One can't be a cutup when one is talking about cutouts

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2010/04/04 07:01 -04:00, original URI:

Warning: this post is very off-topic. There will be something on-topic available tomorrow, so just check again then, if you prefer things to stay on-topic.

I am going to talk about sidewalk cutouts for a bit.

And how they relate to wheelchairs (my iBot in particular, but I believe after talking to many people, most of what I say will apply to regular wheelchairs too).

Now this is a topic I have been promising to several friends that I would write for months now. Those friends, if you asked them, might suggest that it was actually more that I threatened to write it, though really that was more of a side effect of the fact that when I was talking about it, I was generally complaining about a cutout that was bad in some way.

Let me give you some advice -- as funny as you may or may not style yourself, you can't be a cutup when the topic is sidewalk cutouts.

Especially if you are in some kind of a wheelchair or scooter. No matter how you try to mask it there will be a bit of bitterness there. And bitter isn't sweet....

This is true even when the person you are talking to hasn't already heard it all because they have a loved one in a manual wheelchair where the things that just annoy me into changing modes in the iBot can actually keep them from being able to get places.

But when they have that experience? The best thing to do is not mention it1.

Okay, with all that said, closing the barn door after the horses have run out is kind of a waste, so no harm in finally just wrirting this one blog about sidewalk cutouts, for a bit.

You can start here with the Wikipedia article on the topic. The Design section of that article in particular has some interesting information:

Accessible curb cuts transition from the low side of a curb to the high side (usually 15 cm change in level). Accessible curb ramps are a minimum of 1 meter wide. They are sloped no greater than 1:12 (8.33%), which means that for every twelve meter of horizontal distance, they rise no more than one meter. The concrete curb ramp is sometimes scored with grooves, the texture of which may serve as a warning to the blind of the transition to the street. Such grooves also allow for traction and water runoff, may be stained a color that significantly contrasts with the adjacent concrete. If a curb ramp contains flared sides, they are usually no greater than 1:10 slope.

Now there are several things not really included here.

I don't mean to be impolite, or ungrateful about the cutouts that exist around Seattle and other cities in the US I have been to.

Having been to cities in the US and all over Europe and to India and other places that tend to combine no cutouts with tall or very tall curbs, having as many cutouts as Seattle does is a really great thing.

But the cutouts themselves are often far from ideal in terms of how they are done.

I'll explain the one fact and then add one factor that most applies to the iBot (in both standard and balance mode) and most other wheelchairs. That knowledge will allow most engineering types to immediately see problems that most cutouts fail to address.

From there I will then list out my guidelines for ideal cutouts and then not entirely ideal but perhaps more economical ones.

I have some pictures (I took about 1500 pictures of various cutouts over a few days at the end of March) and I'll use a few to give some examples, mostly of mistakes.

If any or all of the above of the above bores you, then please feel free to leave. :-)

Okay, first the FACT: ideally, when we are traveling from point A to point B, whether on foot or by wheelchair, we would like to take a straight path when we can, one without random turns or angle changes or anything that keeps a normal direct traversal from happening.

Okay, now the thing about the iBot and most wheelchairs: the wheels are in sync with each other when it comes to angle/height differences, so any raising/lowering of one wheel that is out of sync with the wheel on the other side can be really jarring and annoying -- and possibly a health concern if such jarring is not something a person is up to taking.

You might see what comes next if you think about cutouts you have seen before and try to think about these two random things I have just mentioned.

The guidelines for my suggestions of "ideal cutouts" are simple:

  1. All of the ADA style guidelines related to angle and such (not crucial for me with the iBot or most powered chairs, but much more important for scooters that can't handle angles, manual chairs, or people that might have trouble with the angle);
  2. Always have the ramp be at a complete 18090° with the street it is bisecting, with a consistent and equal upward trend until it reaches the top.
  3. Keep the direction of the inclination be the same as the direction of travel, without requiring left/right "yaw" adjustment.
  4. Have the cutouts as close to the curb as is feasible.
  5. Position the cutouts firmly in the crosswalk's span.
  6. Keep the cutouts on opposite sides of the street that assume a lateral connection lined up with each other.
  7. When fancy painting/grooves are done, have the paint/groves match both the angle and the direction of the inclination (i.e. if any of the previous two points -- especially points 2 and 3 -- are not done, do not use the paint/grids as if they were).
  8. Remember that Functional > Aesthetically pleasing but impractical > impassible (by which I mean impossible).

Now reality can sometimes make the ideal less reachable; for example, if one only has the budget for one cutout per corner,then the best you might be able to do is e.g. like this:

than one might have to violate rules 2, 3, and 6.

And the realities related to the fact that one corner might have to be completely redone and it makes no sense to redo the other can make 6 impossible to completely do.

But there are plenty of times that violating rule 6 can be a real problem, e.g. on this corner:

Note that in this picture the proximal (close) cutout is right at the bottom of the pic away from the corner, while the distal (far) cutout is right on the corner.

Lest you doubt this is a pain, I witnessed someone in a wheelchair having to get across the street diagonally with a ton of people in the way:

This kind of thing just makes a person's life much harder, for no good reason.

Now generally speaking I find it more annoying when they violate rules 2 and 7 and a little bit of 3:

than when they violate rule 3 a lot:

but your mileage (if you are in a wheelchair) may vary.

Screwing up rule 5 is fine unless traffic tends to block the cutout easily:

But when that does happen, it is pretty annoying (and it can, on corners like this).

And having no cutout on one side but making them rely on a nearby driveway and in the process violating rules 5 and 6:

can be just downright creepy when you're crossing the street.

You get the idea.

I just have the feeling that if these principles were more deeply embedded in the minds of the civil engineers who could be planning this stuff then it is possible that they'd do a better job here, all things being equal.

A guy can dream, right? :-)


1 - They have a hard enough time witnessing the next ten people who are going to walk up to us and say how cool the iBot is, something I have actually learned to stop liking most of the time, for what it is worth. :-)

# Azz on 5 Apr 2010 12:56 AM:

Here via accessibility_fail on Dreamwidth ( and I am simply amazed by the apparent lack of thought put into some of those corners.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 5 Apr 2010 11:41 AM:

The word "amazed" has some positive connotations that probably don't apply, but otherwise I agree with you....

# Isaac Lin on 7 Apr 2010 3:58 PM:

Not sure I understand your 180° rule -- did you mean 90°? 180° sounds like the ramp should be parallel to the street but going the opposite way of traffic.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 7 Apr 2010 4:03 PM:

You are right, I meant 90° -- I updated the text. :-)

The Untoward Lady on 9 Apr 2010 12:07 AM:

Speaking of kerb cuts and accessible design, as an ambulatory individual who has joint problems my real problem with kerb cuts have to do with the ones designed for automobiles. The fact of the matter is walking on uneven pavement is often difficult and painful for me. There is absolutely no reason why an automobile kerb cut has to span the entire sidewalk (and many don't)! They force me to walk on steeply sloped pavement for no damn good reason whatsoever.

I can also imagine this is a wheelchair problem too. I know when my dad used a wheelchair, pushing him over those damn things was a real chore!

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2010/04/23 From Seattle (USA) to Coimbatore (India) in June? You betcha!

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