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A World with No Barriers: ADA and Pedestrian Design at the Human-Scale

By Dustin Kuzan

I graduated as a civil engineer in May 2007 and started my first job as a roadway designer with the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) one month after. Despite little-to-no training in the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), I was assigned a sidewalk design job as one of my first projects and completed the plans for construction in 2009. In 2010 I moved into another role as the statewide Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator and began partnering with the Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) to participate on Roadway Safety Audits (RSA). At the time, RSAs began to focus more on pedestrian safety. During one of my first audits I realized that everything I thought I knew about the ADA was just scratching the surface. This enlightenment began when I found myself on an RSA along the sidewalk I designed, only to find out that my ADA ramp design caused two pedestrian injuries – one for an elderly woman and another for a woman in a motorized wheelchair, both people that my design was supposed to serve. I designed the ramp to meet federal and state ADA regulations, but I didn’t design it to meet the needs of the users. I later realized that this ignorance wasn’t reserved to just me, but it applied to most of the highway design industry. Our industry has simplified the ADA rules and standards that restrict our designs and sometimes inhibit our ability to implement the intent of the ADA law. Fortunately, my flawed design was corrected, but that experience sent me down a path of enlightenment that would further define my career as an ADA designer and pedestrian safety professional. I began discovering what was referred to as “Human-scale” design.

Understanding the Human-Scale

After realizing my design led to two injuries, I immersed myself in the world of ADA and pedestrian design. I researched and became familiar with all different types of guidelines and best practices from around the country. In 2015 I started a new job in which I focused on ADA accessible design and inspection. I acquired a certification as an Accessibility Inspector/Plan Examiner (AI/PE) under the International Code Council (ICC), and as part of my work I reviewed transit facility, office buildings and maintenance shop plans for the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA). In this capacity I realized how little I previously knew about designing for people with disabilities. As I applied the principal of human-scale design to my work I began to understand what it is like to navigate our world in the shoes of a person with a disability. This makes all the difference in a design. People are constantly making decisions based on their physical environment. Visual, auditory, and even olfactory cues are constantly influencing a person’s decision-making process when navigating their environment. This is even more true for people with physical limitations. A person with mobility impairments must look well ahead to decide on their route choice, or they might become stuck and must turn around. As civil engineers we build our environment but have little-to-no understanding of how the built environment we create influences people’s decisions, particularly at the pedestrian level. Human-scale design is this understanding. It requires us to go beyond meeting design requirements; it’s understanding how our design affects people.

Carl Lewis, a professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a nationally recognized accessibility expert who led the US Access Board from 1996–2004, shares this sentiment. In an interview by Kathryn H. Anthony, Mr. Lewis was asked what he thought lacked in the training of architects who implement the ADA, and he responded, “In my opinion, there is not an understanding of how people with disabilities function in space.” He went on to say that the scale he requires his own students to use to present their work is the “human-scale.” Human-scale design is the process of designing to influence the decisions and actions of the human user, specifically in this case, a person with a disability. This “human-scale” has been my journey over the past nine years. I now recognize that having a grasp of this scale of my design is the difference between a good facility and a great facility.

Human-scale design goes beyond understanding code, standards, and guidelines. It requires understanding the details of how and why the ADA and roadway design guidelines evolved into standards, and the difference between guidelines and code. It’s recognizing when it’s appropriate to deviate from guidelines. It’s also understanding how a design will influence a person’s decision and how they will perceive the ease of usability of the design. I’ve realized that understanding these intricacies in the field of ADA and pedestrian design sets an expert designer apart from a good designer. Simply implementing a design that meets standards will yield a satisfactory product most times, but rarely an exceptional design. As designers, we should never settle with delivering a satisfactory product; we should ensure a high-quality product every time we can do so. We should strive to deliver products that don’t just meet standards but meet human-scale needs.

Identifying Human-Scale Design Gaps in Our Profession

Many issues people face when using our roadways stem from the failure of the designer to understand how their design affects the thought process of its users. For example, trails and sidewalks are often designed to meet code.  However, they are not often designed to eliminate inconveniences to persons with disabilities. Often, an engineer may design a roadway that encourages pedestrian mid-block crossings at a dangerous location, simply because they didn’t realize that subtle features surrounding the road influence pedestrian route choice to cross at that location. Many of these design flaws can be resolved with proper understanding of how users perceive and utilize our designs. This is the understanding of the human-scale.

