needs of disabled individuals, whereas both TNCs and public transit offer transportation services to the public. This sentiment among a segment of current and potential TNC customers may offer a rare example of how TNCs’ business model of providing mobility to all, regardless of user characteristics, may prove more detrimental than beneficial, at least where this specific population of users is concerned. Last, some respondents who had not used a TNC in the last 60 days perceived TNCs to be unsafe due to lack of sufficient regulation. This sentiment is certainly not unique to blind riders, and it remains a highly debated topic among professionals engaged in transportation policy decision making.

TNC Technologies That Mitigate Safety Risks

When asked to identify what TNC technology made them feel safer, a majority of TNC users said many TNC technologies accomplish this goal. The notification of an approaching driver was an example of technology that increases perceptions of safety. This may be particularly important given the difficulty with drivers recognizing passengers, and vice versa. Avoiding manual payment was also a favored use of technology. This technology may be useful in helping blind TNC riders avoid being taken advantage of financially. At a minimum, it lessens the chance of something like this occurring. The ability to rate the driver and the app’s compatibility with VoiceOver and other speech products were also integral in mitigating risk. Finally, the ability to share trip location details with others was identified as a positive use of technology to increase safety.

TNC Services That Can Help Address Transportation Challenges of the Blind and Visually Impaired

In some ways, the service model offered by TNCs provides blind users with solutions to some of the challenges this group may face when seeking safe transportation options. TNCs provide a service that is akin to a taxi or other private ride, and thus offer transportation that inherently eliminates some of the perceived risk factors that exist with alternatives like public transit. Other aspects of TNC services that were developed to produce a convenient service to the wider consumer market can have additional benefits for blind users. For example, TNCs place a fundamental emphasis on technological features, such as real-time location tracking and a cashless payment system, that help overcome issues like identifying and locating the correct vehicle or having to rely on others to inform a rider of a bus or taxi fare. In addition, the smartphone-based TNC services ensure integration with text-to-voice services that are a well-established tool to enable self-sufficiency among blind users. The survey findings suggest that when users increase familiarity with TNC services—by using them—their perceptions of the safety of TNC services increase as well.

However, TNC services do not resolve all challenges for blind users. There are real and perceived limitations to use of TNC services that can affect perceptions of safety. Blind users may still face challenges related to their vulnerability to drivers and other passengers. Like public transit and paratransit, it was important to respondents to feel familiar and comfortable with TNC services. The survey demonstrates that users who are unfamiliar with the services have lower perceptions of safety. In addition, TNCs offer a for-hire service that comes at a cost. This financial cost is a barrier that can be more acute for blind individuals who may have fewer options than do sighted individuals. Future studies could look into the viability of shared TNC rides for blind users to identify specific skills, knowledge, or challenges that may arise. The survey results and interview findings suggest that users have different concerns and interpret their level of safety in different terms. While this makes it challenging to identify specific crosscutting solutions, it reinforces the need to inform potential users about how the services operate, how they are regulating or enforcing safety, and how to use the services.

Finally, it would be valuable to replicate this survey with sighted individuals to facilitate a comparison between these two populations. These data would enable a more comprehensive understanding regarding the role of safety and safety perceptions in mode choice decisions. Furthermore, these data could provide useful information to TNCs as they attempt to better meet the needs of blind users.

Implications for Practitioners and Families

The results of this research suggest that TNCs present an opportunity for blind individuals to become more engaged in a wide range of activities to which they currently may not have safe access. Safer access to these activities not only increases feelings of independence for blind individuals but also potentially opens the door to increased opportunities for employment and socialization. For this reason alone, it may be worthwhile to increase the emphasis of this mobility option in orientation and mobility training programs currently available to the blind community. This training would benefit from focusing on addressing some of the safety issues identified in this research, such as driver-related issues and familiarization with the current regulatory frameworks under which TNCs are required to operate. Additionally, training programs that encourage blind users to experiment with TNCs could help strengthen a relationship between service user and service provider that has suffered some recent damage. Practitioners may also be well served to emphasize pooled TNC service as an opportunity to increase feelings of safety and reduce the financial burden that sometimes prevents blind individuals from using these services.

Acknowledgments

This project was funded by the Safety through Disruption (Safe-D) National University Transportation Center, a grant from the University Transportation Centers Program of the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (Grant No: 69A3551747115). The contents of this paper reflect the views of the authors, who are responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the information presented herein. The authors followed the procedures of the Institutional Review Board to ensure the safety of research subjects. This document is disseminated in the interest of information exchange. The U.S. Government assumes no liability for the contents or use thereof.

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