Wheels on Wheels: An Argument for Universal Design

On a recent LRT trip, on my car, there was a person in a wheelchair, a bicyclist with bicycle, a stroller, and travelers carrying wheeled suitcases. How much of this was made possible by “Universal Design” and the Americans with Disabilities Act?


Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. —Ron Mace

The problems that transportation disadvantaged individuals face are similar to, but more severe than the problems that the rest of the population sees on a day-to-day basis. Take, for instance, the simple question of which bus goes from the bus stop nearest my home to downtown. When going to the bus stop, is information provided other than the simple sign saying “Bus Stop”? Many stops don’t even identify routes, much less schedules. Without a guide (either person or documentation), using the system entails taking great risks, among them the risk of winding up across town from your desired destination and being hours late. The relatively simple, but seemingly revolutionary idea of providing information with the service may help. For instance, operators should make the signage clear so the bus stop can be found, make clear the route number, route end points, and the direction toward which the user needs to travel at the bus stop; make clear when the bus is coming, especially when service is infrequent; and clearly convey to the user, when he or she should get off the bus (which may require more than drivers announcing the bus stops as the bus travels the route). While this may be critical for those who are unfamiliar with the location (tourists) or the language (immigrants), it is also important for those who are cognitively challenged, and would probably provide a much better travel experience for those who lack special difficulties. Some transit systems do this, especially in downtown areas. Others would rather spend money on new rail construction (seeking new, wealthier customers) than make the existing bus system (serving existing, poorer customers) work well.

To provide another example, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, a major concern was retrofitting buses with elevators to accommodate wheelchairs. Buses traditionally had steps leading from the ground to the level where passengers sit. A more universal design would lower the floor of the bus (and gradually raise the level of the ground at the bus stop) so that wheelchairs could roll onto the vehicle, the way that occurs on many subway systems. Such a system would benefit many others with poor knees who can walk but find steps difficult. The lowering of the floor of buses is becoming more common, the raising of bus stops less so.

Having a universal design assists those who need the assistance while benefiting others. The principles of universal design are a set of values, but they are hard to disagree with:

  1. Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to un- derstand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates neces- sary information effectively to the user regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, and mobility.

Excerpted from The Transportation Experience: Second Edition, by William Garrison and David Levinson. Oxford University Press (2014)