ADA compliance does not guarantee accessibility, however, by working within the ADA framework we can strive to do better, and in the process cultivate an environment that is open to all users.

We were fortunate to talk to Jonathan Duvall, Professor Jonathan Pearlman, and Eric Sinagra of Pittsburgh University, whose Access Board funded research is inextricably linked to improving streetscape accessibility for all users. Their work has produced the Pathway Measurement Tool that can effectively measure surface roughness improving  accessibility and the walking experience for all pedestrians.

Cracks in the sidewalk can have a profound impact on the pedestrian experience. photo credit: Dave Manthei via Flickr (CC)


Mr. Duvall, Professor Pearlman, and Mr. Sinagra will present their work at this year’s Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place Conference. Here’s an interview of what you can expect to hear more about this coming September!


In your estimation what is the biggest challenge in facilitating an ADA compliant streetscape?

Jonathan Pearlman: From our perspective we see this as two parts. One is understanding what’s compliant. We believe in ADA and the accessibility guidelines, and we are working with the Access Board to develop new standards. Another component is being able to accurately measure compliance with ADA guidelines so that people can plan their routes around obstacles and can have the obstacles removed. There’s a difference between providing a compliant streetscape and understanding how to approach ADA standards, and providing guidance in how to get around. The other thing that we tend to talk about is if a wheelchair user or someone with vision impairment is in a new area and is unsure if there’s a curb cut to get off, or if there is a pole blocking a path. The challenge is making every street comfortable for all users.


Doesn’t ADA compliance mean it is accessible?

Jonathan Pearlman: ADA standards [are determined by] a reactive approach, research based on people complaining—fine way to do it.  However, the standards overlook many people who try to get around and cannot but are less vocal. So ADA standards are not necessarily a reflection of everyone.


Why is surface roughness important to a successful streetscape design?

Jonathan Duvall: Prior to our investigation, ADA standards determined one transition of surface from one to the next. [ADA standards] never talked about frequency with respect to changes in elevation and transitions in bricks. Simply the bouncing up and down for wheelchair can cause back pain, other pain etc, which is why assessing frequency is very important.

Jonathan Pearlman: Wheelchair users are twice as likely to have back pain. One of the causes of that pain, very similar to experience truck drivers encounter,  is due to vibration exposure. We’ve done work in the communities measuring shock and vibrations. If you apply same truck and bus standards for vibration for developing wheelchairs, it would be illegal to ride around in the wheelchair


How does surface roughness impact accessibility?

Jonathan Pearlman: From the research standpoint, roughness affects comfort, people will do it less frequently, [it can cause] back and neck pain, and could present a tripping hazard. [Approximately] 30 billion dollars of health consequences are related to trips and falling. This is significant because while a lot of younger folks trip and fall and keep moving, for older folks [there is] an increased risk of falling again or of serious impairment.


You developed the pathway measurement tool that can assess surface roughness, can you briefly describe the technical components/process of the way the device operates?

Eric Sinagra: The device itself is a manually propelled cart that someone pushes over the surface at one meter per second. The device measures roughness, cross slope, provides gps coordinates, and a picture of the surface painting the surface with laser technology. And then [the device] can use post processing analysis that can be loaded into Google Earth and display the information about surface graphically.


In our previous conversations you spoke about interest from State DOTs in using your pathway measurement tool, can you elaborate further on this?

Jonathan Pearlman: I have an update on that. We have a testing engineer who is supporting the standardization of the process. And we believe that it’ll be approved sometime this summer, supported by the Access Board. [DOTs] see the technology and standard being critical. There’s a slow movement about considering the sidewalk like an asset and DOTs are also interested in this becoming part of their agenda. A lot of this has to do with federally mandated transition plans about making city streetscapes ADA compliant. Naturally, any transit plan starts with an inventory of the assets need to be ADA compliant. Many municipalities do not yet have such an inventory. [Building this inventory] is something that will slowly happen nationwide.

Eric Sinagra :  The new Public Rights- of-Way Accessibility Guidelines that will be published this year by the Access Board and will include reference to this research as a way of informing stakeholders that the standards are in development.


On a local level, evaluate Pittsburgh’s efforts to make their streets ADA compliant, does the city pose any special challenges?

Jonathan Pearlman— Pittsburgh is very interested in making itself more accessible. The city is in the process of conducting an inventory of the entire city of where sidewalks exist. The new mayor [Bill Peduto] has an interest in data, and we have had great talks with the Mayor’s staff about advancing accessibility

Eric Sinagra: Pittsburgh has a lot of hills which is challenging for manual wheelchair users in particular. My brother uses a power wheelchair on campus in Duquesne and moving up the hill remains a challenge.

Jonathan Pearlman: Unfortunately we do not have a systematic approach in Pittsburgh. A shift that needs to occur, and sidewalks need to be considered an asset. We’ve spoken with city representatives about pilot project about looking at sidewalks for a high fidelity sidewalk project.


Do you feel that your pathway measurement tool can transform the way we measure ADA compliance and access?

Jonathan Pearlman: We would be admitting defeat if we said no. It’s a unique device that prioritizes sidewalks. It also expedites service by allowing us to quickly measure [impact of surface roughness]  rather than simply relying on a tape measurement  and level. Furthermore, the device will allow us to be proactive, rather than reactive, by letting us gather information related to the problems before they become barriers to safe pedestrian travel.

Eric Sinagra: And by mapping this information quickly, we can also improve our wayfinding capabilities.