The Problems With Ramps Blended Into Stairs

This is a good metaphor for accessibility in web development: You do something fancy and clever and it'll screw something up unexpectedly.

The idea of blending ramps and stairs together appears, on the surface, to be a great approach to universal design. It provides for visually appealing stairs while including a ramp. But the implementation of that idea leaves a lot to be desired from an accessibility and safety point of view.

A recent discussion on Twitter brought back the idea of beautiful inclusive design. Eric Wright suggested ramps blended into stairs and gave a link to a page listing 8 such designs.

Robson Square

The first set of stairs/ramp is at Robson Square in Vancouver, BC. It is a design I’ve used in the past to illustrate potential failures of Universal Design. Let’s have a look at a couple photos of the stairs/ramp combo, then analyse where there might be issues.

Photo credit: Dean Bouchard, Flickr

Photo credit: Dean Bouchard, Flickr

Who Is Affected?

  • Wheelchair users
  • People using canes or crutches
  • People with low vision
  • People who are blind
  • People who are distracted
  • Parents with prams
  • People on skates/bikes/etc

Problems With This Design

Disclaimer: I’ve never seen this location “live”, therefore I am basing my analysis merely on the several photos and reports I’ve come across over the years.

Step Colours

It is very difficult to distinguish where one step ends and the other begins. If you have less than perfect vision, this could quickly become dangerous. There are no contrasting strips to signify the edge of the step.

This problem is an even bigger problem in bright sun, where shadows can trick the eye into thinking there is solid ground where there isn’t, or vice versa.

Also a problem in the rain, when you can’t tell much at all from looking at the steps. Try looking at the photo, squinting your eyes tightly as if you were blinded by sun. What happens? Do you see the contrast reduce, and difficulty telling where steps are? If that was how you saw the steps, would you feel safe using these stairs?

Handrails

There are very few handrails. It is good that there are some, but more handrails would be better. If you are able to walk, but unsteady on your feet, you have to either walk to one end of the stairs, or the other to find handrails. A distance that isn’t insignificant.

Further, the handrails finish/begin abruptly. If you have no vision and rely on the handrail to tell you when the first or last step is, you could easily get hurt.

There are also no handrails along the length of the ramp. This means someone ambulatory but unable to walk up steps, and relying on handrail for balance going up the ramp has nothing to rely on. Similarly, wheelchair users often use handrails to pull themselves up a ramp. Obviously, placing handrails along the length of the ramp would block the passage for anyone going up the stairs. Yet, it’s an accessibility and safety issue.

No Flat Landing

If you are actually walking up the steps, every time you come across the ramp, you’ll notice there is no flat landing, except at the ends. This means that when you step off the last step of the flight, you go DOWN, and put your foot on an angled surface. Sprained ankle, if not worse, waiting to happen.

Uneven Height of Risers

The steps have different heights where they meet the ramp. This makes it very hard to use safely if you have vision impairments (or if you’re merely distracted).

Steep Ramp

It’s difficult to tell from photos exactly how steep the ramp is. But After using a wheelchair for nearly 20 years, I’ve become quite good at “guesstimating” these things. I’m pretty sure the slope of that ramp is steeper than 1:12 (goes up 1 meter for every 12 meters of distance). 1:12 is the maximum slope written into various building accessibility legislations around the world, some suggesting a gentler 1:15.

The point is here that a steep slope requires quite a bit of strength to go up. And a good amount of control to go down. This is true of wheelchair users in manual wheelchairs, of people using canes or crutches, but also of parents pushing prams, or kids on skates.

EDIT: Someone on Twitter ran calculation on the ramp’s slope and arrived at approximately 1:8, which is VERY steep.

Long Ramp Without a Break

To compound the issues with the slope of the ramp, the distance one has to go without being able to safely stop is quite long. Stopping a manual wheelchair half-way up the length of the ramp isn’t safe – stopping on an inclined surface could have you roll back, or flip backwards when trying to get started again.

Risers Merging Into Ramp

There is no separation between the ramp’s surface and the steps merging into the ramp. This means a wheelchair’s front casters could easily get off the ramp and onto a step. With the steepness of the slope, it could be very easy for a wheelchair to end up flipping because one side ended on the step while the other side remained on the ramp.

Conclusion

While I understand the design of the stairs/ramp at Robson Square stem out of the 1980’s, before accessibility standards were established, I understand a lot of architects and designers continue to use similar ideas. There are seven other examples on that page.

Looking at the photos, I can only conclude that NONE of these designs are actually safe for people with disabilities, or even for people without disabilities.

The idea is “neat”, and makes for stunning visual appeal in some cases.

But let’s not be fooled that this is good, safe inclusive design. It is anything but.