The ramp without a purpose: handicapped design swings and misses.

Public accommodations for persons with disabilities have expanded so significantly in recent years that the juxtaposition of a staircase and a ramp scarcely raises an eyebrow. We see it all the time. And that’s perfectly normal: after all, it’s been the law since 1990.  But how are we supposed to respond when we see handicapped accessible design that falls short of its goals? Take this example, at a storefront near Houma, Louisiana.DSCF6280Is it obvious what’s wrong? If not, let’s take a view from another angle.ramp with bad designIt’s nothing more than a stairwell, without any real accommodations for wheelchairs. But you can’t say they didn’t try. The railing in the middle divides two approaches: the one on the left involves conventional stairs, and the one on the right provides a ramp…for just the first step. Stairs the rest of the way. For a wheelchair-bound individual, this is useless.

Why does this even exist? My guess is it involved a situation where the budget collided with design in a particularly inopportune fashion. The owner’s property was physically large enough that it exceeded the minimum standards that make it compulsory to accommodate an existing storefront with a ramp (per the ADA). But the design was faulty from the get-go, placing the start point of the ramp at the same location as the stairs, only to learn that—as is usually the case—a ramp at that size would be too steep and would violate stipulations. We can imagine, looking at the second photo, that if the ramp were to continue, it would employ a grade change that is not reasonable for a wheelchair to ascend. The property manager realized the mistake halfway through construction, so he/she aborted the project and let the stairs take over, absorbing the cost for non-compliance, which in all likelihood, results in a fine that is less onerous than the construction cost.

That’s just my guess. But it offers all the evidence we need that an elaborate array of building codes and design parameters are essential at making these ramps work. They might seem simple at first blush, but virtually no two stairways are 100% identical, and—if an elevator is not feasible or is cost-prohibitive—the ramp often requires considerably more space in a building whose massing or topographical configuration might not lend itself well to a bulky new accommodation at an entrance. I’ve identified other eccentric solutions in the past, from an outdoor sidewalk along a hilly portion of a city street in Jackson, Mississippi, to an enormous ramp in a building in West Virginia that took up the entire hallway, thereby forcing everyone to zigzag.

Then, of course, when we encounter a failure like this ramp in Houma, we witness the necessity not just for code enforcement, but for enforcement that has actual teeth. It might sound like I’m advocating for governmental heavy-handedness, but, in this case, without it, we encounter a failed Pareto improvement: no one is better off, and the property owner squandered at least a few thousand dollars. Meanwhile, the tenant at the store is unable to sell products to any unaccompanied individual who cannot manage stairs, resulting in a devalued store space.

The average household skateboard ramp has better construction than this. Time to get out that plywood and a handful of nails.

3 thoughts on “The ramp without a purpose: handicapped design swings and misses.

  1. Jean Evans

    Hi, Eric,
    They’re installing handicapped ramps in the city for sidewalks at intersections where there are traffic lights but no sidewalks. It’s puzzling. I thought you might know why.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Jean–good eyes! I noticed that three years ago when I moved to Pennsylvania. Seems to be a Pennsylvania–and maybe a PennDOT–thing. It may be a compliance issue with federal laws pertaining to texturized material at every signalized intersection (the texturized material being those rubbery nodules on the ground that alert visually impaired people when they’re about to walk into a vehicular cartway). But I think it’s a byproduct of stringent crosswalk standards coupled with less stringent sidewalk standards….meaning the laws requiring sidewalks in rural areas have yet to catch up with the laws mandating crosswalks.

      Bear in mind that many urban intersections throughout PA cities lack pedestrian signals. In Philadelphia, until recently, only Market and Broad Street usually had “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs, and everywhere else you just followed the color of the light. So this could be a means of correcting a long-neglected issue in the Commonwealth. But it’s very silly and seems like a complete waste of money, considering we’re witnessing crosswalks in areas where sidewalks do not and probably never will exist. It would also be PennDOT if one or both of the intersecting roads is State-managed.

      This explanation may shed more light (, but beyond that, I’d chalk it up to a poorly crafted law and legislative failure. Perhaps I’ll get a better answer from a dyed-in-the-wool Pennsylvanian!

    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      Per that website I linked…

      “A crosswalk exists under the following conditions:

      (a) Where a sidewalk would extend across the roadwalk parallel to the length of the sidewalk, measured from the curb line.
      (b) When there are no sidewalks or curbs, a crosswalk is measured from the corner of two roads to the corresponding corner perpendicular across the road being crossed.
      (c) If there is a sidewalk on only one side of the road being crossed, a crosswalk may be measured as the continuation of the existing sidewalk across the road.

      Taken together, (a), (b) and (c) indicate that a crosswalk is present at every intersection, whether painted or not, and whether there are sidewalks on both, one or none of the legs of the intersection. Road user right of way is dictated by whether or not the intersection has a traffic signal or not. If no traffic signals, pedestrians have the right of way per § 3542(a), but shall not step out in front of motorists without giving them time to stop per § 3542(b).”

      [NOTE: I added the lower-case letters in the original text where I believe they were meant to be.]


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