Universal access is the ability of all citizens to reach every destination served by the public road system. Americans place great value on their ability to move about independently, where and when they please. Motor vehicle travel is enormously popular, but many citizens need or prefer to travel on foot, by wheelchair, or by bicycle. Appropriate design and regulation of the transportation system can ensure that all users have reasonable access to those destinations located within range of the travel time and modes available to them. In short, walking and bicycling should be accommodated by appropriate design and behavior wherever these modes are permitted; bicyclists and pedestrians should be permitted to access all destinations served by the public road system.
Growth in population and motor travel in and around urban areas has made traffic an important issue in transportation planning. One of the common approaches to increasing vehicle capacity in developed areas is to add width to roadways. Depending on the design of the roadway, however, increased width can make conditions more challenging or less safe for pedestrians who must cross these streets to reach important destinations. In expanding suburban areas, increased traffic on narrow rural roads can make the sharing of roadways by pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists frustrating and hazardous for all parties. Often suburban roads are widened to multi-lane thoroughfares lacking any sidewalks or crossing accommodations for pedestrians, even as more and more destinations (i.e. pedestrian trip generators) appear on those roads. The objective of universal access is to optimize the design of facilities and plan the expansion of urban land uses to maximize the percentage of users able to reach important destinations for work, shopping, school, etc. in reasonable safety, and to reduce the public costs of providing access for basic needs.
Transportation planners are often faced with the task of choosing between options that increase safety and convenience of pedestrian and bicycle travel and options that increase convenience for motorists who wish to travel long distances. Compromises will always be required, but there are many techniques that can be used to optimize the system for all users. For example, design features such as raised center medians improve vehicle flow while at the same time improving pedestrian safety and convenience by providing refuge locations when crossing wide roads. Wide outside lanes make it easier and more comfortable for motorists to pass cyclists safely.
Decisions as to whom should be provided safe access to a transportation facility can be troublesome. Transportation planners sometimes find it compelling to discourage pedestrian or bicycle travel where high-speed, high-volume motor traffic is to be facilitated. In some cases, transportation planners have omitted safety provisions for pedestrians and cyclists on roads with the intent of exploiting fear as a deterrent to pedestrian and bicyclist travel, even though human-powered travel on such roads is legal and necessary to reach destinations. Such an approach is unethical and discriminatory. The best way to avoid conflicts between very high speed traffic and pedestrians and bicyclists is to seal high-speed arterial roadways as controlled access freeways (grade separated crossings, no driveways to destinations), and to locate destinations only on roads that will be maintained accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. However, care must be taken to not sever important cross-town or inter-city routes for those cyclists who often prefer to use limited-access arterial routes for both convenience and safety. Planning for safe travel by pedestrians and cyclists is a necessary consequence of the accommodation of motor travel on public ways.
Many communities struggle with decisions about which roads should be outfitted with "pedestrian facilities" or "bicycle facilities". Universal access makes this decision simple: Pedestrians and cyclists should be accommodated wherever their travel is permitted, and their travel should be permitted to every destination via appropriate routes. For all practical purposes, this means every street and every intersection. The legitimate design and planning issues concern how bicyclist and pedestrian travel to all destinations shall be accommodated, not if.
Cyclists and pedestrians have a legal, constitutionally protected right to access every destination reachable by public roads. This means that they deserve safe accommodation on every road and across every intersection. Non-motorized travel must not be prohibited except where controlled-access expressways provide service that is completely redundant to safe and efficient routes for non-motorized users. Accommodation of cyclists and pedestrians must be provided via safe, lawful and courteous behavior by other road users and by appropriate engineering of roadways.