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Universal Access FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about Universal Access in Transportation and Land Use

What is universal access?
Universal access is the goal of enabling all citizens to reach every destination served by their public street and pathway system. Universal access is not limited to access by persons using automobiles. Travel by bicycle, walking, or wheelchair to every destination is accommodated in order to achieve transportation equity, maximize independence, and improve community livability. Wherever possible, facilities are designed to allow safe travel by young, old, and disabled persons who may have diminished perceptual or ambulatory abilities. By using design to maximize the percentage of the population who can travel independently, it becomes much more affordable for society to provide paratransit services to the remainder with special needs.

Where did the universal access paradigm come from?
Universal access is a synthesis of universal design, good traffic engineering practices, and constitutional law. The right to travel is one of the most highly valued rights in the civilized world and is protected under US and state constitutions. Access to employment, goods, and services is essential for survival in modern society, and must be protected for all persons using public ways. At various stages of life and fortune almost half of the US population does not or cannot own or operate automobiles, or may need wheelchairs to travel as pedestrians. Ethical traffic engineering practices and legislation including the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century and the Americans with Disabilities Act demand reasonable accommodation of bicyclists and pedestrians (including wheelchair users) in the design and regulation of public ways. Universal access is the explicit condition that this connectivity be preserved to every destination served by the publicly owned transportation system.

Is universal access anti-car?
Not at all. Universal access is about preserving choices, and motor vehicles are a very popular choice extending access over a wide geographic area. Universal access ensures that access is also extended across a wide demographic. Access by motoring and non-motorized modes can coexist through proper design and regulation of the transportation system. In special places where conflicts between motorized and non-motorized modes are irreconcilable, it is expected that motorized travelers will convert to non-motorized travel for the final portion of their journey.

What are the implications of universal access for street and intersection design and regulation?

Universal access requires that bicyclists and pedestrians be reasonably accommodated wherever they are permitted to travel. For all practical purposes this requires safe accommodation on every street and across every intersection. Good engineering guidelines exist for ADA-accessible sidewalks, signals, medians, and curb configurations for pedestrians. Useful bicycle transportation typically involves travel on roadways and is accommodated by a combination of education, enforcement, and context-sensitive engineering.

Does universal access prohibit controlled-access expressways?
No. Controlled access expressways and interstate highways may be prohibited to bicyclist and pedestrians as long as these facilities do not provide exclusive access to local destinations and are completely redundant to the network of streets and pathways that are accessible to those who are prohibited. Good controlled-access highways remove express and long-distance traffic from the local roads most needed by bicyclists and pedestrians for access to important destinations.

How is universal access different from past approaches to providing for pedestrians and cyclists?

For centuries, pedestrian access was considered to be a given in any urban street network. Toward the end of the nineteenth century bicycle travel became popular using the same street networks. But during the latter half of the twentieth century, the design of many new roads and destinations was based almost exclusively on automobile access. Access by walking or bicycling was often discouraged by policy or even endangered by the speed and volume of motor travel. Policies for provision of safe sidewalks for pedestrians often required the warrant of substantial existing pedestrian volume, which was often missing due to the danger, discomfort, and inconvenience created by the existing conditions. By contrast, under the universal access paradigm the warrant for safe sidewalks is determined by the speed and volume of motor traffic. A similar approach is used for cyclists; under universal access the warrant for more road space to enable more comfortable (and probably safer) overtaking of cyclists by motorists is determined by the speed and volume of motor travel. In general, pedestrian and bicyclist travel must be assumed rather than dismissed or ignored when designing facilities. Universal access incorporates the accommodation of cycling, walking, and wheelchair use into the design and regulation of every street facility by default rather than as an optional feature or afterthought.

Are wide outside lanes required on all streets for bicycle access?
No, many streets with narrow lanes can be safely shared through competent and courteous behavior by both motorists and cyclists.  Motorists must move into the adjacent lane to pass cyclists on such roads. Wide outside lanes are most useful where it is desirable to facilitate motorists' safe passing of cyclists without motorists changing lanes.

Does universal access demand dense development?
No. Universal access does not dictate that the distances between destinations be short. Universal access simply requires that all users be able to travel to whatever destinations their available time allows.

Is universal access related to "new urbanism" or "neotraditional development"?
New urbanism and neotraditional development patterns incorporate elements of universal access because these development styles reflect pedestrian-oriented design practices that pre-date the automobile. However, universal access improves upon past pedestrian facility designs and ensures better conditions for cyclists. New urbanism/neotraditional development based on good pedestrian facility design and good roads is entirely compatible with universal access. However, low-density suburban and rural development can also employ universal access principles through thoughtful planning and design.

Is universal access related to transit-oriented development?
Mass transit riders must be able to travel safely and comfortably between their trip endpoints and transit stops. In some cities, transit riders have difficulty crossing streets safely near transit stops, or must walk along busy roads lacking sidewalks. Universal access is essential to the provision of an effective mass transit system. Mass transit also improves the lives of non-drivers by allowing them to travel longer distances that they could on foot or by bike (or by bike alone), and by providing them protection from the elements. However, universal access makes sense anywhere, regardless of the presence of a transit system.

What about rural roads?
Rural roads with very light traffic do not pose much danger to pedestrians who walk on the roadway or shoulder. Pedestrians can step off the roadway occasionally when they must yield to a driver, and when space is available drivers typically yield part of the road to pedestrians. It is very important that drivers be prepared to yield to wheelchair users when there is no place outside the travel lane for the wheelchair user to go. Motorists can move into the adjacent lane to pass cyclists as long as there is no oncoming traffic. But as motor traffic increases, narrow roads are more awkward or hazardous for these different groups to share. It is important to upgrade roads to preserve universal access when traffic volumes increase. This is especially important in areas where suburban growth extends into rural areas, placing urban trip generators and urban traffic on previously rural roads.

How is universal access related to managing growth and addressing suburban "sprawl"?
As suburban land uses (housing subdivisions, office parks, shopping centers, etc.) extend into rural areas, the high volumes of motor traffic this development brings makes narrow rural roads less hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists. Transportation-oriented pedestrians and cyclists will wish to access the new destinations and often travel in these areas despite the challenges. In order to preserve universal access, rural roads must be upgraded as new traffic generators are added to rural areas. The most cost-effective way to do this is to manage the growth of urban areas so that expansion is contiguous with a network of good urban streets.  One way to coordinate street upgrades with development is to avoid providing city water and sewer services beyond the network of universally accessible urban streets.

Are stairways and raised medians acceptable under universal access or are they barriers to wheelchair users?

A good transportation system typically has many redundant routes. As long as most routes are accessible to wheelchair users, a few redundant routes to the same destinations need not  be.  Stairways often provide more convenient routes between areas of different elevations than do ADA-compliant ramps.  Quick-footed pedestrians often choose to cross streets in places where curbs and medians are not easily made accessible to wheelchairs. This serves the majority of pedestrians better while still serving the needs of wheelchair users as long as good alternate accessible routes are available.

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