Understanding is the start.  However, confidence and innovative are also required for implementation. Implementation of non-standard designs requires a firm and confident understanding behind the purpose of standard guidelines and code. Too often, as engineers, we let liability risk inhibit good design, and instead we strictly adhere to guidelines. If you’re the expert in your field, which we all should be, the court is likely to recognize you as an expert, and will honor your professional opinion over a guidance document, as long as you can demonstrate that it was appropriate to deviate from standard practice. A true expert can convince a court that deviation from standard practice was logical, reasonable and appropriate. No lawyer should be able to out-design an expert design engineer.

As an industry we don’t place enough value on human-scale design knowledge. When I worked as an ADA access plan reviewer for the MDOT Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), I noticed that engineers and architects generally do a great job of meeting ADA standards.  However, they sometimes failed to meet the needs of the human-scale, but it was never a concern. On new facility designs professionals typically meet ADA standards with only occasional omittance of small details. In retrofit designs, however, applying standards is much more challenging and sometimes access is compromised. The ADA allows for compromise in challenging design situations; however, where standards are waived human-scale design should be even more important. A design that is focused on the human-scale maximizes access for people with disabilities and other pedestrians despite falling short of technical ADA standards. In the field of roadway engineering, engineers design sidewalks and trails to be ADA compliant, but they aren’t always the most convenient or easy to use designs for people with disabilities. Often circuitous routes and frequent turning maneuvers are designed. Human-scale designers envision a person in a wheelchair seamlessly maneuvering through their designs. These designers recognize the most minor details and can make tiny alterations that result in large improvements to access.

As designers we need to recognize there is much benefit to employing human-scale design. The human-scale applies to all users, not just those with disabilities. The human-scale needs of bicyclists and higher-speed pathway users are often neglected by roadway engineers in sidepath designs. Designs by untrained engineers typically force cyclists into sharp zig-zag patterns at corners and sharp turns with vertical curb barriers. An understanding of the human-scale is an understanding of how the facility is used that extends beyond meeting standards. Parking lot designs notoriously lack human-scale understanding both for drivers and pedestrians. Parking lots have countless uncontrolled intersections and shared vehicle-pedestrian spaces that only operate safely when people pay full attention and yield to one another. As a result of the lack of human-scale design by site developers, parking lots accounted for 11% of all recorded pedestrian crashes in Maryland in 2018. One might even argue that the adoption of human-scale design practices is the key to Vision Zero.

Institutionalizing Human-Scale Design Practices

Several things will need to become more prominent in the engineering and architecture (A&E) industry before we begin seeing the institutionalizing of human-scale design practices. First, our designers and engineers will need to enhance their own skills and understanding on the intricacies of human-scale design. To encourage such professional learning, first a culture that values such skills in the industry will need to be established. Typically, the quickest way to establish value for a new skill is for government facility owners to clearly express that these skills are desired. Consultants will quickly follow suit to win work. For public facility owners to recognize such value, advocates may need to demand such expertise on publicly owned facilities. The more vocal advocates become on the subject, the more important the issue will become to elected officials, and thus, the more important it will become to bureaucratic leaders who govern public facilities. To raise awareness in the field of advocacy, it comes back to us, the technical experts. As technical experts we need to vocalize these differences in skill sets and highlight the importance of these skills in our industry. Advocates will recognize these gaps and will follow suit by educating decision-makers.

As designers, we should all care about human-scale design, particularly human-scale ADA design. We are in the business of serving people, not simply building infrastructure. Americans have a 1 in 3 chance of becoming disabled at some point in our lives. Most of us will develop a disability as we age.  However, many of us will be disabled, even if only temporarily, from an accident. Usually this means the inability to work.  It doesn’t need to if we keep disability design in the forefront of our designs. While we are designing these facilities now, we should expect that one day we may want to access the facility with a disability. As designers we should also take pride in opening access and enhancing the quality of life for all people, especially people that have historically been trapped in their own homes. As an industry we have a choice – we can be professionals who design facilities; or we can be human-scale designers who enhance lives. I know how I want to be perceived. Do you?

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