Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Difficult Sidewalks, Impossible Curb Cuts

I was reminded that sidewalks and curb cuts aren’t as friendly as they could be. I "wheeled" nearly 4 Km today, and the sidewalks I encountered were difficult to negotiate. The curb cuts were just as difficult. And "new" road construction made the journey even more difficult.


The Regulations

The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) says that sidewalk should have a cross-slope no greater than 2%, or 1:50. The NZ Building Code Compliance Document D1 – "Access Route" says:

1.2.2 Cross Fall
Where the surface of an access route is
subject to wetting, the surface shall have a
cross fall of no less than 1 in 100. The surface
of any access route shall not have a cross fall
of more than 1 in 50.

What does it mean?

The cross-slope, or cross fall, is measured by looking at the level difference of the sidewalk between the building side and the street side. Usualy, the sidewalk is higher near the building, and lower near the street. The argument here is that the inclination is required for water drainage when it rains. Fair enough. But water will find its way down any inclination. There is no need for a steep incline.

The 1:50, or 2%, measurement means that for every 1 meter of change of height, you have 50 meters of travel. This is a very gentle slope. Nearly flat. It is easy to push a wheelchair on such a cross-slope.

To give you an idea, a typical ramp has a slope of 1:12 – for every 1 m of height, there is 12 m of travel.

The Problem

All sidewalks I encountered were much steeper than that. MUCH. As a result, it is very difficult to push a wheelchair and go in a straight line.

Someone who tried my spare wheelchair once exclaimed "the wheelchair is broken", because they kept ending up falling over the side and into the street.

When the cross-slope is steep, a wheelchair user often has to "break" with one hand on the wheel that is nearest the building, and push really hard on the wheel nearest the street to ensure they can go straight.

But folks that build sidewalks have the mindset that you need to have a good slope for water drainage. The other problem is that often buildings’ foundations are too high, and it has been argued that the sidewalk must be very high to protect them.

Curb Cuts

These are also tricky. They are meant to allow wheelchair users to get on and off sidewalks easily. They are meant to be treated like a "ramp" and have a slope no greater than 1:12. The change in level should be no greater than 20 mm.

A lot of curb cuts, or kerb ramps, are very steep. This means that it is difficult, if not outright dangerous, for a wheelchair user to get down the curb cut, or back up it.

These same curb cuts have a significant changes in level from the sidewalk to the street. I stopped counting those that had 80 mm or more (80 mm is the width of the tips of my fingers – easy to use to measure something!). Needless to say, such a change of level means a wheelchair user has to do acrobatics to get off, or on, the sidewalk with that curb cut.

When you combine a steep slope with a high change of level, you end up with something quite impassable.

A couple years ago, the city added built-up areas next to the sidewalks, to ensure drivers would not drive on the sidewalk, especially when turning. These built-up areas also narrow the streets, so people are not tempted to pass another car when it isn’t safe. Good idea to do this.

They even thought of leaving a passage open for wheelchair users at the curb cut.

Showing a not too friendly curb cut with a clear opening in the built-up area.

But then, other times they didn’t.

Showing a not too friendly curb cut with NO opening in the built-up area.

As the photo shows here (although it’s hard to see, refer to the red hand-drawn lines), they did not leave an opening. How is a wheelchair user supposed to go from the sidewalk to the street? What an accessibility fail this is.

I ended up having to go down the street and use a house’s driveway to get on the street, and cross in the middle of the street. I am glad it wasn’t rush hour.