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Universal Design


For the vast majority of our history, the development of our public rights-of-way have overlooked users challenged by various physical conditions. The deaf, blind, handicapped, and others are a class of citizens that for too long were not accounted for by planners, designers, contractors, politicians, or agency officials. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was put into law in order to recognize and protect the civil liberties of people with disabilities.

The ADA was a great first step in raising the quality of life in our communities. The concept of universal design was born out of the ADA, and seeks to further its mission. Universal Design is an approach to the development of products, in this case streets, to be as usable and accessible as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation. To be clear, universal design is not the mere adherence to minimum accessibility standards. It is a holistic approach from the beginning planning stages all the way through construction that focuses on creating a facility that will be seamless for all users. When planning, designing, and building great streets, we must at all times remember that all streets, and especially great streets, must serve all people. A street cannot be a great street if it does not provide great service to all users, including those with disabilities.

The principles of universal design must be considered throughout all of the great street development stages. Every aspect of a great street should reflect consideration for all users, and not simply by providing minimum standards. The minimum standards must be met, yes; but that is only the beginning. In each stage of a project, we must consider how to create places that serve all users with as much efficiency, safety, and comfort as possible. This demands that we look beyond the minimum requirements. The following sections provide some key universal design elements to consider at each stage of great street development:

Universal Design in the planning stage. The planning stage of a great street represents that phase where the project team studies a variety of potential solutions to achieve the vision for the desired great street. This stage is critical to universal design success. If universal design is not thought of here, it will be very difficult to include in later stages. One of the most important elements to include at the planning stage is that of "expert opinions". For universal design, the experts are those with disabilities. Bringing these people to the table during the planning stage provides expertise that no text book can offer. They can help planners and designers to more fully understand their needs and how the various elements of a great street would likely impact them. Solutions thought to be viable may have unforeseen impacts on people with particular disabilities. Such collaboration also fosters good will within the community. It can be conducted in a variety of formats, from periodic meetings to one-time charettes.

Functionality for any design element is an important detail to consider during the planning stage, but it is especially important with respect to universal design. Careful consideration of how proposed solutions might impact the functionality of the element for all users is essential at this stage of the project. We need to be sure that the solutions recommended during the planning stage will actually be functional for all users once constructed.

Universal Design in the "design" stage. During the design stage for a great street, the preferred solution identified in the planning stage moves into a more detailed phase of development. The ultimate result of the design stage is a set of construction drawings that will direct contractors on what to build, how to build it, how much material is required, etc. Some of the many design issues to be thinking about include the following:   

  • Curb ramps are important universal design elements, but they must be done well to be effective. High "lips" on ramps at the street edge create tipping risk for wheelchairs. Channelized right turns should use raised crosswalks. Level landings are essential atop of each ramp. These are just a few of the many details to be thinking about for the design of curb ramps.
  • Driveways can present challenging conditions for universal design, especially when streets are widened. Driveway cross slopes that are too steep are difficult for wheelchair and ambulatory persons to cross.
  • Sidewalk width is an oft-debated subject. 36" minimum width is ok for one directional traffic, but two-directional is insufficient. 48" is the new "minimum", but even this can be too narrow.
  • Bus stop shelters need to be wheelchair-accessible, which means appropriate offsets between the shelter and the curb. It is not enough to simply provide the bare minimum here. Consider maximizing this dimension to make wheelchair access as safe and comfortable as possible.
  • Narrow sidewalks with minimal separation between the curb and live traffic are undesirable, especially for the blind.
  • When selecting tree species and vegetation, be sure to consider root developmental patterns as vegetation matures. Large roots can heave pavement and crack surfaces, making them difficult for all people, but especially people with disabilities to travel along.
  • Metal surfaces along the street, such as manholes and tree grates, can be very slippery when wet. The blind are less able to identify such hazards.

These are just a few of the many issues that will undoubtedly be encountered during design of great streets, but it gives a sense of the types of details that need to be considered. 

Job special provisions, or JSPs, are a set of written provisions included with every set of construction drawings that are intended to guide and regulate methods of construction. For universal design, it is imperative that planners and designers spell out in detail all of the various universal consideration srequired for a given project. In addition, it is equally important to "encourage" the contractors to carefully read the JSPs so that they understand the full requirements during construction.

Universal Design in the construction stage. The construction stage of a great street is a subtly important phase of the project. At first glance, it would seem that as long as the design phase accounts for universal design in the construction drawings, then the contractor will surely build a great street that is accessible and usable for all. This is not necessarily true. Contractors who are well versed in universal design and who care about the importance of accessibility are equipped to build a universal street. Unfortunately, these contractors are often the minority. Despite best intentions of designers, it is not uncommon for streets that were intended to be universal to be built in a less-than-accessible way. Several elements are essential for successful construction of great universal streets:

  1. Contractor education. In our region, universal design and great streets are not yet mainstream. Traditional design and construction has become so comfortable for many contractors that they can often build many elements without consulting the actual construction drawings.As we work implement new methods for universal and great streets, we must take the time during pre-construction coordination to educate contractors about the universal design elements contained in the plans. These elements must be prioritized, and owning agency may even choose to financially incentivize/penalize the end results. 

  2. Beware of Standard Drawings. Standard drawings are an efficient way to implement routine design elements. They are not, however, appropriate for complex universal design elements, especially on "retrofit" projects. We need to move away from a standard drawing-based construction approaches and toward a site-specific approach when it comes to universal design elements. The contractor must be able to think critically about on-site conditions and how they might impact standard design elements. Something as simple as leaving a lip at the bottom of a curb ramp will go unnoticed if the contractor does not think about the universal impact of that lip on wheelchair users.

  3. Universal Construction Management. Managing construction is not easy. Resident engineers and field inspectors are doing well just to keep up with the pace of construction. These individuals must be trained to think universally during construction. How are the elements being built by the contractor going to affect all users? This question needs to be at the front of every construction managers mind. 

Universal Design and post-construction maintenance. Maintaining great streets for all users is an equally important stage of the project. Once built, the owning agency should monitor the performance of all facets of the project to be sure that there are no unforeseen problems for any users. Problems that arise should be addressed immediately.

As a facility ages, pavement and other materials will deteriorate. Cracked pavement, broken curbs, lips caused by heaving, etc. can all have a negative impact on disabled users. Owning agencies should monitor deterioration patterns so they can quickly address them without risk to any user.

Vegetation is another element of great streets to be mindful of as a facility ages. Maturing trees may have branches that grow into the pedestrian realm, posing a hazard to the visually impaired. Monitoring these conditions is easy to do, and it can prevent unnecessary injury to those users unable to identify the hazard.