Building Accessible Infrastructure for Everyone

Written by: Sara Dennis
This article is the fourth in a series we’ll be posting about how a city's infrastructure impacts its residents.


Steve Krug once said “The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?” Throughout our lives our physical and mental abilities change as we age, making ability more of a spectrum than a binary concept as we once thought. By keeping this in mind as we build infrastructure, we can make infrastructure more accessible to all people regardless of where they are on the ability-spectrum.

Different transportation and environmental components that affect accessibility throughout a journey can include sidewalks, ramps, parking, public transportation, personal vehicles, and safe resting areas like benches. When certain infrastructure elements aren’t available to people, like elevators in buildings or braille on signs, people can be isolated and excluded from certain experiences. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law on July 26th, 1990, worked to fix this by prohibiting discrimination and guaranteeing that differently abled people would have the same opportunities to participate in mainstream American life. It states that “if an able-bodied person has access to a facility, a disabled person should also be provided access”. ADA ensures that new construction and renovations meet specific standards when applicable. Some common examples include the following:


Pedestrian Access Routes (PAR), the path through and contained within a pedestrian space, must have features that make it usable by people with mobility, sensory and cognitive impairment conditions. The unobstructed path cannot be less than 4” wide, and cannot include other features like bike racks, newspaper stands, parking meters more. And, if the PAR is less than 5’ wide, it must include a 5’ by 5’ passing spaces at intervals at intervals of 200’.



Detectable Warnings (DW), are used to provide a distinct surface (usually made up of truncated domes) that is noticeable by cane or underfoot and contrasts with the surrounding color. This alerts people with vision impairments to the transition to or from a vehicular route, or where a subway or train is boarding.



Curb Ramps are found at the corners of intersections and other areas where pedestrians transition to a sidewalk. ADA compliance states that the slope must be 8.33% or less from the road to the sidewalk. Furthermore, they cannot have a vertical change more than 0.25”, which can cause falls and wheelchairs to bottom out.


While these examples focus mostly on construction-related ways to improve accessibility, other considerations can be made including: braille on signs, subtitles, visible and audible indicators for push-to-cross-the-street buttons and many other things. In 2015, the American Community Survey estimated that 12.6% of the US population have some type of disability, and the World Health Organization estimates approximately 15% of the worldwide population does. By being mindful of how accessible infrastructure impacts everyone, we can help create a more inclusive and diverse society.

Check out the rest of our series about how a city's infrastructure impacts its residents: Transportation Infrastructure, Walkable Infrastructure in Cities, Growth and Infrastructure in a Growing City, and Air Quality, Infrastructure and Public Health.