Thoughts about the lack of universal design in our transportation infrastructure

Sarah & I spent half the day on the road on Wednesday to meet with a friend who we’re getting to help us create some visuals for the universal design concepts we use for consulting. Driving gives me time to think (kind of like showers do), and one of the ideas I couldn’t shake from my mind was the design of our transportation infrastructure today.

If you’ve read our free eBook – Universal Design: Simplified – you’ll recall an analogy that noted how it’s possible to hop in a car and literally drive just about anywhere without concern. The systems of [public] roads here in America are pretty great. Most any car can get from point A to point B with ease.

Spend a day with someone who doesn’t have a perfectly functional body and see what it’s like to get around a city. I’ve used a wheelchair for 13+ years and regardless of how skilled I’ve gotten at using it, I still run into hazards everywhere. If hazards that affected the safety of cars on the road were as prevalent as those that affect the safety and ease-of-use of wheelchairs (or any other type of mobility support/device, really), there’d be an uproar by the millions of drivers out there.

What is Transportation Infrastructure?

You likely use our transportation infrastructure every day.
Here’s what it includes (per Wikipedia):

[list icon=”arrow-2″]

  • Road and highway networks, including structures (bridges, tunnels, culverts, retaining walls), signage and markings, electrical systems (street lighting and traffic lights), edge treatments (curbs, sidewalks, landscaping), and specialized facilities such as road maintenance depots and rest areas
  • Mass transit systems (Commuter rail systems, subways, tramways, trolleys and bus transportation)
  • Railways, including structures, terminal facilities (rail yards, train stations), level crossings, signalling and communications systems
  • Canals and navigable waterways requiring continuous maintenance (dredging, etc.)
  • Seaports and lighthouses
  • Airports, including air navigational systems
  • Bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways, including pedestrian bridges, pedestrian underpasses and other specialized structures for cyclists and pedestrians
  • Ferries
  • [/list]Yes, it is commonplace to see people with disabilities out and about, so it’s safe to conclude that there is a certain level of accessibility within the transportation infrastructure. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination and [supposedly] ensures equal opportunity and access for persons with disabilities. There’s plenty written into law about it. It sounds good in writing. The implementation in most communities across America is an entirely different story.I’d venture to guess that the average level of accessibility for places I’ve visited since my injury (in 1999) hits somewhere around 50-70% compliance. Generally speaking, I can get around okay. BUT, that extra 30-50% or so of noncompliance makes a BIG difference in how easy and/or safe it is to do so.

    What happens when minority concern gets trumped by majority apathy.

    There’s only so much energy that people with disabilities can put forth to say “fix the problems” and “it’s in the law.” Getting everything up to compliance is a costly endeavor, and regardless of whether it’s the right thing to do, the enforcement of accessibility often sits on the back burner. It might get fixed if or when people get around to it. The crux of the issue is that the demand (economically speaking) gets drowned out by other priorities of people who don’t understand the importance that access has. Until the demand increases (which is occurring, though it feels slow), people who have needs of easier and safer access really have to be on high alert, constantly.

    If people had the foresight to build things within our transportation infrastructure using principles of universal design, accessibility problems could be minimized, if not eliminated. Thing is, what’s done is done & fixing problems isn’t cheap or easy. HOWEVER, construction hasn’t ceased. Part of what we’re trying to work on is how to cast a vision for the future and make people aware of the increasing needs of our society. If there’s a greater understanding of needs, there’s a much greater chance of access and usability for as many people as possible to be built into the design of things… and that’s where the ideas behind universal design start to become tangible.

    Society has got to move beyond looking at the legal code and start looking at our population. Compliance with the law can be fudged with, but it’s much more difficult to look at our neighbors and deem them unworthy of really great accommodation – which, by the way, can be COMPLETELY natural looking, instead of having an institutional feel.

    A local example.

    This photo could ruffle some feathers. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it speaks volumes. Keep reading and I’ll explain why. First, this parking lot is, like many others, not level. It slopes toward the building, which is a safety issue for anyone who relies on a mobility device, like myself. Without sounding too cynical here, there are some people who simply don’t consider that a wheelchair does actually have wheels and will roll downhill. If you don’t believe me, try getting out of a car – without standing up – and onto a seat on wheels sometime.

    building inspector's parking lot

    Those accessibile parking spots aren’t compliant with the ADA, which mandates that the maximum slope – in all directions – should be no more than 1:50 (rise/run). Admittedly I didn’t have my digital angle measurement tool with me when I snapped this photo, but I’m 99% certain it’s a good bit more than a 2% grade.

    The kicker: this is the parking lot for the local building inspector’s office. You know, the guys that make sure every little detail of buildings is safe and up to spec/code?

    Accessibility needs to be taken seriously, and that’s not going to happen until those who don’t need it see its importance for those who do. The disconnect and inherent lack of empathy is a tough barrier to overcome. This is why we’re really pushing universal designinstead.

Source: Scott Pruett 2012.

We’re all for making universal design simple, so we took the original 7 principles and condensed them into the following 4 characteristics. The most commonly used UD principles and guidelines are found at The Center for Universal Design, affiliated with NC State University.

1. Flexible

All we are saying here is that the design can meet the needs and desires of people with different abilities. Sometimes some adaptation will be required, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Flexibility can even come naturally. (ref. principle 2)

2. Impartial

Being impartial is an intentional effort to create a design for a place, product, or program that isn’t specific for one demographic. This means that there isn’t a requirement for a person to have certain abilities to access, manipulate, or understand something. (ref. principles 1,7)

3. Safe

Remove or minimize hazards, and accidents will be reduced, or sometimes even eliminated. It’s true that people with physical limitations encounter more hazards in today’s society. (ref. principle 5)

4. Simple

The easier something is to use or understand, the more likely that people will be independent with it. It shouldn’t matter what someone’s abilities are, or what their knowledge or experience levels are. The simpler, the better. (ref. principles 3,4,6)

Check out our eBook, “Universal Design: Simplified,” to learn more.

Source: Sarah Pruett


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